How to Preserve Esports as a Career Path

Competition is an important part of humanity’s history and was integral to our survival. Competition now, however, is rarely seen as necessary to survival but still hardwired into our brains. This has manifested itself in many ways with sports, and the huge viewership and participation being a prime example of a modern manifestation of this competitive drive. As technology has been improving the competitive nature of people has been adapting to this new outlet to compete with. These electronic sports have brought competition to a new group of people but have started damaging the ecosystem that made traditional sports so valuable. Since these games are made by a company and their rights to that game are protected by copyright, an interesting relationship has formed between the competitive players and the game creators. Esports will only succeed in the long term if these two parties pretend the other does not exist for the early years.

Esports differ from traditional sports in a variety of ways. There are obvious physical differences and the ability to compete while not in close proximity to your opponent or opponents, but perhaps the most important part is the owner of the sport. No one owns football, baseball, or soccer like how companies own Counter-Strike games, League of Legends, or the Super Smash Brothers series (Partin). So while no one decides how football can be played, as shown by the differing rules between the NFL, FCF, college divisions, and school districts, esports is a different story. As Josh Chapman writes, a founder of a Venture Capitalist firm that focuses on Esports and video games, “publishers build and develop their games and subsequently own all rights surrounding them. This means that they have rights around where the game is played, who can host video game tournaments, and more. At the end of the day, publishers own the intellectual property of each game, and other industry participants (players, teams, tournament organizers) are keenly aware of this reality” (Chapman). These rights let them form an esport however they want and the most effective way to do so is to let it naturally happen. This is often not the most immediately profitable way to get involved but will give more money in the long run if the natural scene grows into a large-scale effort.

When it comes to creating games Activision’s Blizzard makes some of the best out there. Dipping their hands into some of the most popular genres: first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, massively multiplayer online role-playing games, and many others. However, when it comes to cultivating and maintaining a competitive environment Blizzard’s practices are destructive to the long and short term of that game, for all of the enjoyers of it. One of the first modern esports is StarCraft 1, which gained competitive notoriety in South Korea, that all happened with only a vague understanding of what was going on being told to the creators, and by correlation any interference by them. In a Newsweek interview of a Blizzard founder, they wrote, “‘It took us all by surprise — we didn’t even localize the game into Korean,’ Morhaime said. Without the unexpected success of StarCraft, Morhaime doubts the modern esports industry would even exist” (Asarch). If they had kept this approach for the rest of the games they created perhaps the rest of Blizzard’s competitive scenes would still be here.

After StarCraft, Blizzard has taken a closed ecosystem approach to the competitive side of their games, controlling as many aspects of the esport as they can to get as much money from it as possible. With there being nothing wrong with trying to profit from the product you worked hard for when the support stops the whole game can come crashing down. Just ask the many people whose careers were ruined when Blizzard announced the end of their Heroes Global Championship. Heroes Global Championship and its feeder college league, Heroes of the Dorm, were canceled after their 2018 season after guarantees of a 2019 season. This very easy way for a publisher to artificially create an esport by pumping money into it as many companies have done with a more recent example in how Epic Games has boosted Fortnite, a poor esport for its low skill ceiling and prominence of random number generation (Stamenova). Blizzard has pumped huge sums of money into their 3 primary esports, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, and the StarCrafts, and when the money and support stopped a large portion of the players stopped as well. This has led to a very vocal group declaring the game as unplayable, stale, and abandoned by Blizzard. While this is not true for Heroes of the Storm the appearance is given that it is not worth trying out because Blizzard could not continue to afford the money in the Heroes Global Championship. This ultimately leads to fewer downloads and therefore less revenue generated by Heroes of the Storm for Blizzard. A community needs to form before any intervention by publishers to ensure stability and more profit for the company.

One of the most successful, and controlled, esports is League of Legends. Riot Games’ take on a multiplayer online battle arena is very similar to the fan-made mods that appeared in StarCraft and Warcraft III. With the ultimate goal to destroy the enemy team’s core, a large building on the opposite side of the map, player-controlled heroes fight in lanes killing creeps and other players to buy items and grow stronger. League of Legends was the first standalone multiplayer online battle arena game available to the public, and so immediately had the support of the Defense of the Ancients players. As the first, and only, multiplayer online battle arena for four years, League of Legends, and the community around it had enough support for Riot Games to bankroll and run the biggest League of Legends competition two years before another multiplayer online battle arena came out.

League of Legends has the viewership, revenue, and dedicated team solely focused on adding to the experience, to support their control over the highest level of play. If the support ever stopped, while damaging to the scene, would not be the end of League of Legends esports. Riot Games only has tight control over the biggest, and most profitable, competition, opening up lesser competitions to be run by third-party tournament organizers. This seemingly small step is essential for any sport to be successful, not just the electronic variety. This is how sports have solved their pipeline problem, the way that skill is cultivated for an industry when teaching the skill is time-consuming and cost-inefficient. Sports “requires a kind of pyramid: millions of casual players, thousands of competitive ones, hundreds of elites, and a precious few superstars” (Partin), who goes on to claim that the most important, and most debated, is what to do with the middle of the pack. This group of people who are striving to be extraordinary, for love of the game or a desire to be the best, hold competitive sports together far better than the creator can.

While sponsoring or creating events and tournaments around a game are the most notable ways to garner company involvement another, huge, way to do so is by fundamentally changing the game. Whether this is bug fixes, balance patches, playable characters, or what have you. These are designed to keep games fresh by changing what is meta at all levels of competition. While some games get altered more often than others most games that get patched regularly see them as an additive, even if it is possible to completely ruin a game as a whole as Briggite did with Overwatch and GOATS. One of the few places where balance patches are frequently, actively frowned upon, by the players, is the fighting game community. Mango, Zain, and Leffen, the three best current SSBM players, in their podcast on competitive Super Smash Brothers Melee talked about patches in Smash Brothers as a whole. They all agreed that patches detract from the competitive integrity making the games less about skill and more about what character the developer decides to overtune to be at the top. Melee can not be patched by Nintendo but with a fan-made character, Wolf, it brought the question up in their podcast. Other top players and commentators have said similar things Such as ESAM, an Ultimate player, Mew2King, an aficionado of all the smash games, and Toph, a high-level commentator for many years.

Super Smash Brothers as a competitive franchise already has a very tense relationship with its creator, Nintendo. Nintendo has made many attempts to sabotage and diminish the competitive scene. From attempting to cancel Melee from being streamed, after players raised $225,744 for breast cancer research, to preventing other companies from creating circuits after a large player base was formed. The most recent event was issuing a cease and desist letter to the Big House for using an emulated form of Melee to enable online, near lagless play since in-person tournaments are not safe.

SSBM could be an entirely different beast if Nintendo had stepped in when it was released. Although the actual outcome would be impossible to determine an interview I conducted on PPMD Toph, and YoungWaff, PPMD said “I wouldn’t want it to change, and certainly this is just another reminder that we can bring so much more out, I think the Nintendo conversation, I’d love for that to be the way we always think of it, OK, sure, they’re not doing something which means that we have so much we can do” (PPMD), with similar sentiments being offered by Toph and YoungWaff to the question What effect did Nintendo’s lack of support influence where we are no and how, if at all would you change it. This sentiment is not isolated to those three who have been an integral part of the community for many years.

With the money to be gained from esports growing by the day, it is important to remember what put us on this path and to take it slow to share and keep whatever game you enjoy the most.

Esports aficionado and participant