Drawing Players into MOBAs Through Accessibility and Investment

For multiplayer games, the balance between fun gameplay, reward and progression is difficult to manage. As more businesses engage with the free-to-play model, there is an emphasized importance of attracting and keeping a large player base. For MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) specifically, getting players to try a particular game in an ever-growing popular genre is half the battle. For many, MOBAs intimidate and for others; struggle to grasp the finer details that give long-time competitors such an edge. However, MOBAs also maintain the strongest sustained player base and continue to rise with international support and popularity. Players who invest their time and money into the game, tend to dedicate their free time more and more exclusively to the specific MOBA over any other. Some only play that one MOBA exclusively.

For this article, we will be scrutinizing the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre as it is becoming the most trending type of game of this generation. In addition to its growing popularity, MOBAs face several adversities that can overwhelm newcomers ranging from the amount of information it demands and its diversity in characters (Heroes, Champions, Characters), abilities and smaller game details. Nonetheless, its competitive nature and one’s ability to execute knowledge and expertise of a character into the game attracts an ever-growing audience. This knowledge, expertise and time is an investment that all games seek as it can lead to a sustained player base, purchases and continued use of the company’s digital platforms (Battle.net, Steam) or other products (Hearthstone, Team Fortress 2). Creating an interest for your specific game, engaging players to try it and ensuring they spend their time and, subsequently, their money is a divided technique. The MOBA genre is currently crowned by two popular games: Leagues of Legends (Riot Games) and Dota 2 (Valve) with a rising star by Blizzard Entertainment’s: Heroes of the Storm.

Each game takes a different approach in their audience and creating forms of accessibility. Accessibility in terms of garnering interest from newcomers and easing them comfortably into the knowledge and world of MOBAs.

  • For Dota 2, Valve has kept everything unlocked and open for both new and experienced players. Players can freely play any hero (character) from the 107 heroes available. For newcomers, this can be intimidating as any multiplayer match can contain up to 10 new heroes that one must be familiar with their abilities (4 skills per hero, 40 total per match) and strategies associated. To combat this uncomfortable feeling, Valve offers players choices to gauge how much they assume they understand about the game and a variety of tools are available to assist them such as:
    1. Tutorial and Training Sessions: Learn the basics of MOBAs, Dota 2 and basic general concepts such as ‘Last-Hitting’.
    2. Limited Heroes Mode: Reduce the number of heroes in a match to 20 in total. Creating less demand to know the intricacies of each hero and more about perfecting your understanding of the game overall.
    3. Bot Matches: Practice vs. AI before playing against other players to improve your overall playing ability.
    4. Coaching: More experienced friends can join your games as a coach, letting them speak to a new player in real-time, draw in their game and inform of them of areas to be careful of, etc.
    5. In-Game Hero Guides: Item and ability suggestions are highlighted and shown for players who choose to subscribe to the guide.
    6. Glossary of all Items and Heroes: All items and hero abilities are available for reference in-client with videos and stats.

Dota 2 Trainings

Dota 2 has an elaborate system to ease players into learning one of the more complex genres in the gaming industry. Smaller nuances such as vision/observer wards and map-awareness are left up to the player to delve into.  

  • For League of Legends, Riot Games introductory system for newer players is less complete but direct. They have two main tutorials: one involving the basics of the MOBA genre and the other about a typical game in League of Legends and using a quest system to guide players into completing their first match. In addition, there are bot matches to play vs. AI and an arching level system that lets players progress up to level 30 as more and more abilities become available for the players, easing them into knowing eventually every champion and Summoner Ability available. However League of Legend lacks in explaining their customization in terms of Runes and Masteries. They make up for it with their more intuitive Item Shop system where you can filter items that you want to buy depending on how you want to play your hero (Attack Power, Ability [Magic] Power, Magic and/or Physical Defense, etc.). Nonetheless, League of Legends assumes players will pick up on the finer details of the game as they play and progress through levels and matches.

LoL Tutorial

League of Legends’ item shop is straight-forward, intuitive and comfortable. However their tutorial may feel incomplete for newcomers to MOBAs and to League of Legends.

  • It’s important to note that Heroes of the Storm is still in a technical alpha with some of its features not yet implemented. However its approach to the MOBA genre is already clear: simplicity. Heroes of the Storm does away with a lot of the smaller intricacies in Dota 2 and League of Legends, going as far as to remove any and all items in the game and globally earning experience. Their tutorial system involves a fast exemplary game and playing vs. AI. However, Heroes of the Storm goes further with their simplicity by restricting ways you can play a hero. ‘Talents’, a customizable form of altering a hero’s ability, is limited to two at the start and as you play more games, more unique ways to use a skill of a hero is unlocked. These fences around customization are for the benefit of the player, to avoid any overwhelming choices until the player has more experience with a specific character.

HOTS tutorial

Heroes of the Storm eliminates a lot of the smaller intricacies of other MOBAs for a more comfortable and casual feeling to the game where teamwork is more stressed over individual ability and work.

