Vague Patch Notes: The curious case of the esports bubble


I’ve been thinking a lot about esports lately. This is not actually something I like to think about, mind you; my general attitude toward esports has been the same as my general attitude toward professional sports in general, but with the added “thanks, I hate it” of being knee-deep in a field I actually care about. But for a few years there I mostly just shrugged and accepted that as much as I might personally not care for the idea or execution, it was bringing in money and thus wasn’t going anywhere.

And increasingly that appears to have been wrong, at least in the sense of bringing in money.

There’s a lot to be considered on the subject of this particular permutation of gaming culture and the push toward mainstream legitimacy, but it’s something that I’ve been reluctant to talk on extensively for a while simply because there’s a certain amount of suspicion to level at yourself if something you want to be true has pieces that might be true. But as it’s the thing we’re all talking about now? Let’s talk about esports, talk about competitive tournaments, and take a look at this bubble.

Whenever we start talking about esports, there’s a truism that gets bandied about that obviously esports are big because League of Legends has managed to make money on them for a long time now. Except… that’s not true. We’ve known it’s not true since August of last year, when Riot Games announced that it was scaling back a bunch of its expenditures. But if you still need more proof of it, yes, the bubble-bursting article has exactly what you need:

One Riot employee with knowledge of League of Legends’ esports revenue, when asked whether the League Championship Series makes money, laughed. Its current goal, they said, is to prevent it from losing money indefinitely.

The phrasing across the board here is interesting to me. These things aren’t being described in terms like “we had a lean year and need to scale back” or “we’ve had a string of bad years and need to re-examine our structure.” No, in every single case what’s being said here is that these expenditures aren’t making money. Heck, Riot isn’t even looking to start making money or even break even on esports ventures; it’s talking about not losing so much money.

And let’s be real here, this is not actually new information. On some level, this is something we’ve all known for a long while about the scene.

Is it just me or did this just stop at some point?

See, esports is an odd animal in that it’s not actually selling what traditional sports are selling, and the only game that’s tried to really address that is the Overwatch esports scene. If you’re a big football fan, you probably are not going out and buying decals that say FOOTBALL to put on the back of your car, or generic replicas of football helmets that are only mildly more effective than prayers to Sobek at preventing concussions. No, you’re buying logos for your favorite teams or jerseys based on your favorite player or otherwise rooting for organizations.

(Please note that ironically buying things like my wife’s favored t-shirt “Go Local Sports Team And/Or College!” does not invalidate this point.)

By contrast, the SMITE esports scene is not selling you a team. If you’re not into the game, you don’t think about which teams are playing; you think about SMITE. In broad strokes, esports has historically been less about serving as a thing unto itself and more another part of the advertising budget. These championships draw your attention and help encourage you to play these games, and then maybe you spend money on some skins or something, and everyone’s happy.

This is not exactly a shocker, especially when you consider that unofficial tournaments have existed for years. EVO is the one that I’m most familiar with, and it managed for years on the strength of an open format based entirely on elimination ladders. But I think that’s one of the key elements that led to things like EVO working – the open format, the idea that what matters is your skill in the game rather than anything else.

Video games are, at their heart, a participatory medium. That’s sort of their whole thing. Unless you’re a really big fan of David Cage’s game, you are used to the idea that you are given a goal by the game and then do your best to accomplish those goals. Even things like streaming go hand-in-hand with chat and discussions, a sense of participating without necessarily being the one holding the controller.

For a lot of people who enjoy football, professional play is not an option, and that may not actually be a result of desire or ability. If you have the body and skills to play professional football but no teams want you on their roster for whatever reason? You will not be playing football. That’s the way the system is set up.

But if you love fighting games, can play them well, and want a shot at being the best? EVO is within reach. You can go there and you can see how you measure up. Yes, the odds are you won’t actually get that far, but it’s an atmosphere more like a martial arts tournament, appropriately enough. Spectators are themselves engaged in the art. It’s an admiration of the technique more than the spectacle.

Actual screenshot.

Looking at the ongoing grassroots appeal of these things certainly seems like something that could serve as free advertising, and indeed, pumping money into it can make it more of a spectacle and serve as more of an advertisement. But it also creates this world where there’s a parallel game to the one you’re actually playing.

If I play Street Fighter V, I’m playing the same game that gets played at EVO. Play well enough and I might be able to compete. If I play League of Legends but I’m not pursuing a professional career there… well, I’m technically playing the same game as they play on the esports scene, but only in the same sense that a touch football game in my backyard is like football. It’s a facsimile, not the same thing.

This is not to say that people aren’t going to still be interested in the competitive scene. People like holding tournaments; I’ve participated in little campus tournaments before while in school, and that’s fun and good. But the idea that the sport itself can be a spectacle that makes big money is fundamentally at odds with what drives people to enjoy these games.

Put it more simply, you can enjoy a football game without having any skill whatsoever at playing football or much understanding of what is going on. You cannot enjoy watching footage from EVO without understanding how these games work and what is happening; it looks like so much noise. You’re watching it because you do know these games and want to watch intensely skilled players do so.

It’s why the talk about a bursting bubble also has to include talk of things like streaming personalities, which get at the real heart of what esports really always could traffic on. We like watching entertaining people play video games because they’re entertaining. They may not even be very good at the game, but they at least keep your interest. That’s less about “watch how good I am” and more about Mystery Science Theater 3000-style entertainment to supplement media.

Do I think the bubble is bursting? I think it’s definitely on the path to happening, since we keep watching these operations be shown as unsustainable and wind up closing out. I don’t know if we’re going to see a full-on bubble burst per se, though; it seems like there’s kind of a continual stream of development personalities that really wants for this to get off the ground, and as long as there are new games coming out that can have one of those personalities in charge someone’s going to figure this is the time it’s going to work.

But I do think that at some point we’re going to have to reckon with the fact that esports aren’t doing any favor to games themselves. (That’s a topic for another week, let’s be clear.) And I think we’re going to see a few more games implode as it becomes clear that pumping more investment dollars in doesn’t make this become profitable. Even Riot hasn’t managed that trick.

In short? The only way that even Starcraft competitive play made money for Blizzard was by driving sales of Starcraft. Maybe companies should be budgeting accordingly.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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