The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems

In previous articles, when we spoke more about exposure ranges for players in tournaments, we touched upon what financially supports tournaments: viewership. This reliance keeps tournament afloat, but also has them consistently competing with one another to remain relevant to the common spectator. The problem with these competitions is that they lead to split numbers, but also shrouds unestablished, growing organizations. In contrast to these tournament companies, when game development companies (e.g Blizzard Entertainment) host and organize international tournaments, their three initiatives serve their own end and are more utilitarian:

1. Attracting new viewers and expanding their market pool,

2. Providing a supportive and community-attached front that attracts and impresses onlookers peering from the outside of the E-Sports globe

3. Creating a stable footing for current and future events.

Essentially, when development companies do events, it’s to add a friendly face to a digital landscape. Similar to conventions, these events bridge the anonymity of realistic relationships and competition to a real-life stage. What sets Blizzard’s tournaments apart from other organizations and their events is the dependency. Let’s look at how Blizzard depends on StarCraft II:

  • Blizzard earns a return through general sales of StarCraft II
  • Blizzard earns return through a share of prize-pools/licensing of major tournaments
  • Further sales are generated through the longevity of the game and its real-life presence via tournaments, events, etc.

Now what are some ways tournament organizations, relying on Blizzard’s games, survive? Sponsors, attendance, viewers, investors, pay-per-view, HD passes and advertising (all relaying back to viewership dependency). Their sales are not made by the game, but reliant on the game’s status and overall community’s attitude towards it. I think what you’ll find is that due to the scene missing a wide array of incoming money from different directions and areas, most tournament organizations are obliged to adhere to the spectators (titled: community attitude).

In organizing tournaments, there are three major characters you need to prioritize: the spectators, players and yourself: the company hosting and organizing the event. While one would love to adhere to the spectators who only want to see their favourite players rip it up, your own sustainability is based off the survivability of the scene as well as the coming and going of new competitors. Unfortunately, spectators are quite picky: they want to see their favourite players, though properly seeded. They don’t necessarily want “invitationals”, but seeing their favourites reach the championship brackets is always noted in their books: it’s like getting to the good stuff after two days of underground fist-brawling. However, some people like pure open-bracket tournaments, but as we saw at MLG’s Providence of 2011: it can be long, winding and you have to sift through a ton of one-sided matches before the good competitions comes in. Balancing out a good format for your tournament that pleases spectators, but gives fair odds to another major character, the players, can affect your overall financial gain.

Players are another aspect to consider: they want fairness and good playing conditions so they can win. Sometimes, wanting to win means boring or short games which doesn’t exactly thrill the viewers. How do you please fans, have them return to your tournaments each and every year as well as entice them to perhaps pay for some products or services when your tournament’s grand finale is a six-minute match? FXO’s Josh Dentrinos has been asking these sorts of questions for a long time now:

“So whats next for E-Sports? Well, you are going to start getting charged for the content. Anyone who thinks the content being made should be considered free because “twitch lets them play ads that’s enough” should probably start researching what kind of money actually can come out of that and that’s no attack on twitch, they do a great job and are doing a great job at ting to provide a service to the community that allows things to last longer and grow.”

What we’ve been seeing more is the leading tournaments and events trying to take up all the months on the calendar. The reason for this is due to competition with neighboring major events and the guarantee to make a return of investment (even if at a net loss). The long-term aim for these major leagues is to be an established integral part of the culture as well as ensuring their lead as a major organization within the year. Let’s look at progress for MLG: originally, MLG had three events in 2010 as they tested the StarCraft 2 water. Then they made bold moves and doubled that number to 6 major city events (and 3 invitationals). This year, they’re going for bigger:

  • Winter: EU/KR/NA Qualifiers, Arena, Championship
  • Spring: Open Online Qualifiers, Arena 1, Invite Qualifiers, Arena 2, Championship
  • Summer: Open and Invite Qualifiers, Arena, Championship
  • Fall: Open and Invite Qualifiers, MVP Invitiational, Championship

That’s smart and very aggressive. They have a good hold on the North-American side of the world and they’re really using what lead they got in the middle of 2011 (MLG Anaheim) to really take advantage of the scene and spectators. Let’s take a look at it again: in 2011, MLG was about eighteen days + three invitationals (broadcasted over about thirty days each). Approximately three months of content and about 2 months’ nights of player’s playing these matches before broadcasting. In 2012, we’re looking at double that and more in terms of content and time for both spectators to digest the amount of tournaments as well as how many qualifiers, arenas and championships players have to play (as well as the MVP Invitational).