These three MOBAs all create avenues to invite players into investing their time in their game. They create avenues of access that ease newcomers into trying their game via tutorials or simple game concepts. Although Valve’s tutorial system has the most pull in inviting players to invest their time into the game, it lacks forms progression or further motivation beyond ranked matchmaking. They compensate this by open-ended content with a full hero roster for players to choose from and no restrictions in game modes. Dota 2 is like a playground in which it is available to access and try (free-to-play) but doesn’t direct or orient people into what to play or how competitive they need to play (you can play vs. AI, ranked matchmaking or more entertaining modes such as ‘All Random’ – where players are assigned random heroes at the start). For League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, there is a motivation for players to progress and unlock future content. Specifically for League of Legends, players want to reach max level for full access to abilities, currency to buy more heroes/runes/masteries and enter ranked matchmaking for the full competitive experience. Riot Games’ approach for new players is to orient them towards understanding all aspects of the game before allowing them to play their most regarded gameplay mode: Ranked Play.

It is clear that all three systems have different ways of inviting players to invest time into their game. Both Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends create reasons for players to invest into their game. Whether it be monetarily or simply their time, the appeal to play either game is set by the need to unlock all of its content (discounting the interest in its other modes and gameplay). However, all three games approach their audience differently, Heroes of the Storm makes the game quick and simple, making matches less demanding and pressured. Dota 2 is a much more complex game but gives players freedom to play how they want to play. League of Legends markets the competitive height of the game through both eSports (League Championship Series) and a more robust matchmaking system (ranks, divisions and Summoner levels). A simple frame to put all this is a three-step approach in which games want to:

  1. Create reasons or invitations for players of all backgrounds to consider their game. This can range from a competitive and challenging height like in League of Legends and Dota 2 (eSports) to quick, short matches with less demand of one’s time like in Heroes of the Storm.
  2. Motivate players to continue returning to your game. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference of the player but each game has an appeal from rotating champions and unlocks to the style of each match – League of Legends being more static in how Champions and each match should be played while Dota 2 and Heroes of the Storm are fluid.
  3. Convert that investment of time into purchases and additional content that does not segregate the community nor hinder one’s experience for not purchasing. This is where each games diverges and incorporate different philosophies.

For motivations, there are different philosophies on how much each company trusts their player base to continue returning to their game. With Valve, there is a reliance that those who try Dota 2 will also check out their digital platform: Steam, creating an indirect returning customer on one level or another. For Riot Games, the progression system consistently rewards players with earnings (and daily bonuses) and rotating champions to have people returning at least periodically. With Heroes of the Storm, the trust splits in two directions where the concept and goals are incredibly simple to grasp yet they fence off content both to mirror Riot’s ability to creating a sustained player base and to egg people towards purchases, large or small. So while Blizzard’s MOBA achieves step 1, it exaggerates step 2 to the point of backfiring. Let’s take a look at some examples of where disadvantages are made clear and diversity of gameplay is removed to emphasize progression and invitation to invest time:

  • Limited Hero Pool: Newcomers will only have access up to 5 heroes out of 28 (with more to come). This free rotation of heroes is expanded as you play more and experience towards higher account levels (8 and 10).
  • Limited Talents: Talents offer unique ways to customize your hero as there is no currency or items in the game. However, 50% of your talents are blocked until you improve each individual heroes’ level (by playing more games with the hero) to hero level 3 and 4 (“advanced talents” and “expert talents”).
  • Limited Artifacts: Artifacts improves areas of your hero such as mana, life and movement speed. Artifacts, like Talents, are not unlocked until even further in the game (account level 15) which grants you the right to use Artifacts, but not the ability to do so. Artifacts have 10 levels each that have to be purchased individually furthering disadvantaging users over another.

Heroes of the Storm locking Heroes of the Storm is gated in many areas, inviting players into investing more time in the game to unlock features and advantages such as Artifacts (similar to the rune system from League of Legends), Talents for each individual hero and gold to purchase more heroes and each artifact level (up to 10 with the price incrementally rising per level).

Heroes of the Storm goes overboard on player progression and removes curiosity of the game, its heroes and customization opting more towards a ‘commit or move on’ situation. While it is important to note that Heroes of the Storm is still in technical alpha, their direction in inviting players to invest their time (and money) is becoming questionable or perhaps even self-destructive.

The concept of inviting players to invest is something all free-to-play games are trying to balance. How does a company keep the playing field fair and yet get a direct or even indirect return on their sizable player base? Accessibility is fast becoming the commodity in many games and MOBAs are no exception. In a recent Steam Dev. Days event, Kyle Davis from Valve Software gave a talk about in-game economies, player experiences and negative externalities.

Valve’s Kyle Davis gives a talk about creating further value in purchasable goods that both enhance the enjoyment of everyone who plays with someone who purchases content and avoiding negative externalities where everyone’s experience is dampened by the person who purchases an advantage of sorts.

In short, it is important to invite players into wanting to invest their time into playing your game through forms of accessibilities. Accessibilities include robust tutorials that contain the major details to the game, a fair diversity of characters/modes and the positive externality of purchasable content. Positive externality meaning that they do not hinder a player’s enjoyment but enhance others when purchasing goods. DLC is in a similar vein where players should feel that the DLC is an addition and enhancement to the game over a missing part of what would be otherwise a complete story or gameplay. Cosmetics such as skins are only considered once the player has dedicated enough time into a particular character they like. New maps and modes are only considered once the player has invested enough time into the game’s core mechanics to feel he or she can take advantage of it.

