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).

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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!

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm – An Overview & Review

Swiftly lead by an impressive beta, the release of StarCraft II’s expansion: Heart of the Swarm brought out many balance changes and UI improvements to the series. High expectations were set on the direction of StarCraft II not only as an E-Sport, but as an entertaining game overall. These expectations exploded during the public disapproval of Blizzard’s lack of public appeal. There was public backlash for their inability in improving the title on a multiplayer and singleplayer level (after so many years of clamoring), also in view of Battle.net 2.0’s long list of criticisms since its implementation. People wanted more and hammered the company for months (even years for some features) begging for utilities that made the game less secluded for the user and more open towards cooperative play such as: additional building blocks to improve the player and enhanced modes both in gameplay and in variety of tools (shared replays, resume from replay, unranked matches, etc).

As Heart of the Swarm opened its servers, there was impatience to see how Blizzard could outdo their exciting beginnings of Wings of Liberty, and renew the passion of old followers and fans of the genre (RTS) and scene. In short, they have hit their mark and the expansion delivers what was urged but not without some drawbacks in many areas of the game.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is split into singleplayer and multiplayer, both completely different in value and appeal. In the singleplayer aspect, the players are jumped into the perspective of Sarah Kerrigan, previously the Queen of Blades in Wings of Liberty and is returning once more after an ambush separates her from her two-way unrequited love with Jim Raynor. An arch of vengeance, power struggle and a yearning to be reunited with someone who said he’d never give up on her (doesn’t get more deep than that) are what’s to be expected in this sequel. While the gameplay and missions are definitely just as varied as the missions in Wings of Liberty, the story and dialogue leave much to be desired and can only be compared to that of Star Wars: Episode II. One thing to note is that you will never play any of the other races in the campaign (neither Protoss or Terran).

Snapshot 4

Though many of these “mutations” or customizations cannot be found outside of the singleplayer, truly enhance how to go about completing your missions and keeping in a “Zerg”-style way.

What the singleplayer lacks in creative story development, it makes up in missions and customization. You will soon find that the game plays more like WarCraft III with control of a “hero” or main character (with strong abilities) than purely a real-time strategy game and the missions definitely compliment this area. Also, the personal touch of your units are fitting with the Zerg-esque feel where you can modify your units with advantageous perks, exclusive evolutions and tutorial missions to let you try both evolutions out (to better your selection). To add, your hero can be leveled, allowing Kerrigan to obtain unique powerful abilities. The singleplayer side of the game however lacks miscellaneous activities ranging from minigames that we saw in Wings of Liberty (The Lost Viking) to no new challenges that let you improve your ability with each race. As always, Blizzard Entertainment delivers in ambiance, amazing cinematic cutscenes and of course their epic music (you can even pause in the cutscenes to take these kinds of snapshots!)

Snapshot 1

Pretty impressive stuff. There are many cinematic scenes like this, even more action-packed than ever before.

On the multiplayer side, since Wings of Liberty, “improving” would be the summation here. Ranging from AI difficulty levels, builds and diverse game mechanics towards various ranked/unranked matchups really lets the player make the game as serious or jokingly as they want. The welcoming of new units definitely refreshes the game and creates new scenarios and approaches towards winning for the player (though the question of if its balance is still arguable). Free-for-all mode is still lacking in terms of maps and uniqueness though the arcade feature still has some amazing games both promoted by Blizzard and the community themself. The varied custom games navigation and UI, however improved, still leaves a lot to be desired, especially in finding something beyond the top ten most popular custom games (and searching those who want to play it).

The tools brought into Heart of the Swarm are what really make those still hesitant to return, reconsider going back to the game. The options menu has expanded to having more graphical options, customization of hotkeys (hotkeys for the singleplayer do not overlap with the multiplayer) and how involved you want the client to help you in your multiplayer matches (from enabling/disabling your mouse from clicking on enemy units to auto-gathering your workers at the start of the game). In addition, your profile card is also both concise and expanded in various menus and the rewards in playing multiplayer matches is displayed through your profile picture, experience and levels as well as interesting skins for your units and animations (dancing and such). The UI for spectator mode can also be customized for tournament organizers, removing the unnecessary graphics for the spectator and delivering more essential information to better view progaming matches. Everything is slick and smooth in navigating through Battle.net and a major improvement from the previous version where a lot of empty areas were brimming with potential use.