Now add DreamHack to the mix as well as GSL, IEM and the NASL. If we threw in IGN Pro League’s showmatches (IPL Fight Club), team leagues (Premier, Contender and Amateur) and the qualifiers of the major tournament (IPL 3-4-5, MLG, IEM, GSL, NASL open), you’re looking at a near full annual schedule of events. Some pay-per-view, some entirely free, all revolving around nearly the same usual players and the same base of viewers who try to absorb everything.

Amount of tournaments within the year 2012, excluding IPL Showmatches & 3-tier Team-League system (42 teams) – information courtesy of Liquipedia

[Click to enlarge listing]

The problem is the scene becomes a boiling tournament-filled hotpot. Even if we were to routinely interchange players (different regions, different champions), the significance of each tournament with another one a few months away limits the feeling of achievement and a ‘talked legacy’ (‘Talked legacy’ being the missing discussion amongst the community of who is the best player). This is because of an equally-sized and valued tournament coming soon after one finished. Following tournaments either reinforce a point-of-view or simply flips the table and rescrambles the question of “who is the best player around?”. Neither are good proponents of good discussions; the roots to what ultimately becomes “hype” or excitement when the two compared players fight it out.

In addition, tournaments mean more opponents and less specialty in plays. The emphasis on good macromanagement in-game, mentality and overall strategy becomes more demanded than training or preparing specifically for an opponent and their strategy (a la GSL or NASL). Endurance starts playing a larger value than one’s ability to really assess their opponent as well as out-think them. These tournaments potentially slow down strategy and competitive innovation for refining in mechanics and overall ability to play the game.

With so many tournaments and opportunity, top teams don’t necessarily need to prioritize leagues when the prize-pool becomes nearly the same. Not to forget that the amount of preparation demanded in tournaments is greatly reduced and easier to cover than the analytical approach of studying your opponent for league matches. The equation goes as: more risk, but more reward in less time for tournaments than leagues, which greatly reduces a league’s importance (with the GSL being an exception).

Previously we mentioned the shrouding of major tournaments and its effect on smaller competitions and leagues; unfortunately, there are so many competitions demanding so many international fans their full attention, you start diminishing developing tournaments and leagues trying to attract new viewers (and the attention of prosperous teams). Any smaller tournament trying to obtain the top-ranked teams will have to swim through the nightmares of scheduling and fitting their tournament within an overfished market. When it comes to Koreans, that’s a double layer and language barrier to hurdle over (God bless ESV’s Korean Weekly).

All in all, what Dota 2 lacks is what StarCraft II has too much of: exposure. With so many tournaments you face these summarizing problems in many facets of the three main characters named above (Tournament organizers, players, eye-strained spectators).

  • Root problem: Due to the limited forms of return of investment through service sales (HD, PPV, etc.), tournaments organizations aggressively up the number of tournaments. Competition amongst other major tournaments also urges organizers to push out more content to establish themselves as the top event within a year. This effect causes a year-long monopoly amongst the top national and international tournaments (NA, EU, Asia).
  • Branching problem 1: Due to this monopoly of tournaments, spectators become bogged down with the amount of prestige in tournaments and can no longer value champions within a professional tournament circuit or via an array of major tournaments.
  • Branching problem 2: With an influx of major tournaments, a player’s time is divided to preparing for all kinds of opponents as well as specific opponents in leagues. Preparation diminishes, strategy becomes stale and repetitive to what works most of the time.
  • Branching problem 3: Budding tournaments and host organizations are clouded over by the big dogs trying to scrape by. This squashes unknown players’ opportunities to be exposed, removes competition and distances ‘indie’ tournament organizations from major events.
  • Branching problem 4: The amount of free content available dimishes the money major organizations can scrape by with. If you include the target audiences general income and willingness to spend and you find a very starved and begging market.

I would say these highlighted issues are probably the core of what prevents growth in many areas of this subculture. If someone were to ask me a solution, I’d just say: we need more viewers, more money/investors and more cycling of players, major, medium and ‘indie’ events. If intrigued and they asked me “how?” I just wouldn’t know. The obvious answer would be that people need to spend more, but for the sake “to grow E-Sports”? That may be a bit too utilitarian, not practical and throwing more money at a problem from real people does not necessarily mean solutions bloom. In the end, what tournaments are causing is due to their own strain and difficulty to sustain. We’re only drowning in content because others thirst for means to expand in new and different ways. All in all, there is a traffic jam of tournaments due to unsatisfied individual needs.

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One thought on “The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems

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