Both Dota 2 and Valve’s other product: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have hit a fine line of garnering interest in both playing their game and enhancing the experience of everyone when purchasing goods. For Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, if one of your members in your party has purchased an Operation token (access pass to more content), they gain access to a variety of new features (achievements/missions, cosmetics) as well as new maps that all players in their party have access to (so long as they play with them). Similarly, in Dota 2, players have access to new HUD cosmetics and voice packs if someone on their team has purchased (or earned) it. These small touches give a positive outlook and don’t make customers feel forced to purchase in order to have a little diversity in aesthetics or more maps/modes. Even if a customer never purchases anything from the product they are playing, it keeps them playing without feeling any advantages were withheld. So although potential revenue may be immediately unearned, long-term customers are kept and can be capitalized on in the future (directly or indirectly).

Each company faces a monumental task when it comes to their MOBA and new subsequent games also faces that same monumental task of finding accessibilities that draw new users in and then methodologies to maintain that user base to ultimately capitalize on a small portion of it.

To summarize:

  • Ensure avenues of accessibility are fair and accommodating for players of all levels (tutorials, progression systems, diverse game modes)
  • Said avenues of accessibilities are commodities that need to invite players to invest their two currencies: time and, further on, money.
  • Trust your audience in which you don’t restrict accessibilities when you can provide further options for them to consider.
  • Long-term non-purchasing player bases can be capitalized on later, but disgruntled short-term buyers are difficult to bring back.

These points are a direction that products, especially in the MOBA genre, need to establish and assure customers from the get-go. The balance of making sure it doesn’t fence content from everyone else or hinder their experience should one player purchase goods is another responsibility on the company’s behind these popular games. It’s practically the norm that MOBAs are initially free-to-play but additional costs can make or break the player base in more ways than one.

Review: Free to Play: Documentary – Valve’s Magnifier on eSports

Free to Play

Today, Valve’s highly-anticipated documentary, Free to Play has been released. Free to Play’s platform and subject is Valve’s own free-to-play game: Dota 2 and while the main content has some focus around the competitive game, the beauty of this documentary is how representative it is for all eSports whether StarCraft or any other eSport. The three main protagonists, Benedict ‘Hyhy‘ Lim Han Yong, Danylo ‘Dendi‘ Ishutin and Clinton ‘Fear‘ Loomis symbolize the question of choosing what life expects from you; what is the safest route, and following through on your passion, the chase to be the best in something – in Dota 2. Free to Play uses Dota 2 as a platform to introduce these three players and expose its audience the adversities we all face.

Though it is unfortunate that in many areas, this documentary is dated both in how far Dota 2 has come along as well as how much the scene as a whole has grown, it is something that all documentaries will suffer on gaming-related subcultures; especially eSports when everything moves so fast. The timeline of this documentary is set throughout Valve’s first major tournament: The International 2011 where Na’Vi claims first and EHOME ends second. They transition between in-game footage and Source Filmmaker-created content to alleviate the outdated graphics and further inject excitement in the matches for those unfamiliar with the game.

However, on the other hand, Valve plays strongly on its consistency in emotion, story-telling and pacing. They shrug off the small fact that it is outdated and push forward with its exposé of the three main pro-gamers: Singaporean player, Hyhy, Ukrainian Na’Vi competitor, Dendi, and American Evil Geniuses star, Fear. In short, Free to Play has some dated parts, but the stories, emotions and prevalent problems are timeless and culturally contextual.

Free to Play sits on a unique fence of being an easy-to-understand overview of what makes eSports so compelling and so risky as a career for newcomers to the electronic sphere but also intriguing and curious on the inside lives of the players on an individual level and on a cultural level between Eastern Europe, China and North America.

The Free to Play documentary highlights what most of us already involved know, on any level; that eSports is a transitional valued competition. That older generations value what they know; education, sports, music; skills that can be displayed, used or even marketable in the real world. eSports embodies sports through its players, their dedication, determination and passion. The sacrifices these players make, to convince or ignore those who did not initially support them is what we can all resonate with and further shows how much of a leap this transitional generation we are in. A generation where technology captures the timeless essence of our desire to thrive, compete and become the best.

All in all, Free to Play does not break new grounds for most of us, but helps set a presentable front a relatable front for those new to eSports and curious of looking deeper in this new body of subcultural water known as competitive gaming.

You can watch the full documentary on Youtube.com and/or via the Steam Client!

Feature on GLHF Magazine: Getting the Formula Right

Untitled

Click the header image to take a look at GLHF Magazine. 

In a special edition of Armchair Athleticism, we’ve been asked to write a piece for GLHF Magazine where we introduce the nuances and differences of eSports competitive infrastructures and goals set by the publishers (mainly: Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games and Valve).

We will also take a gander at the incorporation of publisher involvement in their respective scenes as well as the obligations expected from each perspective audience already involved (players, fans and established tournament organizers).

Below is an extract of the insight you can find within the article. Click the image above to jump right into the issue.

With the reality of publishers’ now getting involved in eSports; fitting in their view alongside those who have been following eSports for years and actively growing it, can be a difficult project. On the one hand, publishers’ want to ensure the longevity of their game through keeping eSports alive, as it is an emblem of new generation values and the long-standing human nature of competition. On the other hand, event organizations have been surviving on their own alongside teams and players for quite some time now. While a publishers’ blessing can help advertising and marketing for these event organizers’, their demands can sometimes be detrimental to overall business interest or severely limiting in terms of actual growth in that specific eSports title. As time moves forward, it would not be a surprise to see companies be more hands-on with their games and the direction of the eSports sector, but will it be for the better? While we have three clearly distinct forms of growing eSports, neither one nor the other can be truly crowned as ideal for every party involved. Is it better to just put everything in the hands of game publishers like Riot Games, dropping  a ceiling on companies like Turtle Entertainment, Major League Gaming and OnGameNet who have been doing tournaments for years and practically created a sustaining business model. Or should it be more of an open-market like with Dota 2, a sphere everyone can get involved, though it is a dog-eat-dog world where budget and experience trumps out those looking to start from scratch. eSports is a new venture and yet one ideal world or the other also means doors of opportunities close and so do the interest of certain ambitious individuals. In the grand scheme of things, those truly affected by these different models are the fans and the teams/organizations who must play by the rules of the groups that provides them with the prize-money and the stage to compete and entertain [...]