Snapshot 2

The UI is sleek, attractive and concisely informative. Everything is available either in a drop-down menu or through sectioned menus.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm delivers a lot to those already in love with the series. Tutorials, challenges and custom games also hold onto players who love the game more than for its competitive ladder and leagues. Its aim to create new ways to connect and cooperate with others through groups, clans, resume from replays and more really lessen the secluded and sometimes frustrating tone of the game and expand its options. However, there is still much more to be done with the game story-wise as well as within the UI, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is off to a great start and appeals to the expectations of many people who started with StarCraft II back in 2010 and perhaps regain those who have given up on the series and E-Sport. There are many minor features not elaborated in this review that you’ll come to appreciate (like end-of-match reports and statistics, map info/screenshots/patch notes/review, concise friendslist, etc.), but in short, Heart of the Swarm is definitely worth its cost. In comparison to Wings of Liberty, it does not feel short for an expansion. As a series on its own, it feels complete, but could still use additions in regards to team-games/FFA  (balance & better maps), dialogue/story as well as qualities like team matches, or qualities found in WarCraft III like daily/weekly tournaments and chat features. Nonetheless, if you love Real-Time Strategy games and pine for a compelling singleplayer, advanced multiplayer to really devote your time and energy in improving yourself: StarCraft II can feel very rewarding for the competitive fan.

Minor Tournaments – A Pro Gamer’s Résumé

With the vanishing of Team Liquid’s Tournament tracker, there’s been a noticeable diminishment of minor tournaments since the end of 2012 and the start of 2013. We spoke about the importance of minor [weekly] tournaments and opportunity for up-and-coming pro gamers in the article: Splitting the Scene for Regional Champions.

Minor tournaments in 2010 and 2011 were the building blocks for pro gamers to build up their résumé in terms of achievements and earn increments of exposure. Weekly tournaments specifically offered consistently real tournament experience for those “ladder warriors” (a term used by some managers for players who are extremely powerful on the ladder but fail to achieve during tournament matches) and players looking to really test their abilities against some of the more establish pros. Indeed, some of the best players of today, have a good stack of their career rankings in weekly and minor tournaments such as NaNiwa, Snute and Stephano:

Snute NaNiwa Stephano

This is a snapshot of the 2010, 2011 & 2012 minor tournament winnings from all three notable foreign players: Snute, Stephano and NaNiwa (screemshot is courtesy of Liquipedia)

As shown, the value and usage of these minor tournaments are quite attractive for many professionals, established or not. Back during 2010 and 2011, the number of major tournaments offering high prize-money was not as many or desirable as they are now (First place: 5,000$ from MLG, 6,500$ from IEM, 15,000$ from IPl: did not always include travel).  Thus, the convenience of minor events being at-home as well as the return of payment notably raised the value of players exponentially, while also offering them experience and a variety of opponents both at their skill-level and lower (making tournaments a lot faster and not stretched across three-day periods [for weekly tournaments]).

However, the diminishment of weekly and even minor tournaments could be signs of a changing scene. In Europe, major staples of weekly tournaments: GameCreds, Antec, IMBAlonian Star Cup, CraftCup, Alt-Tab Gaming Trophy. For America and South Korea, there are no more weekly tournaments whatsoever. Are weekly tournaments no longer valued or considered amongst teams and managers?

According to some current player-managers, both of the largest organizations and those growing, these weekly tournament achievements were not always of a real priority of consideration before major events, marketability and actual results:

Team Liquid: “Weekly tournaments do not really matter at all.  It is, of course, nice if they do well in them but it doesn’t matter”

Ex-FXOpen, Josh Dentrinos: “I care about skill. Look at it this way: I predict things for a living, so I use those skils to predict who will be good in the future. Past results do not represent future results”

Clarity Gaming: “Honestly, we weigh their marketability the most, as well as how they mesh with our team environment. After that it becomes more about results: we generally consider qualifier results the most important, with weekly tournament achievements somewhere after that. Major tournament results obviously come first. Right now, desire to come to the house is also a huge factor, we’re not nearly as interested in picking up a player that doesn’t/can’t come to the house.

Honestly when it comes down to what results get looked at on a player resume, our main focus relies on qualifiers for major tournaments. You can win numerous online cups these days and it just wouldn’t be enough to significantly increase your value as a player if you’re not trying to take the next step in qualifying for International LAN events.”

