A Eulogy for Esports

The usual course of action when someone opens an article like this is to hearken back to their fondest memory. In my case, when it comes to esports, I don’t have a singular fond memory that makes me go “That’s it. That’s when I knew it’d be a big”. Rather, I have a pick-up truck worth of memories where I recall how things happened and the stories associated with them. I remember watching EVO Moment #37, not really understanding why it was a big deal but getting hype anyways. I remember watching pro Starcraft and getting frustrated when I didn’t have the dexterity or the APM to play it on a professional level. I remember the hype and memes surrounding the MLG circuit with Halo and everyone scrambling to throw together a team for an online tournament.

It makes me sad that all of that is gone.

Prime Time Entertainment

I’ll be blunt that I was never really invested in the new wave of esports. Sure, I watch Worlds and see what’s happening at The International but the drive to remain current and up-to-date is gone for me. I could argue that I outgrew esports but when you have journalists, players and people who are decades older than I am, it’s not a strong argument. What really changed my point-of-view on the subject is remembering part of why I loved old esports: It was an untamed wilderness.

Back then, esports were an uncertain field. Things like vulgar language, fights and money matches were common. I’d compare it to something of an underground fight club, where you could only really catch these matches on the tail-end of a shaky recorded youtube compilation. When someone got demolished in a match, you could bet that they’d throw their controller and scream some horrible epithets about their opponent. These days, you’re lucky to get someone saying they’ll easily beat an enemy.

To me, the main problem with esports is the move towards widespread entertainment and consumption. A once-niche audience of seeing who was the best is now prime time entertainment for the masses. Games are designed to have esport scenes from the ground up, vying to be the next big part of the pantheon. In this way, esports has to move towards normalization and political-correctness. It’s not “right” to scream in an enemy’s face. It’s not “setting a good example” to mock and laugh at someone you beat in a perfect match.

This point could just be nostalgia. Someone looking back and saying that it wasn’t like what it used to be so it’s worse. That’s understandable.  After all, esports had to mature to reach a wider audience right?

Money and Politics

This is the part that can’t be disputed. Since the move, money has been pouring into esports like cake batter into a pan, covering every inch of it. Companies are increasing their hold over their games and forcing out both competition and people they do not desire. This isn’t ubiquitous to a single esport either. Every single game these days has this problem and will continue to have this problem.

These situations fall into two major fields that can be described with media: 1984 vs. Mad Max.

1984-style esports are your big organizations like Riot, Blizzard and so-on. These are the guys who own and dominate their game and crush out any ill-will. You will play by their rules or you won’t play at all. Coincidentally, these are also the places that are moving heavily toward franchising. It’s a move that holds skepticism as nothing of the sort has been attempted to such a large scale. This idea is an easy pill to swallow as well. Oh, the big bad corporation hates dissent and wants to establish a freaky utopia? Where do I sign up to overthrow them?

Mad Max is the esport that everyone likes to pretend is still “original” but can have just as many problems as the former. These types of games such as CS:GO are privy to a lack of regulation and a general disinterest from the publisher/creator. These are the places where seedy backroom deals take place. The places where players don’t get paid but don’t want to come forward. Match fixing, illegal gambling and more take over. The worst part is that most people chalk it up to a few bad eggs. A puddle of toxic waste on the path to greatness. This attitude, in my mind, will lead to an even worse situation than the former style of governing an esport.

The forced competition also has killed much of the comradery in gaming. Sure, you may not like the other game, but you didn’t care if your game was located in the same tournament convention. These days, companies seek to isolate their game further and further even with things like ESL and IEM. I’ve found that in speaking with friends, most focus on only one or two esports. They’re not interested in experimenting and expanding their horizons. They watch one game that they’ll defend to the death.

In esports, it feels like competition has hit a fever pitch. If you’re not in the spotlight all the time, you’re holding onto a dead game and that’s worse than death.

Fixing esports?

You can’t.

Perhaps I’m being cynical but I don’t see a world where esports goes back to its roots. It has had too much money pumped in, become too much of a mainstream thing, to fall back to the place where it began. This also isn’t something organizations or companies want to return to either. With all this money and advertising placed in esports, why would you ever bother going back to how it was? You can control every aspect or just collect revenue while you do very little to manage it. In either case, it’s a flat out success.

The future will also be made by those who grew up on these esports. People who watched the LCS or looked up starry-eyed at the Overwatch League. People who didn’t care much about the game DOTA but saw dollar signs when the prize pool flashed up. People care more about the roar of the crowd than being one of the best players in CS:GO. In an ironic twist, esports has fallen into becoming just any other sport. It has descended into that cauldron of easily consumable entertainment that you and the boys watch every Friday night to see whose team beats which opponent.

