Monday, February 18, 2013

The Lucky Ones

I've met a lot of gamers in my time in 'e-sports'. Some are in it for fun, a weekend hobby, a place to flex their competitive muscle. Others have this distinct glint in their eye. It's a shiny, wondrous speckle of hope that one day e-sports will sit next to real sports as a legitimate form of competition. An entertainment to be celebrated by the masses. It's likely they've grown up following real sports, supporting a team and baring witness to professional players in a stadium, enclosed by the sights and sounds of an audience tens of thousands strong. While we've seen similar spectacles in e-sports around the world for the better half of the last decade, our corner of the world has yet to come to fruition. In our small sphere, we're incredibly lucky to have a fistful of dedicated sponsors that are fueling our still strapping, young dream. It's important to recognise these companies as legitimate investors that are using their profits to inject money into their own prospective markets and work in direct contact with the people who are building that market from the ground up.
If we take rugby league and look under the surface, we can see that these teams have more money than they can spend. Inherent to the game is a market for players, in which teams will make bids for certain stars that will either win games or sell tickets. The scheme isn't as fleshed out or as open as systems in the States for basketball and baseball, but it's still very competitive. So much so that salary caps are placed on clubs to limit the amount of money paid to particular players in order to keep things humble and fair. With the pockets of sponsors and investors so deep that these restrictions are necessary, it's easy to understand how far e-sports has to go to be considered legitimate in Australia. With our small but powerful group of reliable sponsors, perhaps it's not critical to compare ourselves to these sports. Taking a look at the ethos of marketing within our scene and that of the nationally recognised can reveal that while we share the word, we aren't built the same.

Sponsors for football clubs are all about loyalty. They play on the locale of their teams in order to create an atmosphere around their brand that can be shared with the club. For instance, major sponsors for the North Queensland Cowboys are Toyota and XXXX. I'm not being facetious in drawing the connection between these two brands and the rural towns of North Queensland: they just might enjoy Toyota utes and XXXX beer. The sponsors are smart, they invest in their local area in order to create consumer loyalty. So, regardless of how well or poorly the North Queensland Cowboys do throughout the season, people will buy their goods just because they support the team through their best and worst. Almost in direct contrast, the primary sponsors of the Essendon Football Club are KIA, True Value Solar and wine company Wolf Blass. The difference is huge because the market is not the same.
"E-sport fan 2016?"
This marketing mentality does not compute with e-sports because our market is entirely the same. We're all gamers and our place of residence is the internet. This creates a highly competitive atmosphere where sponsors chase the teams and players that perform above all else. Overseas the distinction is obvious, heavyweights such as Evil Geniuses have the deepest pockets because their players are amongst the best in the world in each of their games. Some slack is cut for those who present well to their demographic, but over-all a bedding of skill and dedication allows for this slack to be given. Whilst this might create some sort of brand loyalty shared by teams and sponsors, it isn't at the same grade of traditional sports in Australia. With premier sponsors changing teams internationally frequently, perhaps the loyalty of gamers to their favourite teams' products is not an aspect that is critically measured. Exposure is the primary reason for companies to sponsor video-game teams and perhaps a change of scenery is just the thing to refresh exposure in a market that is, while growing, small and prone to over-saturation. Loyalty can be harvested but it is not crucial - instead it is performance that is critical.
The other world of sports that never really gets proper scrutiny is the Olympics. The marketing concepts used here are interesting as it is directly connected to a sense of nationalism. If a company sponsors an Australian Olympic team, the allure to their brand is that they support our country on a grass-roots level. People will purchase those products with a sub-conscious desire to support the country that they love. This is similar to football clubs except on an international scale. It's curious to me that Olympic sporting stars are highly respected in our community yet receive such little monetary incentive. In fact, if we take a look beneath the surface, a huge majority of Olympic competitors are hardly paid at all, and if they are, it can be compared to the best e-sports stars in our hemisphere.
The Australian swimming team of the London games had an incentive model introduced as their pay structure. Upon selection for the team, a payout of $10,000 was received. If you swam selection trials in the top three in the world, an extra $15,000 was paid. If you win gold, you can receive $35,000 for your troubles with the payment decreasing from there. Keep in mind that the Olympics is every four years, which means that if you want to be the best in the world and gain the maximum amount of money, you will need to practice in a regimented schedule for every part of those four years. So, if you are selected to represent Australia, swim in the top three in the world during your selections, and win gold, you have earned yourself a whopping $15,000 a year. The only Australian swimmers to win gold were the women's relay squad, who shared $80,000 between four of them. Divide that by four for the amount of years spent training, and you have a measly amount of money.
"C'mon Brad, you wanna get to MLG don't you!?"
Even worse off was the synchronised swimming team, who only received sponsorship for their swimming costumes and training equipment, and had to pose for a calendar in order to raise funds for their flights. Frustrating as it is, not one person will bat an eyelash upon hearing one's career is an Olympic athlete, however tell a person from the general public that you are a professional gamer and you'll be met with condescension. Yet, in our little world of e-sports that we've cultivated, players (and even whole teams) are flown overseas and interstate regularly for tournaments, have accommodation, uniforms, equipment and entry fees handed to them without question. We have sponsors in this scene that take care of the lucky ones who can experience a life resembling professional gaming - those sponsors want a healthy, smooth and functioning scene without drama and petty squabbling between players and teams.
This is why we are lucky. There are numerous real sports that do not share the same monetary blessings as we do. If we ever want to reach the standard of overseas e-sports, one of monumental events seen around the world, then we need to start recognising sponsors not as a badge to collect for your pro-gaming resume, but a primary investor in our future, and please remember, it's not your scene, it's ours.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cultivating Communities

The #SAVEHOTS activism has come and gone, though analysing it's effectiveness is difficult. The exact outcomes of vigorous conversation through various mediums is nebulous - it's a messed up incarnation of the chicken and egg conundrum. There's no doubt that Blizzard heard the doomsday calls and while specific suggestions were probably noted, a majority of the concerns voiced by the public were aspects of the release already announced, or hinted to, by the development team. When gauging how successful the campaign was, it's not necessary to focus on what suggestions made it through to the beta or even the release. The importance lies in the way our casuals and professionals alike actively reminded Blizzard that the community is one that isn't lying down and accepting food, that they are more than willing to bite the hand that feeds if they don't like what they are given.