Evil Geniuses: “Weekly tournaments, in Starcraft 2, account for very little now.”

Ex-Quantic, Brad Carney: “When looking for the next big name player for our team we would probably look at skill first. There is a lot of skill but there are some people who just can’t “finish”. So people who could close out a tournament and have the confidence to do so would be priority number one. When looking for an up and comer, seeing who is winning a lot of dailies really helped. Time is also a huge factor. If someone doesn’t have the time either now or in the near future, it factors in on a decision.”.

LighT eSports, Victor Chen: “Weekly tournament achievements fall in probably one of the lowest categories.”

While pro gamers and aspiring players value weekly tournament organizations such as PlayHem’s Daily, ESL’s Go4SC2 and Xilence/Competo; few team managers account for it when interested in acquiring players. This is especially true in 2012 and 2013, where the accessibility of major events such as IPL and MLG are less costly to the player and team and more rewarding in terms of exposure and worth. Blizzard’s BWC, MLG Arenas and IPL’s Proleague all offered regional qualifiers as well as covering travel expenses towards anyone who qualified. This helped promote Koreans getting to foreign events while also ensuring North-Americans earn opportunities to achieve.

This disproportion of value of weekly tournaments creates misunderstood notions of one’s own value. This may be held especially true for many players currently teamless such as ex-TSL Hyun who has a current asking price of 2,500 and travel to international tournaments. An arguably heavy toll for anyone considering this 53-first placed finishing pro gamer [plus 15-straight IPL Fight Club Showmatch victories]. This possible misbelief ultimately leads to players’ misunderstanding their real worth as well as constantly comparing themselves to players they beat and their salaries. While Hyun has an impressive winning streak in smaller tournaments and showmatches, his on and off record with the GSL as well as average placements in IPL, DreamHack and TSL4 lead managers to consider other potential rising stars (though, he has just been signed as of the release of this piece).

EdHaJ1I

Major events and LAN are accounted at a higher value than that of weekly tournaments and showmatches according to many team-managers (screenshot is courtesy of Liquipedia).

Can the same be said for casters? I caught up with IPL’s Frank Fields [Mirhi] as well as NASL’s Dan Chou [Frodan] to get their view on the matter. Does casting tournaments , small or big, add to one’s resume as we first thought for players?

NASL’s Dan Chou: “Weekly tournaments give an amazing platform for beginner casters for three reasons. One, they have the same audience — spectators who love the “homey” and personal atmosphere of the tournament which puts out enough consistent content to saturate their desires — on a consistent basis to practice their material on similar to stand-up comedians. Two, they have a high margin for error due to a loving low-count audience that endears the aspiring casters who work with little to no compensation. Three, they can build their own repertoire of history with local/semi-pro players for a storyline that main stage casters would not know if they were behind the same microphone.

However, I feel that the most important thing for aspiring commentators to learn from these small tournaments is humility and work ethic. It is a true shame when these once-unknown people achieve a status only to lose their approachability and allow their exaggerated “fame” to inflate their ego. Lastly, no caster got to the top without due diligence and sacrifice. This factor will stop 90% of people from getting anywhere in this industry alone. That or I-was-here-first fortune.”

IPL’s Frank Fields: “For casters, we chose 2 casters who are known for casting playhem dailies [Robin and Kibbelz]. So its a good way for exposure and practice”

The answer was obvious in of itself. More experience and exposure, the better the caster can be, the more the public is aware of the commentator and the more aware organizations such as IPL and NASL are. This steady incline is not true for players however, who must divulge their time wisely between streaming/marketing, practicing builds and strategies and playing smaller tournaments for cash-prizes.

Nonetheless, whether a caster or a player, the interest in weekly tournaments may be diminishing. As more and more weekly tournament organizations move on to new games and areas, the amount of money earned by players becomes more centered and emphasized on major tournaments and attendance. What direction will this mean about the separation between aspiring players, their result listings and the current established pro gamers? Will Heart of the Swarm merely continue this trend, emphasize the large events or will it revive the demand for minor tournaments, weekly competitions and create new reputations for new up-and-coming players?

Teams of E-Sports – Portals for New Fans

The middle men of E-Sports, Team Organizations, are the looking glass for the general public’s acceptance of a video-gaming profession (through proper representation) and the entrance to the scene for new enthusiasts. Team organizations are unique in that they connect both new interested parties and major team fans to new genres, games and competitions/events. These teams and their players are the link of E-Sports and arguably the core brand representatives of the scene(s) to many. To provide a professional front while also financially sustaining themselves is a large task for a limited budgeted company.