Filtered Growth & Resulted Decline of StarCraft II

Before Heart of the Swarm, there were mentions about how the scene of StarCraft II was ‘dying'; an unclear term as to what extent the eSports competition of StarCraft would dissolve to. While no one denies that the height of StarCraft II has passed after the mid-season of 2012, it’s important to note that some parts of the scene are, in fact, at a decline while others are just the natural filter of a growing subculture. The need to highlight what is worrisome and what is a natural filtered growth of StarCraft II can help create proper direction in terms of focus and urging for future endeavors in those specific fields.

For the past two or three months, I have been thinking about writing something about StarCraft’s situation overall. Actually, since Travis from League of Legends, mentioned, minorly, about how StarCraft is dying (six months ago) and in relation to how people are jumping ship to produce content for League of Legends; I have always wanted to magnify how StarCraft is coming down from its height of new content, personalities and organizations. In October and November, I noted how we were oversupplied on tournaments, new content and a lack of rotation in terms of progaming champions. Now we are starting to see new victors (usually from South Korea) but perceptively less tournaments and webshows. When people highlight the state of StarCraft, they often compare it to that of late 2011, as if the people involved and those on the outside, maintain a consistent and constant interest in a game for years on end. This coming and going, both business-wise and in general, is a filtered growth of the scene: it is the narrowing of relevant content and the decline of new events, streams and bad practices. I do think, in a lot of ways, StarCraft can be improved ranging from spread player-exposure, cycling through newer iconic people as well as Blizzard’s policy/approach in being involved with the community.

(It starts at 6:15) I suggest you take a listen to it, not all of it is relevant to StarCraft, but his personal concerns are mirrored in all eSports of today and the future. It’s insightful because they were concerns mentioned here or within communities in the past.

However, to claim StarCraft II is dying is to overlook the grand scheme of things and to ignore anything from 2010 to now. In essence, just because there is less of something, does not mean there is less popularity or interest. To put into context: despite there being more talk and more support for Dota 2 and League of Legends, does not necessarily correlate to a major decline in StarCraft II. Audiences are not exclusive to games and they are certainly not a limited resource. We’re concluding that the interest of eSports titles has grown.

It’s dying, right? That scene is kind of dying. Maybe Heart of the Swarm will reinvigorate and I will be laughed at whenever it is a much bigger eSport than League of Legends. But I don’t think that’s the case, I don’t think it will die anytime soon, right? But basically in the StarCraft scene: things got really big but it stopped growing shortly after I sorta started following it and then it just sorta started going  downhill, right? But at the same time, the content started going up and up and there was so much saturation of people doing interviews and shows. It just everything got diluted and what I think is happening right now is that there are a lot of StarCraft personalities and content-creators moving over to League of Legends side […]

- Travis from his Youtube series: Monday Musings

The mix understanding of StarCraft’s actual growth is due, in part, of the organizers who stretched their numbers and overhyped their achievements. It’s easy, in retrospect, to look at where we saw StarCraft going and now realizing that perhaps we exaggerated a bit in our feelings of grandeur. Now with RIOT and League of Legends setting new innovations about creating a standard of competition, eSports financial support (Valve especially here) and backing for their competitors, we can’t help but compare it to that of StarCraft II. The notion of the scene dying is due to the disproportion of players in specific regions and the dropping out of organizations, both big and small. However, these should not be the sole factors to make a basis of the scene’s death and in fact, evidence can claim that the fluctuation of tournaments featuring StarCraft and viewership are not as poor as some describe. When the StarCraft scene compares themselves to other E-Sports, the numbers are lost and the discouraged view of “what could have been” ensues. It’s a common issue where people will compare scenes without taking into circumstances of the separate games’ context and this is amongst the strongest reasons these misplaced ideas propagate into real worries.

Monthly viewers 2013 08 all

“What we can say is that SC2 is not dying. The numbers are not going up, clearly, but they are largely stable. Interest in player streams seems to be getting lower, but WCS and other tournaments seem to easily take up the slack to keep the people watching their favorite game.” – courtesy of Conti and his tremendous work regarding Livestream and StarCraft II! I suggest you read all of the topic as there are showings of StarCraft event viewership declining.

Make no mistake, StarCraft II is still a major eSport title and will be for many months and possibly years to come. But the ideologies of it continuing to lead the pack in terms of trend-setting and ushering the general audience of traditional entertainment to eSports is definitely not in the cards. In terms of tournaments, from August 2012 to 2013, we’re actually seeing steady numbers of prize-pools (300 to 650k) across the region (less for North-American and more for Europe and South Korea – thanks to WCS) as well as inclusion of StarCraft II at multi-game events (20 to 18 more or less). We’re not in quite as dire situation as some may be lead to believe, we are just not leading the pack anymore and this is normal in a growing subculture. New foundations are always made to further up the expectations and pull for larger audiences.