Consider this my eulogy for what esports was and why it just doesn’t hold my heart as it used to. Maybe one day I’ll find a game that captures me like Street Fighter III did or old Marvel vs. Capcom 2 videos did. Until then, I’ll consolidate myself to watching the twitter feed with whatever organization or company screws up next and the armchair backlash of people who have a quarter of the facts.

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The MOBA Scramble: Surviving Decline

If you saw Startale’s podcast which I frequent, you’ll have heard me talk about the “MOBA Decline” and how the genre has plateau’d. I feel this could use some background and why I feel this way, albeit some of this will be less raw and heavy facts and more so looking about to infer meaning.

King of the Ring

For just under a decade, MOBAs have been the most enormous and possibly profitable genre bubble to hit video games. League’s explosive success in 2009 followed by the arrival of DOTA2 and more caused a scramble to get into the MOBA industry. It harkens back to the days of World of Warcraft where the MMO caused the entire genre to explode, albeit nobody expected it to last forever. Just as the MMO slowly phased away, so too would MOBAs eventually die out.

Now, to their credit, MOBAs are a part of the free-to-play explosion that has rocked gaming harder than any scandal could. League of Legends still makes money hand-over-first despite being almost a decade old. In fact, the only game that comes close to it is…WoW. A game released in 2004. Granted, WoW has a subscription fee but the sheer money coming in still speaks volumes. Along with that, DOTA2 is still the most played Steam game of the year and regularly smashes the prize pool record from each previous international.

You’d assume that there is nowhere but up, right?

The Scramble

Well, not quite.

If I had to put it to a single thing, I’d say the advent of the “hero shooter” (A FPS game with MOBA-esque mechanics like abilities and ultimates) has caused the biggest alarm for this genre. A genre that erases some of the biggest complaints people have about MOBAs such as long match times, steep learning curves and painfully annoying “It’s everyones fault but my own” mentalities. Sure, some of these still exist in hero shooters, but not to any degree they do in MOBA-style games.

It’s difficult to gain actual data but compare Google Trends for how often League and DOTA have been searched for. Since their peak around 2013, the games have slowly been looked for less and less. Sure, there are major tournament spikes, but people have either found their game or avoided the genre. New blood isn’t really coming into these games and they hold a static playerbase save for the occasional investigative “taste test” of the genre. Interesting enough, when I looked at DOTA2’s Playercount, the number spiked to nearly 14 million unique players. Yet according to Steam Charts (While they don’t tell the whole story), the average player count has dropped since December’s big announcement. What was December’s big announcement?

A Triage Situation

I’ll be blunt: Both games are attempting to triage the situation in their own unique way. While you could argue they’re just trying to keep both games “fresh”, reading between the lines shows more factual information that neither company would truly care to admit.

On League’s side, they’ve basically been making good on promises they made years ago: Replays and Practice Tools have come out alongside a new client, as well as increased bans for pro play.

For DOTA2, the 7.0 update includes a far-cleaner HUD, visual updates for heroes who have desperately needed it, and new gameplay updates that speak more of more casual games than of DOTA2.

When you step back, the intentions are quite clear. League is pushing updates to entice their more hardcore fanbase while DOTA is making a push for the more casual fanbase. Both games are attempting to draw in fresh faces as well as re-incentivize those who may not have wanted to play the game.

But most of all, these updates come off the back of one major thing: Overwatch. Blizzard’s hero shooter has blasted all expectations and has become a worldwide phenomenon. For how long, nobody can say, but it’s more than a coincidence that this game explodes onto the scene and suddenly two industry titans suddenly make sweeping changes to appease the other side of the fence.

Death Knell?

For those who fear for the game you love: Relax. These aren’t going anywhere. MOBAs are far too large to up and die. It’s arguable that they won’t even truly die, just not be number one anymore. Building on this, it’s possible League/DOTA will forever exist as esports. Games we watch rather than play. They still pull in enormous numbers and both games are still considered the pinnacle of esport play along with Counter Strike.

But Overwatch was a wake-up call. They won’t be number one forever. You can’t get by with just what you have as your game gets older. There will be challengers to your playerbase and throne…and that has sparked a massive change-of-pace in both games. MOBAs still have plenty of life in them and we’re not going to see them rot away too fast…but the question is how long they’ll be at the top as time goes on.

And that? I have no idea of.