Portal

This diagram shows how an introduced general public (gray circle) viewing an E-Sport event (major tournament) can become new fans/spectators of specific teams and organizations (represented by the blue portal/oval). By following these team organizations, fans are demonstrated and introduced to a variety of people, popular events of E-Sports to which can also help solidify the idea of professionalism and legitimacy of E-Sports as a popular subculture and market.

As stated before, I call them the ‘middle men‘ because of their role for players, fans, major investors (company or person) and coordinating tournaments. Teams are the center point of these exterior ends of what people want, what tournaments need, how sponsors display their products (via player streams for example) and how investors can see growth and return. They must achieve this, appease their sponsors as well as support a number of staple players of the scene. Sadly though, the concept of “teams” in StarCraft II differ than in other E-Sports genres. With ARTS games (DotA/Dota 2, League of Legends) or even FPS games such as Counter-Strike: crews of players and brand-names are generally one of the same. Team Dynamic’s brand is its players (whether in LoL [now defunct] or Counter-Strike). When a team wins, it’s titled as Team X wins. For StarCraft II and even fighting games, we recognize more the player as winning and his individual achievements rather than listing it under an achievement the team he’s under. There’s a certain detachment when you think players and their teams within the StarCraft II scene. This dynamic relationship is perceived more of a sponsored organization supporting a player, rather than a player belonging to a set of members within that organization. Because of this, teams need to find new ways to better merge a player’s name to a brand’s prominent reputation.

col_big

Although some players on the ex-Complexity roster are more popular than others, they are all needed equally to accredit and promote the Complexity Gaming’s brand and name through competitions (which, in turn, also bolsters their own reputation and fan-following)

Since StarCraft II is more of an individual game than team-based, a team’s organization is viewed differently than being one whole entity with the players they support. They act more as a garage, a parking lot, for all these players to which they are sent out for specific events, competitions or marketing ideas (depending on cost, ability to succeed or reach of their iconic community status). Perhaps that’s a cynical perception, but what we see when we look at the major teams are roles for their players. Some are for marketing, for their image or noteworthiness and some are for their ability to achieve and stay on top of the competition’s skill-level. When you compare these foreigner and E-Sports Federation teams, to that of other E-Sports teams, you notice a different dynamic in terms of rosters. For cooperative games, the relationships amongst players must be positive. In Dota or Counter-Strike, if the team atmosphere is not positive, the team suffers. In addition, these teams cannot be separated for specific events or competitions, they must all be accounted for and depend on one another for success. StarCraft II differs in that their rosters can have neutral stances for one another. Because StarCraft II is much more secluded for players on a team (their independent success bolsters a team’s brand name collectively while cooperative team-games collectively succeed), this leads to a lack of unification of a StarCraft II player’s fan-following with a team’s brand.

TeamReignA roster can be more diverse to fill multiple areas a team organization needs to take advantage of to popularize and create reputation (marketing, expos, competitions, prestigious tournaments, etc.). This diversification can mean more rapid roster changes and less connection between player name and team’s brand.

Teams such as Team Liquid & EG have maintained dedication towards their players despite bouts of underachievement. This consistency helps build associations between the player and the sentiment that the team supports the player through thick and thin. Contrariwise, the more changes of players on a sponsored team, the more detached a player’s reputation is to the team). This can mean the coming and going of fans as well as the difficulty in identifying a team’s face. ‘Face‘ is defined as the collective image from iconic people we identify with the team or brand. Let’s use Team Millenium as an example of not actively marketing players to team brands (currently Millenium has a very strong fanbase and focus on the French country and scene:

  • Millenium is among the most financially comfortable teams in the scene. They’ve housed some of the best and veteran players of StarCraft II including ToD, HuK, Adelscott and Stephano. This French team has a lot of games, a lot of outlets to produce content and a very strong national hold in their country. Millenium has come and gone with small media hits towards their StarCraft fans during the year 2011: Team house, Feast personally mentored by Grubby, ForGG and Dragon pick-ups, Stephano’s achievements, but they never went far enough with it. All these announcements are great introductions of the interesting stuff Millenium can do, but why haven’t they followed through with it? Why haven’t they done more with showcasing Dragon’s entertaining qualities, ForGG’s remarkable skill and ability, etc. Athough their focus is mainly for the French fans, their players are reaching beyond that of France and even Europe (especially with pick-ups such as ex-Complexity Academy pro gamer: Goswer). The player name far outreaches that of Millenium’s within StarCraft II.
  • The opposite can be seen for Team Evil Geniuses in terms of production. Team EG has reinvented themselves time and time again with blogs (even before this, EG used to feature blogs written by Cassandra, Grubby’s wife during the WC3 era), Big Foot Networks Pro Tip videos, branding BarCrafts (BarCraft Montreal, ONOG), commercials, tournaments (EG Master’s Cup Series), OneMoreGame.tv, Kingston commercials, SteelSeries promotions, Trivia videos (Fanmail & Unburrowed), etc.

Millenium needs consistency and continued reinvention of their brand. They tried a few back in 2010 with blogs when they had HuK, they showed off their team-house, some Millenium tournament invitationals and more. But there was no connection to the community and it wasn’t nearly as polished or aggressively pushed as Evil Geniuses. Millenium had one of the best foreigners around for months, but did so little to present him as a Millenium player and thus no fan-to-team dedication, only fan-to-player [Stephano] loyalty. Nonetheless, I would situate Millenium as a lot more active (considering they’re doing more non-E-Sport titles) than some other teams, especially those who are underachieving.

Quantic Gaming (now defunct) was amongst those underachieving, but presented with both their downfall and greatest opportunity. Originally, Quantic had a North-American squad that was shaded due to the performance of their Swedish duo: SaSe & NaNiwa. Since NaNiwa departure, Quantic Gaming’s perception from the community transitioned to being a premier North-American team with their pick-up of Vile Gaming and two new investors. Quantic kept their original roster without little to no cuts, a rare dedication that some teams don’t possess. However they did little to take advantage of their longstanding relationship with these players and furthermore, doubling their roster only increased expenses with little to no future achievements or advertising for these players.

To reiterate my original point(s): A team and the players they sponsor are not perceived as one of the same in StarCraft II. That hurts and that’s definitely something that could be better approached by the majority of the teams. This, in turn, should also help bolster team fan-following numbers as well as player numbers when presenting to current or new sponsors. Differencing your players in new and unique ways helps remove the stigma of an overabundant roster and creates variety in a large squad of talented players.

The reality of all this is that traditional systems that create roles for players are only there to help create a working form of a team within a limited budget. So while piggy-backing off sponsors and relying on major tournament organizations to send their players around the world is working so far (more or less), it isn’t an ideal long-term way to live. This is going to sound redundant, but teams need to find a way to survive on their own two feet. Though as we mentioned earlier, the form of media they can produce content on with such a limited budget isn’t really going to be enough. If it somehow manages to pay out, it won’t work for everyone equally. This is just another long laundry list that more money and a bigger audience could potentially help cross off. But at the same time, a lot of teams are not taking advantage of their players to better create an association of names between both the player and the teams’ brand.

Website Organization – Choice of Information

I’m always mixed writing about E-Sport team and organization websites. On the one hand, all companies should have a proper representing websites both for their sponsors as well as a hub for all relevant information. Even if rarely used, a website for an org. is just obligatory regardless of its financial status (self-funded/financed or completely volunteer). However, some websites can be overbearing in terms of information that it turns people off or has them rely on more orderly places to get their news about your organization.

There’s an art to team and organization websites, especially when you have to take into consideration of the scene. For StarCraft II, Team Liquid and Reddit are often the commonplace to both reroute people to a team’s website as well as get the company promoted and noted in the minds of fans. Because of this, some areas become less important than others and often times clutter the front page. Dota 2 works similarly with JoinDota, PlayDota, /r/dota2 and TeamLiquid being the main faces of community discussion, news publication and exposure. These centers limit how much traffic one would get on their website, but they also help keep everyone informed and gathering to the same place. It’s a double-edge sword that constantly demands websites to be reworked overtime.

Information is the fine line between a commending and appealing website to one that is overflowing with redundancy. While some websites keep it lean and clean, others tend to plaster their entire front page with everything they can think of. What lead me to writing this piece was the constant teasing about how poorly managed Major League Gaming’s website is and how easy and accommodating IGN’s Pro League website can be.