Mixed Tournaments

Researched on the 15th of August, so the money is a little outdated (still in favour of the argument however)

eSports Earnings provides a great tool to compare years of tournaments and player earnings. The graphs may feel incomplete, but we’re mainly interested in the prize numbers for 2013 as well as how many multi-game tournaments still include StarCraft II.

What we do see here is less tournament opportunities in place for larger prize-pools by Blizzard Entertainment for each region. So while prize output is good, if not better, the amount of tournaments available for the average competitor is much less. However, without a region lock, we’re seeing a bit of starvation with North-American especially. This starvation of both quantity of major tournaments as well as unlocked regions pushes early retirements for players (fueled by their growing disinterest with the game).

How do we distinguish which is filtered growth and which is true signs of the decline of StarCraft? It’s a matter of context. IGN Pro League’s end and Major League Gaming’s redirection are signs of business: one had bad business practices, as anyone can tell you (though great public presentation), and another saw valuable markets to explore (it could be other aspects as well, there’s never one true reason; just a variety of strong justifications). KeSPA’s restructuring to a more open practice is because of the lack of popularity of StarCraft II in Korea, the WCS format that bottlenecked events and thus the need for that many teams in such a small region (eSF + KeSPA teams all for Proleague and WCS Korea [now OSL & GSL]). These are dissected examples that emphasize context to show which areas are suffering and which are simply moving on.

What I consider to be filtered growth is mostly based on opinion and perception. In 2012, we saw leaps and bounds of major production organization and presentation from the big event organizations. DreamHack always impressed me, but NASL and Turtle Entertainment [IEM/ESL] have also set the notch higher. There is an emphasis on presenters, observers (something Dota 2 hasn’t incorporated yet) and hype. Schedule and time organization have improved and attendance numbers are still very, very high. In essence, while StarCraft is readjusting in their new waistline of competitions and competitors, event organizations are setting new standards of professional work.

Let’s summarize:

  • Prize-pool numbers: Not any lower than we may think, just not as scattered across multiple games. I would say the lack of WCS regions within China and SEA (including Oceania) are issues, including the lack of a region lock to prevent a complete failure of a particular region. Blizzard’s position should be to keep all regions plump with healthy competition while relying on the organizers they commission for WCS production, to attract new audiences (as IEM does with Gamescom and IEM NY with Comic-Con).
  • Tournaments: With amount of reserved time WCS takes, to which no other tournament organizers can broadcast simultaneously with, tournament opportunities have shrunk causing many players to reconsider their options; it also causes team organizations to look into new eSports titles that offer a bit more liberty and marketable numbers for their sponsors.

Additionally, with game developers taking the reins of their scenes, they are also delegating responsibilities and excluding other organizations from producing content. Think how restricted NASL was with StarCraft II content because of Blizzard’s partnership with MLG? This is mirrored across the world and does put a hinder on new businesses. League of Legends also suffers similarly from this issue.

  • Viewership: I find Conti’s consistent work on the subject gives the best evidence. Within this topic, he notes that there are lower viewership numbers, but also that WCS stands on its own successfully. Overall, numbers are stable since Wings of Liberty (more or less) with events still garnering a huge interest (specifically WCS).

In summary, when we saw the strides other eSports titles are hitting, we feel this sense of unaccomplished worth. We compare ourselves to StarCraft of 2009 or StarCraft II of 2011 (Anaheim anyone?) or of Dota 2 and League of Legends. However we never really account for the major flaws of those two games. In many ways, they get things right and take a bigger investment step than Blizzard, but in other forms; the scene still needs growth; similarly with StarCraft. That is not to say that they aren’t doing better than StarCraft, they are just doing things differently and solving areas StarCraft currently suffers from (I’m sure you can think of plenty). Despite this, interest in StarCraft is steady. Declining? At times, but slowly and not looming as near as people may think. It may feel like I’m downplaying the spiraling of this scene, but I rather see it as more of refocusing the factors that matter most and then making note of where we truly stand.

Players Union – Good in Theory

In our last article, we discussed the volatility of a pro gaming career ranging from poor tournament structure and plans to basic game balance and latency. We noted that although these effects are not the final nail towards a player’s career’s coffin, they do play some majoring influences on the mentality of the players, their enjoyment of the game as well as their ultimate future (especially with Blizzard’s World Championship Series being the playing field now). In this article, we aim to consider the idea of a players union; a ‘safety net’ revolving around representing the interests of players and having the support they need throughout their career. While in theory, this idea sounds quintessential towards creating more stability for pro gamers careers, putting it into practice might require more than just organization. Questions such as what would a pro gamer’s association offer, what would be needed to make it successful and is it solvent (financially sound) are amongst the many questions that plague this starting idea and leveling of standard practices.

