Esports Success – Structure over Content
This may come off as a little bizarre, but I recently snuck down the rabbit hole of lesser-known esports leagues. It happened quite innocently. In a flash, I transitioned from watching MSI to watching obscure Evolve tournament footage and the World of Warcraft Mythic Dungeon Invitational. Having played both games, I found myself incredibly bored by the footage which was presented to me and that felt quite odd.
Why couldn’t I enjoy the professional performances put on display? When it comes to Esports, the league infrastructure matters much more than the game itself. That’s not to say that content isn’t important, only that it’s only appreciated as much as the structure allows. If you’ve got a fantastic game and a terrible league, you’re going to have a bad time.
Evolve and its Ambition
Evolve first introduced an observer mode in March 2015, attempting to ramp up towards esports showings. Many were skeptical about how the game would translate to a competitive setting, and whether it would be satisfying to watch. What fans of the game got was a tournament at PAX East 2015. While the teams performed well, there was something ‘off’ about the whole tournament that merits examination.
Casters seemed to have little knowledge about the game, and most of their time was spent explaining concepts of the game which should have been familiar to fans of the game. It became increasingly clear that the tournament put greater emphasis on salvaging the game’s sales than putting pro performances on display. Teams also had no clear organization, apart from a shared name. No jerseys, even simple ones, defined them within the organization. While that last point can be credited to the game’s nascent esports presence, it really deflated the whole performance as a whole. However, as the successful esports leagues can attest, the habit does make the monk. The league’s structure is communicated in many ways to the audience, and team uniformity and dress codes for participants is only one aspect of that ‘facade’.
2K could have waited until the game had a successful following, and capitalize on it with a professional league. Instead, Evolve ran out of the gates gun blazing and was ultimately consumed by its ambition.
Overwatch, the Example to Follow
To illustrate my point, allow me to bring up the Overwatch League. As of now, the league operates on a plane of its own. The related App for phones is only one key part of Blizzard’s puzzle. The studio is lucky in that they could invest the money and time to create a professional league. But Overwatch wasn’t always graced with such a platform. Early Esport competitions for the game were quite wonky, before the establishment of the league. Observers controlled cameras manually with little practice. This meant that the action was often difficult to follow. However great the improvements Blizzard has done to this formula, the current app which complements the Overwatch League is its crowning jewel.
The app allows you to set up reminders for games you really want to watch and provides you with a fluid means of obtaining standings and stats for teams and individual players. Due to Blizzard’s budget, and trademark style, the app also has an inherent ‘polish’ which has come to be associated with the studio’s products. As a package, the Overwatch league conveys a professional aesthetic and seamless experience.
Blizzard’s other titan, a whole different game
And this last point really highlights how inherently difficult it is to convert certain games to an esports scene. Evolve failed to get off the ground because of multiple reasons, but it’s format as a squad-based FPS v. single player-controlled monster really didn’t help. Consider that while teams were composed of four players, only one of these players could control the monster when it was their turn to do so. There is an inherent flaw then, in converting the gameplay to a stage. Overwatch suffered a similar lack of ability to convey action to the audience. Over time, however, Blizzard invested in a fluid experience for the audience and matched it with professional casting and analysis.
In esports, the manner in which information is conveyed makes or breaks a league. It is about converting a gameplay experience, which many viewers have already partaken in, into a relatable form of media.
The recent Mythic dungeon invitational hosted by Blizzard tell a wholly different story. The gameplay is interesting, that’s for certain. Watching teams of professional WoW players run through mythic dungeons in record times is actually quite close to speedrun footage. But the UI was it’s the biggest flaw this year. While the commentators, both Pro WoW players, had sufficient knowledge about the game. The gameplay itself was near invisible, marred by a clutter of UI and banners that were far bigger than necessary. While the professional aesthetic was prioritized, the game itself fell by the wayside. Leagues would always do well to remember WHY viewers watch the games in the first place.
A Hard Climb
Why do all these things matter, in the greater scheme of things? First off, because leagues are created for the fans, not only to sell the game. A nascent league will always look to push the brand, but it can’t come at the cost of featuring play which will be impressive to the average player. Witnessing uncommon levels of skill is a major part of the excitement around esports.
Furthermore, the league’s structure will have a big impact on the liberties and assurances that professional players can be afforded. The necessary employment of a coach has not always been a condition within even the giant leagues, such as those of LoL. Yet these elements matter a lot if esports is to be taken seriously worldwide. How Leagues treat their players, and the supervision they invest in regulating their own industry will influence how successful they will be in the long run. The industry is still new but investing in players through non-exploitative contracts that secure them and their rights will ultimately transfer to their performance. If Leagues want pro players to be taken seriously by the crowd, they must do so first.
While Evolve was doomed to fail because of its lack of a player base, the abandonment of it’s “professional league”, mixed with its desperate casting made for a sorry sight. Overall, the community which still plays the game will do well to foster smaller, independent leagues and competitive environments. This highlights that League of Legends might have been the last game to be able to afford a ‘slow burn’ to Esports success. What do I mean by ‘slow burn’? Watch season one of the LCS, then season eight.
The professionalism we now associated with the LCS was lucky enough to have the time to develop. Such an opportunity seems hardly realistic today. Indeed, it is for that reason that Blizzard sets the example from now on. Instead of rushing the League out when the game was released, Blizzard took the time to create an independent body which could oversee and deliver a professional experience. The Overwatch League provides structure for its player, but also a dynamic and predictable experience for its viewers. Whether this entails that future esports leagues must rely on money to succeed is a whole different story.
One thing is certain, league structure matters more than the substance itself. If the industry wants to be taken seriously, it has to convey that confidence to the viewer. It must also make sure its players are treated with the respect they deserve.