One thing to note is that all teams have their main focus, despite MLG’s varied uses (the store, Pro Circuit, GameBattles/SC2 Battles) their main focus is both their events and pro gaming broadcasted matches. Unfortunately, they tend to show everything they do at once, making those looking for specific information disinterested in returning. IPL understands their strongest features and emphasizes it much more than their other areas:

MLG

As shown, MLG’s website highlights everything they are offering on their front page. Including Headlines, possible products, relevant news, their partners at the bottom, best videos of MLG (scroll down), Post season of 2012. Top bar includes: Video, Pro Circuit, GameBattles, SC2Battles, Community, Store, Support, Pro Circuit (again), VOD, Passes, Schedule, Players, Results, Photos, MvP.

IPL

IPL’s website makes sure to plaster their stream in the middle, with an easy-to-maneuver initial bar for other broadcasts/games/history/live/on-demand. Schedule and Latest articles are filted according to the game and recent matches. Everything else is on another page and not redundantly placed. A clean and sleek website.

Unfortunately, event organizations are not the only ones suffering from this desire to fill their entire front page. Team sites also fall into the trap of putting everything (relevant or irrelevant) on their website:

COL SK

Both Complexity and SK Gaming are renowned much older teams and their websites portray this with the need to show everything ranging from Forum threads, Upcoming events, Video Streams, Image Gallery, Team News, Recent Blogs, Latest videos, Featured Products, Polls and then links to their Galleries, Downloads, Media, Roster, Forum, News, Home. How did Complexity look before?  Not that different to be quite frank. SK Gaming also suffers from similar issues where they post their News, Live Events, Facebook, Counter-Strike Videos, Facebook, SK 1on1 Videos, Coverage (scores), Betting, SK Fresh Pots Videos, Videos, Files (replay packs & configs), Forums, Albums, Twitter, Blogs with links to their Features, Videos, Albums, Files, Blogs, Groups, Community, Forums pages. That’s quite a mouthful huh? Want to know what their site looked like before? It suffers from the same issue of plastering everything they can in a collage of a front page with nothing really standing out more than something else:

COL SK 2005

Although both organizations have grown since then, it has always been surprising how their site always invoked the same feeling of “drowning-in-information”. This framing remained for SK Gaming and Complexity since 2005-2006 (as the screenshot portrays).

Websites like these suffer from the issue of trusting their visitors and netizens into a sea of excessive content. They put everything on there like a writer who spends too much time describing a setting just so you, the reader, gets the gist that it is a spring morning (I am guilty of this).  My first rule when constructing your website is to trust your target audience. In the case of Complexity & SK Gaming, trust that they have or will check out your Twitter & Facebook and put what really matters on the front of your page. While the forums and general news are great and appealing, they take a backseat to what you really want to promote and what makes your organization stand-out. For IPL and MLG, it’s their in-person events and broadcasting competitions. For team organizations, it’s about the players, marketing and content that makes them stand out uniquely. This needs to be emphasized to show visitors what to look for and to better describe what the organization’s best-selling point is.

Cutting the team website’s front page can be a difficult and lengthy process: which areas are redundant; not pulling their weight to draw in new visitors (and have them returning)? It’s a question of balance in terms of how much resource an org is willing to devote as well as return on that input. Cutting the fat to make your front page a splash of renewed interest and priority is like keeping your menu short and sweet. Consider yourself a restaurant that has some recognition in its steaks and team of chefs (Pro Gamers). Do you surround the achievements of your team and their reputable meals with other complementary side-dishes such as community and forums when the customer can get that at any family restaurant? Figuring out what shows the team’s best foot is a question of evaluation and understanding of your scene (as previously said) as well as what your market wants to know (or looks for).

EG 2010

Recognize this website? EG’s website of 2010 resembles a lot of what we see with SK Gaming today. Clutter. I see a very useful storage space for everything Team EG related, but I don’t see anything more important than another.

If we look at EG’s website now, they keep things separated and clear-cut: Facebook, Twitter (and their players’ twitters) and Youtube to promote and push unique content that they can produce. News articles relating to their players and events are website-worthy. A concise description of their division teams and an isolated area for their sponsors really catches the eye on what matters and helps retain information better for the visitor. Team Liquid and Reddit are used to announce important events and happenings, funneling the community towards their website. Events and webshows (OneMoreGame.tv – though not necessarily “EG”, but closely associated by involvement) such as the EGMCSL, which has its own separate site (http://mcsl.evilgeniuses.net/), are all ways to divert and separate viewership to better evaluate what is worth continuing.

