Vague Patch Notes: The curious case of the esports bubble

    
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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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Joey

I loath what e-sports has done to the entire genre. You take one look at WoW and the changes they have made to the game over the years to make the game more appealing for the e-sports scene just makes me sad. So many other games have the same issues.

These companies would be better off just paying streamers to play their games, it would be a much cheaper way to advertise than e-sports.

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Melissa McDonald

watching people play video games is something you do on your couch with your friends on a console. Well, maybe to learn how to do something on a stream or blog. but a “sport” ? Child, please.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

It’s a racket.

In this tent we have e-sports — A vessel for graft, gambling and money-laundering.

In this tent we have mobile — Gambling and money laundering and totally not siphoning your soul into their online matrix.

And over here we have the sideshow classic that started it all, raiding — because nothing says “I’m totally not laundering money” like spending $9,999 dollars cash via Western Union for an imaginary sword. Every month.

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agemyth 😩

If LoL isn’t making money from its esports endeavors that sounds like mismanagement to me. LoL and Overwatch both dropped obscene amounts of money buying and building arenas and infrastructure for whatever their leadership thought they were going to be able to handle in the future.

It’s your column and you can talk about esports if you want to, but I don’t see much value in reading a lengthy opinion piece on why esports dont work from a person who doesn’t like any esports and doesn’t want to like them.

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.

I don’t understand your touch football comparison here. You say there is a path from amateur to pro for fighting games like Street Fighter, but say this doesn’t exist for something like LoL. I’m more familiar with Dota 2 than LoL but I bet LoL is similar. Dota 2 teams get their new players largely from the public high rank MMR ladder games that everybody can work their way up. In last year’s championship the team that won had a person who had never played in a pro tournament before. If you play ranked Dota 2 or LoL you are playing the same game as the pros.

Dota 2 tournaments also often have teams competing that fought their way through open qualifier rounds. Any group of 5 players can make their way through that.

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.

People who are big esports fan have favorite teams and players. I always rooted for Natus Vincere to win Dota 2 tourneys because my favorite player was Dendi even after their roster had been gutted and they could barely qualify for major tournaments I would hope to see Dendi and friends compete.

The only way that even Starcraft competitive play made money for Blizzard was by driving sales of Starcraft.

(Assuming you are talking about StarCraft+Brood War) That is not because there was no demand for merch or tournament tickets. That was because nobody could have predicted that StarCraft was going to become a major competitive game in 1998. By the time Blizzard realized what was going on in South Korea they weren’t in a position to suddenly try to take ownership of the competitive scene. They tried to do it with SC2, but the the major growth had moved to mobas.

I don’t disagree that a bubble may burst soon, but that is mainly going to affect the games that never had a naturally grown pro scene.

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Bruno Brito

If I play Street Fighter V, I’m playing the same game that gets played at EVO.

Eliot, i tend to agree with you but…no you’re not. You’re playing on a higher ping enviroment with a completely different feel and mindset on how to go about the game.

I agree with you here, Age. While Eliot has good points, this piece lacks.

I also watch EVO without knowing much about FGs and i have a lot of fun. Not really a point of contention here. Difficulty curves and casual play are not a esclusivity of mobas.

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Sray

This was a very good read. Some very astute observations there Eliot.

A thing about esports that I’ve said to many of my gamer friends, who’ve tended to nod in silent agreement, is that watching a video game being played isn’t actually all that fun, which makes it difficult to sell epsorts to spectators. “Hey, wanna pay me fifteen bucks to sit in an uncomfortable seat, surrounded by strangers with questionable personal hygiene, and watch someone else play a video game? ” No thanks.

Furthermore, as pointed out in the article, it’s just visual noise if you don’t already play the game. If you play the game yourself and understand it, then you can appreciate what’s happening; but that means even as an advertisement for your game esports isn’t particularly effective. Even an uninformed spectator can see the difference between American football and rugby pretty quickly; but that same uniformed spectator wouldn’t really be able to tell you the differences between Overwatch and Apex Legends even after watching it for hours.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

I just watched a bit of the Overwatch League for the first time last night. I’ve played the game casually almost since release, so have a slight understanding on how to play it. However, the matches were completely unwatchable for me. I had no understanding of who was doing what or who was winning and losing until the match was over. The commentary did nothing to help that. It was essentially just watching a bunch of toons jumping up and down as the visual shots rapidly changed from FPPov to wide angle. No sense of what was going on at all.

It was the most uninteresting thing to watch on Twitch for me. I have a better time watching my friends stream it who suck at the game as much as I do.

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Kawaii Five-O

I completely reject the assertion that you can’t watch EVO and enjoy it without having knowledge of the games being played. I love watching fighting games, and I first started watching EVO when I hadn’t touched a fighting game since the Street Fighter 2 Turbo days.

I dabble, at best, in some Arc System Works games (not to any level of real proficiency) and yet that doesn’t stop me at all from enjoying watching Street Fighter and Tekken despite not playing those games at all. The last couple of years, I’ve watched EVO, along with other tourneys like the Capcom Cup, with a couple of friends who also don’t really play those games.

I would argue that fighting games can legitimately be just as interesting and fun to watch as regular sports are without much skill or understanding of the games’ finer mechanics or strategies. Simpler fundamentals like blocking, zoning, grabs, and counters can be understood quickly and appreciated simply by watching–just like a regular sport, because despite flashy effects, their visual representations and movements do hold at least some resemblance to real life actions that they can be compared to.

Now, do I feel that way about mobas? No, I don’t. I thought watching LoL was about as entertaining as watching paint dry until I actually played a bit, and a friend got me into watching it with them while they explained the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the plays being made. However, I’m sure there are people that feel differently even though mobas aren’t as straightforward as fighting games are.