A couple of months ago, the idea of players unionizing was posted by Evil Geniuses StarCraft II player, Chris ‘HuK’ Loranger. The conversation that ensued seemed optimistic, but little came out of it. This isn’t the first time that unions, in general, have come up in E-Sports : Team Natus Vincere, back in March, pulled out of the Copenhagen Games in view of “disrespectful approach” to create a team association:

Such a disrespectful approach towards the teams causes me to feel an utmost disappointment in modern e-Sports”, says Natus Vincere CEO Alexander “ZeroGravity” Kokhanovsky. I ask all the teams who know me as an individual and trust me as e-Sports functionary to think about the treatment we received this very time. Next week Na`Vi initiates the creation of e-Sports Team Association together with other prominent teams. This organization will drastically change the face of modern e-Sports from the very first day of its creation.”

source: navi-gaming.com

No follow-up on the idea has come up either. The concept of teams or players banding together sounds like a dream come true but nothing has officially materialized. In fact, it took Blizzard Entertainment nearly three years (discounting Brood War times) before creating a form of an association between event organizers across regions. Even this form of event regulating is immensely flawed and detrimental to the growths of these companies. Why does it take so long for any form of representative associations to form and maintain itself for the sake of the groups they aim to support?

Adam Apicella, Operations of Major League Gaming, stated that a player association would create consolidated feedback that would forward event-organizing business as well as enforcing players adhering to standard conduct. However, what it demands from the players as well as those supporting the idea is a lot more crucial to consider than how far an association can reach in terms of influence and control. Below is a concise list of some basic issues a player association faces from its planning to inception:

  • Who will start up an association (who is available to do it)? It is without a doubt that an association would not only be a huge charity of time, but also demand a lot of unbiased perspective from its board of members. Who would be representing and running this association? On what grounds do we establish someone capable of planning and jumpstarting this much-needed org.
  • What are the limits and power of this association? There are many things an association can do, is expected to do and would realistically feel it can achieve. However, there are also many things the scene cannot promise but is expected by most pro gamers. The expectations of treatment of the player’s at events, as a part of a major team and vice-versa would be difficult to uphold and re-enforce. On the opposite end, how would a players union punish a player for not upholding an agreement? Would teams feel comfortably relinquishing that responsibility to a secondary group? When it comes to power and political influence, there is no true line to set, but many gray-zones to discuss and negotiate with all major parties.
  • How would a players union keep and maintain its membership? Because the majority of pro gamers are young male adults, many of them do not apprehend the benefits of a union beyond their own self-benefit. When you are earning below minimum wage and seeking every opportunity to advance yourself; a players union may seem beneficial in the short-run, but demand too much from them in the long-run given the start of this association would be an uphill battle (and require many sacrifices). Either the players union would have an exclusive membership reserved for a small group of the pro gaming population (thus nullifying its relevance and capabilities in political power) or welcome everyone, but be disproportionate in its decisions and enforcement of those (especially when that decision goes against the bottom-majority).

The end-result of a player union would be one that either makes sure the basics are provided for the players (from teams and event accommodations) and the same is expected of them in terms of mannerisms and upholding agreed terms of contract/participation. Because the finances of each event differs so greatly, the common basis of expectancies that a players association can uphold would be rather low, almost redundant in that teams can follow-through themselves and handle each issue on an individual basis. At the start, a players union may be as redundant as foretold here, however in the future we may see the better demand and more rounded services it can offer and follow-up with.

emglogo2 eSports Management Group [LLC.] offers a further middle-man for individual personalities and eSports popular members. Though it is no players union, they offer stronger negotiating power, marketing and content support for a small cut of the client’s earnings.

All in all, a player’s union would be a great asset to establish and improve, but the fundamental adversities it would need to overcome and the amount of constant communication it would have to maintain with players, teams, sponsors, event organizations and game companies might be just too overwhelming currently. I find companies such as the eSports Management Group (LLC.) are a great tool for individual players to rely on for negotiating power and support team to improve their reputability and would like something that for players of all backgrounds and popularity levels. So while there may not be a players union in the near future, a supportive group to back up pro gamers is always in demand and appreciated.

Professional Gamer – A Volatile Career

The idea of a career as a professional gaming competitor is met with skepticism and dismissal as a financially secure path. Making a living out of something that isn’t necessarily seen as either challenging or requiring a lot of general job skills goes against the common norm and values most adults expect in work. With salaries of most pro gaming players below minimum wage, the actual decision to go into a sector of work that is completely underdeveloped is risky and not usually suggested by the E-sports community. Despite these views, the reality of a professional gamer is that it is the foundation of the idea behind this E-sports phenomenon. It is also the factor all other companies depend on to make their service(s) a success. Yet pro gaming is also the most volatile and least secure job in the scene dependent entirely on success of the player and his marketable popularity (in conjunction with his successes). With the issues concerning Blizzard’s World Championship Series and the slow growth of personal sponsorships/support, I continue my public worry about the careers of pro gamers.  Their career’s survivability depends both on their ability to play, but also the details of both their competitive game and potential flaws of tournament structure.

Pro gaming players are the central unit of both community attraction and the piece that all other involved parties, event companies, journalists, team organizations, production crews and commentators, rely on. Yet, they are in a career where they can be treated the least well and with the least financial security both long-term as well as the short. For some well-established players and their parent team, there is no fear of being cut or replaced; teams like Team Liquid, Complexity and Evil Geniuses have shown an outstanding dedication to all their players. But is that the case for all teams? Do all teams have that kind of dedication and experience to responsibly understand the ups and downs of players? Some would argue not and with Blizzard’s World Championship Series laying out the foundation for an extended league series, some teams’ understanding and finances may be tested.