A proper system of promotion, redirection and dedication to your outlets are important to maintain a functioning site and its social media outlets. People remember where to go so long as there is a reason to and it’s repetitively done. Consistency and proper categorization of content is the key here and this is where TeamLiquidPro.com’s sections work. TeamLiquid is firm on the separation of community and their team content. Everything related to the team is kept in one area with major news, roster changes or sponsorships are announced to the community (as per all relevant news in the scene). What TL does with their team is keen on interactivity with the community (replay releases, interviews & feeds of their posts on the popular community forums) and constantly kept up-to-date by one magical being: Alex Schieferdecker (user: tree.hugger). News and the archives are found on one tab, replays on another, VODs from various youtube channels of event organizations on another page. While you can find this on nearly any other website, the site is organized with unambiguous terms and labels. As basic as this appears, on other sites we see terms used to encompass all of an area, but only be used partially. On Complexity’s website, there is an area for Downloads and another area for Media, but there is also an area for galleries and streams. All of this should be titled under one specific name and page. SK Gaming also likes to add one too many tabs for similar things: News, Features and Blogs all on the top bar of the front page for reading material. Videos, Albums, Files for Media and downloadable material.  Blogs, Groups, Community, Forums for Community related aspects and so on and so forth. You can see these on other sites like Fnatic who have a separate page for everything, but all of everything on their front page as well (not as bad as Col. or SK Gaming).

Presentation is everything and despite how reputable teams are within our scene based on their history, achievements and roster, their website fails to emphasize their strongest traits. Sponsors and fans want to see what they know their team best, the goal is to know what it is, isolate it and spruce it up to a degree that retains its impression on first-time visitors and has returning fans feeling proud.

eSports is not a Sport

Whenever I read other editorials from other writers, I always check to see one thing: Are they going to compare their idea and issues with eSports to the success of professional national mainstream athletic sports? In some cases, they do, in others; they’ve come to approach eSports more as a spectacle or something similar as WWF or UFC. It’s more of an event than an actual sport. Overall, I feel that comparing eSports to professional mainstream sports can be a poor perspective that ultimately narrows potential and shapes it to be something it cannot feasibly become (but may be something even more).

In some parts, eSports is just like Sports. Forbes and Dustin Browder took the words right out of my mouth:

“These guys are athletes. There’s physical and mental conditioning to it. These guys are, in many cases, playing 12 hours a day to prepare for these matches, or even just constantly. These guys are training as hard as a regular athlete would to train for these things. They have to have the dedication and enthusiasm for it, and there’s a lot of coaching that goes on as well. A lot of these guys have coaches and are parts of teams. They create a culture of support around them so they can learn to master the game. What good are you if you can’t practice against somebody who’s great? So these guys create teams of people where they’re all really good, they practice against each other constantly, and they compete against other teams.

This allows them to create this sport atmosphere where they work as hard as any regular athlete, and try as hard. They have to have the psychology and mental endurance. You see these guys when they lose a match; they are crushed, just like an Olympic hopeful would be crushed if he didn’t make it. They’ve got to have the endurance to overcome that and say, “Yeah, I lost the biggest match of my career, but I’m not done. I’m going to come back and overcome this,” and sometimes they do. It’s just absolutely amazing the trials, tribulations, and challenges these guys face every day.”

(Dustin Browder interviewed by John Gaudiosi, Forbes, 2013)

In truth, the game(s) and the competitors who dedicate their lives to entertain us, the spectators, are athletes. Perhaps not physically from head-to-toe but their dedication, work and practice ethics, and approach to the game is comparable to that of sports. They are participants of a very competitive game and play for their careers, to remain an emphasized competitor ahead of the strategic curve. These acknowledgements lead me to understand the subculture of eSports on a three-level system (granted, this is a simplified model where we ignore a lot of involved parties, especially on the business end):

Three levels of E-Sports[Click to Enlarge]

The three levels are nearly all dependent on the community and drive. Both the games and Pro Gamers are on the core circle of Competitive Gaming: competitive gaming being without the spectators or much of a news media following. Essentially, it’s just the game, the players and the small community who were active or involved in the organizing of competitions. As we step further out into the second-level, we start introducing the large following of communities such as Team Liquid, the sub-reddits as well as large-scale events to connect further these online communities into a gaming expo-like setting.