The past few months were tumultuous. Both MOBAs stamped their dominance on the streaming sphere and gave the StarCraft 2 world a much needed wake-up call. To most e-sports fans, the life of competitive gaming began with StarCraft 2, in one way or another. I'm not looking to wistfully recant the history of e-sports since the rise and fall of Fatal1ty, but it's just one of those things that unless you're in your mid-to-late twenties, it's hard to explain to a younger generation of gaming fans what exactly has taken place.  There is a huge history before StarCraft 2, League of Legends and DOTA 2, and it's not one of complete separation.  Without going into specifics and scrutiny, in the StarCraft 2 world we're used to these themes - foreign Brood War was completely removed from the powerhouse that was the Korean professional gaming culture. This motif wasn't  shared with previous e-sport scenes. The big names in FPS were shared between Europe and America. The Europeans built a culture heavily invested in Counter-Strike, with America eventually revealing their brand of professional gaming with Quake, Halo and MLG. While there is some animosity between hardcore European shooter fans and the console culture of the United States, the titles could co-exist without exaggerated hatred. The casuals did not care, the very scope of competitive gaming events was enough to generate contentment, not contempt.

"So this is what not to do..."
When the statistics started to tip out of favour of StarCraft 2, the reaction was extreme. Sensationalist blog titles and responses that blurred the line between apocalyptic hysteria and trolling gave those statistics a prophet-like importance. Blame was pointed directly at Blizzard for it's lack of support of casuals. Balance is something that I do not want to discuss here, if the discussion of casuals is to be legitimate, then aspects of balance of the game are less important, as balancing lower-skilled players is near-impossible. It does, however, influence viewership and fan attainment. Evidence of better treatment by the other big companies has been provided, whether through free-to-play models, micro-transactions, funding for events or basic UI elements. The draw-card for casuals in Brood War seemed to be the UMS, which we now know as the Arcade. This aspect was further emphasized through seemingly pointless chat-room limitations in 2.0 and lack of clan support. All these things, while indeed poignant in representing a lack of thorough planning by Blizzard, are futile in suggestions of the be-all and end-all of community growth. The truth of the matter is that when we look back to communities past, no matter what game you came from, it's through rose-coloured glasses.

There are several members in our Australian e-sports community who are from Bored Aussie, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Call of Duty 1 & 2 and Counter-Strike, all of which never had inherent user interfaces to call home. Each and every competitive game relied on IRC channels and forums, not an integrated clan and chat system, or even official ladder or tournament support. Size and scope of the community was never a primary focus, it was the competition. Modders thrived on making the competitive game as effective and engaging as possible, not as casual and addictive as can be. To say that times have changed is redundant, as now the competition between developers is to create the most user-friendly and accommodating UI in order to retain casual-gamer statistics. What I'm getting at is that while chat-rooms and clan support are nice, gamers are going to play the game they feel speaks to their competitive nature best. This is the environment where online gaming communities flourish.

Even if we take a look at the less-competitive formats of online entertainment available at present, the community aspect is slippery to grasp. World of Warcraft has been reduced to a watered-down version of itself, not just in the game-play, but in the over-all way in which players connect. Finding an instance group is completely automated - no user interaction required. Raids are simpler, meaning the epic forty-man grind-fest that took a whole night of planning, gathering and execution is long-gone. It is now an RPG with MMO elements. This is a franchise that has focused on casuals too much, creating an interface of one-two-three clicks and you're done. Human interaction is now second to immediate gratification. In turn it has lost it's competitive spirit it worked so hard to achieve - one that pitted groups of nerds against each other for the title of most tight-knit, well-oiled machine of MMO experience.

"Wow, these new HD texutres are... oh god..."

This has created a hole in the market that New Zealand developers Grinding Gear Games have emphatically filled. Path of Exile has taken what Blizzard removed from titles such as World of Warcraft and Diablo 3 and created something special. Game-play elements aside, human interaction is paramount to getting anywhere. With it's competitors focusing on Auction Houses and automated group systems, Path of Exile has none of these features, not even gold. Legitimate barter systems and town square trading reminiscent of Diablo 2 make for an experience that I haven't had for quite some time. Finding a group requires advertisement on noticeboards, and trading is completely up to the buyer and seller, no suggested prices or professional Auction House campers. This company has treated it's audience like adults and the chat channels reflect this.

The retaining of casuals is something that each e-sports title is going to have to figure out on it's own in direct collaboration with it's prospective audience. If the StarCraft 2 scene cannot accept a smaller-yet-loyal fan-base, then the segregation from other scenes it has felt over the past months is going to strengthen. Perhaps harkening larger chat-channels, clan functions and a better Arcade system as the saving grace of the StarCraft 2 casuals is hasty. With online communities no longer relying on IRC, instead using forum-based websites as a base for human-interaction is something that developers need to take a look at. Perhaps a combined effort from the leaders of those communities and Blizzard will unearth a way to integrate the forums and chat-boxes of communities around the world directly with the StarCraft 2 interface. More chat-channels in different locations is not the answer, as we are all here to experience the game together, not separately. If the balance, competitive spirit and community are there, investors will stay and pro-gamers will survive.