When Blizzard’s World Championship for North-America started with a barrage of issues ranging from site delays to reverse effects in terms of qualifying regional players, concerns about the careers of players started being publicly outspoken. The depth of the issue was outspoken best by Michael ‘Adebisi’ Van Driel, to which he said (in response): “[…] think about how many pro gamers were relying on this [WCS NA Qualifiers] and the difference between being a pro gamer for another six months or not.” This scenario is true for players in China, who are not especially promoted in the scene nor have any qualifiers for their region to stand out from (unlike Korea, Europe and North-America). Their opportunities both at home and abroad are limited and with WCS setting the traffic stops on which tournaments can run simultaneously as other events sanctioned by Blizzard, the likelihood that we will see a prominence in Chinese StarCraft II is limited; can the said the same for the North-American scene.

The NSL Neo Star League is of the few remaining leagues for Chinese players to participate in. Forbes recently released an article detailing League of Legends popularity in China (with Dota 2’s beta just released as well).

Tournament plans, structure and situations have been affecting players since early 2011 (and even before). Issues such as tie-breaking, ‘pointless’ matches and improper administrative decisions have either emotionally affected the players to the point of playing poorly or just not caring for the match such as the situations of NaNiwa vs. NesTea at the Blizzard Cup in late 2011 (courtesy of Liquipedia), XLord vs. Stephano and HomeStory giving the decision of a regame to the players (thanks reddit) or Ret’s poor behavior due to DreamHack’s previously poor  tournament structure of group-play (TeamLiquidPro). User ‘MotBob’ from Team Liquid lays out his opinion and issues with Tie-Breakers (Part 1 & 2), but regardless; these problematic situations occur occasionally between major organizations, even after so much experience. The underlying issue is that despite the occasional hiccup in tournament dilemmas, it still makes or breaks someone’s career and validity in the scene.  In the grand scheme of issues, this amongst the smallest, but also affects the largest and most important body of E-Sports; the players. Evaluating how far this may affect players or how much is just an overreaction to an area that sometimes occurs (no live event happens without some hiccups) would be the tip of the iceberg of pushing towards ideal playing conditions and situations for the players.

What makes pro gaming the most risky and sometimes the most frustrating competitive career (perhaps equal to traditional sports in some aspects) is the fluctuation of balance1. Beyond issues such as latency, improper practice regimen and being on the wrong side of faulty tournament structures, the game that pro gamers dedicate themselves to can be unfavourable. The implicit lack of favouritism in a game’s balance is both unchangeable for the player and a difficulty that scales depending on the developers (and not always in the skillful hands of the player). The issue of balance is both a highly-mentioned complaint of players but also the largest hindrance overlooked by most involved members of the scene. It’s not unusual to read messages from both successful and underachieving players complaining about a certain unit, strategy or a combination of the sorts. In most mainstream sports, the symmetry of rules and capabilities between both teams means all players are typically playing on an even field (at the start) while in video-games, there is, at a minimum, a two-level difficulty scale: one of skillful players improving at different rates and approaches and the balance by game design.

For team games, a debate can be made about how much game balance can affect its participants. Teams outplay one another through strategy, ability to cooperate/communicate as well as through an individual’s aptitude in achieving their role’s tasks.  So in the instance of Dota 2 and League of Legends, one hero/champion may not be the most effective in all situations, players typically must be able to know and play skillfully a large variety of characters that are all characterized with the same intention (or roles: support, ganker, etc.). In addition, to compensate with major perceived imbalances, there is a banning and picking stage to help level the field on both sides (captain’s mode). For StarCraft II, players dedicate themselves to one race for nearly the entirety of their careers (with some exceptions). This dedication must be maintained in order to be able to keep up with other dedicated players as well as the overall demand to execute certain strategies (demand in terms of understanding of key timings to engage your foe as well as actions per minute to execute a vast succession of keystrokes). In addition, maps are changed on a seasonal basis, adding to the layers of possible imbalances or curve disadvantages that may affect the player’s to adapt.

Previously, shows used to revolve around game mechanics and issues within the game. Shows such as Imbalanced! (2011) and Decision-Making (2012) revolved around analyzing and understanding race/team mechanics and their asymmetries.

Typically no one blames balance (minus a few exceptions) for their losses purely because it cannot be changed. Developers, especially within Blizzard Entertainment, make major balance changes on empirical and cumulative showings, meaning; many may lose until they pick up on an issue. Overcoming adversities for players is definitely a part of adaptation. This is an expectancy everyone has on the players but balance has an even larger arching role beyond the game. Sometimes it can be part of the determinant as to whether a player is contracted to a new team or reconsidered , it’s not the deciding factor but an influence either shown through results (or lack thereof) or the trend of current leaders (which is what most premier teams look for).

The impact of game balance, poor tournament structure and administrative rulings may be the least of effects to ultimately bring some professional gamers into retirement, but they are apparent despite. We didn’t discuss the psychological effects of these issues but I’m sure many have read competitors admit to disliking the game they once loved. As mentioned, pro gamers are the center piece to our dining room of a subculture. We revolve around giving them a setting, publicity and exposure, equipment and communication. However making sure they are at work is something that may coincide with those trying to run a business and there is little to help keep players afloat while they transition into a self-supported lifestyle (with future successes or not).  With the ups and downs of players as well as the game, assuring they have a financial safety net or unionized organization to support them as they continue improving without the worries or fears of their financial stability has yet to be truly conceptualized. Few teams support their players after contracts end and even less try referring them to other companies. Who, in the end, looks out for the welfare of the players?

Next article will discuss the proposal of player unions and the lack of financial support for players.