This is eSports. eSports is a spectacle to dress and curtain the core of the game and competition. The atmosphere is what is the most appealing for events such as IGN’s Pro League, North-American Star League finals and Major League Gaming which helps add flair and life to something that occurs within computer systems. The roaring fans and the enthusiastic and excited commentators are areas that help emphasize and improve the excitement of what goes in the game. These elements are found within mainstream sports and are why we title competitive gaming as eSports.

eSports Population Activity is an overview of how popular, active and worthwhile is eSports for these companies. It takes into account of the core game, its active teams and Pro Gamers, leagues and events as well as growth of community websites. I titled EPA as a global measurement to help identify just how popular and strong this subcultures growth is. For some games such as Tribes: Ascend and Street Fighter x Tekken, their EPA has been greatly reduced despite numerous attempts at trying to improve it (this could be for a variety of issues). Team Fortress 2, also a popular competitive game, is not as popularly viewed as Counter-Strike for other reasons. Their EPA is low and thus perhaps why companies aim to not acknowledge, improve or work towards changing that (because it isn’t realistically feasible for the company’s resources to devote towards or maybe because the company sees other more profitable ways to take advantage of their video-game product).

We call competitive gaming “eSports” because it summarizes and eases outsiders into the idea of e-athletes. Even if someone had no idea what playing video-games at a competitive level was or what it entailed, these tournament events are gaming expositions that help show the appeal of watching someone do something better than you (better technique, strategy, approach, etc). The importance of the atmosphere mimicking that of Football stadiums or Hockey rinks is the ultimate goal and titling eSports as a sport helps push the idea further (sports is a subject nearly everyone can identify, understand and easily associate the interest of it).

So why isn’t eSports a sport? You have the athletes and you have the mimicked atmosphere (just on a smaller scale). What prevents it from being that of sports? Because the game changes. The core game mechanics improve, change, and are biased towards one side or another. In StarCraft, you have three asymmetrical races that have their pros and cons, in ARTS games such as Dota, you have a multitude of heros that interact with one another differently. For FPS games, a variety of guns also means countless approaches towards taking down your opponent. These varied factors help keep the game fresh, new and entertaining. It displays unlimited possibilities that surpass that of sports on a basic ruled level.

Because video-game(s) can change so much, be improved and become visually stunning, the possibilities to innovate it makes it better than mainstream sports. The way these games are accessed and the tools used to better spectate each match and provide insightful information for viewers and commentators alike surpass that of mainstream sports.

However, the level of understanding for E-Sport games requires a little bit more. When I wrote my article “What Makes an E-Sport”, I noted the importance of being able to demonstrate skill and add thrill for the spectator within a game:

“It must be thrilling to watch. Despite the limitations of development in the past, games such as StarCraft: Brood War, Counter-Strike: 1.6, Quake 3 and DotA were still exciting to watch. Excitement is key to an E-Sport and that excitement must be both innate as well as injected from the viewer’s perspective. Some games are less challenged by this first point than others. Fighting games for example are much easier to showcase and spectacular to watch than first-person shooters.”

The reality is that eSports will always be a “you’re either in or you’re out” sort of pond and because most current adults have grown being out of video-games or not as competitively involved with it, most are definitely out. However, as the digital age encompasses more generations and old values start to shrink, the accessibility and acceptance of video-games and potentially E-Sports is bound to expand.

One area we did ignore in this piece is the relationship of sports with the NFL in comparison to that of Blizzard, RIOT and Valve who need to prioritize both the growth of this subculture as well as maintain their dedication to what really sells and adds value to these products. Because E-Sports relies on the products of gaming development companies, not all changes could be interpreted as needed or beneficial for the scene. It’s a difficult thing for gaming companies who aim to really maintain their devotion to E-Sports, but also towards their varying fans. This was discussed a bit in my article “The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems” but could definitely be further looked into.

To summarize, eSports is not necessarily sports, but is an accurate term to help the general public understand what eSports composes of. I designated it to be more like the WWF and UFC because of how new these competitions are as well as the fact that it aims to both entertain and compete. Video-games are entertainment and eSports also needs to be entertaining to maintain its niche audience interest. How this interest be reinvented can only be told as more investments flow into the idea and as more game development companies become involved or determined to sell their game as an E-Sport.