(1 We dictate balance as a part of the game design in which developers configure the strength or power of a  player-controlled unit(s) to either make more ineffective or less effective in its use or influence towards the game’s overall endpoint (victorious/defeat). Imbalanced systems are seen as undermining the intention of the game or dismissing the validity of intended [other] units).

What Blizzard’s World Championship Series Means & Entails

With the announcement of the StarCraft II World Championship Series (2013) made public, many questions and excitement have arose around the scene. Teams, fans and organizers are both delighted with what’s been planned, but also anxious to see how it’ll further the reach of the idea of E-Sports. We called for the idea back in November, 2012 under the article name: Splitting the Scene for Regional Champions with hope that something similar to WCS would be pushed forward to help all scenes and their players prosper and rank amongst one another:

“But at the same time, there is definitely a lack of outlets for foreign players to shine and rank themselves amongst one another with a monetary prize-finish at the end. The suggestion of regional-prized tournaments ranging from different levels helps alleviate the frustrations for many players and connect them back with challengers they can build off from one another.

[…] A good mix of region-based leagues and international tournaments creates a balanced and constant cycling of both aspiring professional players and levels of champions from local to national to international. With a more gradual spread of tournaments, there should be a result of less emphasis on having a Korean (currently the best players) on your team and more demand for foreigners to improve instead of becoming the marketing extremity. This will also add more stable grounds for smaller teams to compete rather than rely on mercenaries to compensate (Team Legion, Check-Six, Alt-Tab) for roster inadequacies.”

This World Championship Series from Blizzard is definitely in the right step, but also has various drawbacks. Their reasons to create this season World Championship Series is a dilemma readers and fans are probably already familiar with:

“First, while the abundance of tournaments spawned tons of lively competition, it also made it difficult for players and teams to avoid scheduling conflicts. More importantly, for spectators, there was nothing tying the events together to create a unified storyline, and it was hard to identify who the best players were from week to week.”

[we wrote the same things in The Lack of Storytelling in E-Sports’ Events (Dec. 2012)  and The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems (Nov. 2012)]

WCS Schedule

Indeed, as explained in the 2013 WCS overview, this system not only creates a proper boundary schedule for any person’s career (between April and November), it also allows for tournament organizations to properly line up their event for equal distribution of fan-interest as well as high-player attendance (both from the reputable players to the aspiring ones).

In 2010 and 2011, Blizzard was in the background, delegating power and rights to various groups to establish a base of major tournaments and organizations. 2012 and 2013, they shifted away from a background position to being the forefront and captain of the E-Sports boat. Their semi-RIOT LCS (League of Legends) and FGC EVO (fighting games) system enables a consistent format for spectators to comprehend. It streamlines importance for all events of all regions equally and events within WCS (ESL, MLG, GSL, OGN/OSL and Proleague) grant seedings to WCS Season Finals. Here are some of the positives that WCS entails:

  • Creates an even schedule of multiple seasons, allowing for proper budgetary planning and scheduling for players and teams (I expect contracts to be drawn up less annually and more every two seasons, especially with newer recruits).
  • It creates regional champions and helps teams earn reputation and reward for their players (see: Minor Tournaments – A Pro Gamer’s Resume [Jan. 2013])
  • Limits power struggles between organizations and the need to “one-up” one another through amount of prize-pool (to thus attract popular pro gamers) and other tactics
  • Easy system to rank players regionally and worldwide to know who really is the best not through number of achievements, but through consistent performance and ranked points.
  • Allows the possibility of new champions rising and recycles those who longer are ahead of the curve.

The drawbacks to this system are evident, but were also inevitable as the scene expanded beyond its capability and reached.  What people called “oversaturation” was merely a race to be relevant and a staple to the E-Sport. MLG, ESL and OGN/GSL are clearly the winners here and while Blizzard’s point-system can also be attributed to non-WCS events, it also means the following:

  • NASL (NA), DreamHack (EU) and Proleague (KeSPA) [KR] will likely be part of the scoop of points attributed to WCS rankings and seeds, it also means they are considered second-class events due to their less impactful effect on a WCS season.
  • This point-system also means that any other tournament organizations looking to get involved in StarCraft II will have a steeper climb to reach relevancy.
  • Minor tournaments will likely see even less activity and participation as WCS online components of participation will attract many aspiring players (since it is more likely to attract a major team’s attention: see; Minor Tournaments – A Pro Gamer’s Resume [Jan. 2013])
  • Events that are not associated with WCS nor receiving points to attribute to WCS seedings will have to fit their events within the championship series (and also create a reason why people should watch it).

As stated, the drawbacks are minor given the downward slope in terms of number of new tournaments and competitions being created. The online portion of WCS will also attract cheaters and potential hackers, but that is something that is both inevitable and small in exchange for convenience and widening the ability to attract as many new competitors as possible.

The truth of it all is that Blizzard’s World Championship Series is a step in the right direction, few disagree, many don’t agree with some of the smaller issues such as the pseudo-region lock.  Such as ways to bypass the system in which Koreans will be in North American system knowing they are not up to snuff to prevail in the GSL/OSL and Proleague. The point system can also be trouble if improperly balanced where we may see another Pool Play issue (players who have not been succeeding, continue to maintain seedings and points due to their achievement many months ago). In short, the faults and issues with the World Championship Series are both minor and hastening the process that was occurring already, the upside to it all is that the prize-money is elevated, the opportunity to compete is less costly and stories are created. With Blizzard’s WCS, the foundation of competition is elevated and the next step for StarCraft II has begun!