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CGS: an autopsy

in glhf

First, before we dive into the main topic, a personal note: I’ve decided to revive this terribly neglected blog of mine, at least for a while. I figure it will help me keep my thoughts organized a little better in regards to the weekly show I do on TGBF-Radio under the same name as this blog (formerly ‘the eSports Blackboard’…a terrible name). I also hope that I can use this to ramp up into and begin to publicize a new gaming site that I have currently in development; it’s a concept I’ve had rolling around for a while now and I’m quite excited that I’m able to start work on it.

Enough there, time to dig in.

The major reason I decided to unearth this decomposing blog was mainly to publish this piece. The occurrence of major events taking place around gaming was the inspiration for the creation of this blog in the first place, so it’s only fitting that it be revived by the shock wave that’s been sent around gaming from the implosion of the Championship Gaming Series. Just to get everyone up to speed, the CGS billed itself as the ‘first true gaming league,’ with the gamers earning guaranteed salaries, and being assigned to teams with names attaching them to major cities around the US; when it was rolled out it seemed to have all the trappings of a legit sports league. While this perception persisted for many around the gaming world through the short two year existence of the CGS, I began to see serious faults with the CGS model maybe two weeks after its inception. The failures of the CGS can be attributed to recklessly ambitious and unsustainable expansion plans, combined with a willingness to merely mimic key attributes of successful sports leagues instead of truly implementing them, and a failure to consider the link between a sports league and the culture it resides in. It is the following list of critical failures of the CGS model that led to its lack of success and its shutdown yesterday:

  1. Teams had no real connection to the cities they were said to represent in their names.
  2. The lack of division between the television production and the league itself compromised the league.
  3. The mashing together of team games and individual games into a unified, points-driven format has no parallel in sports, and is confusing to both enthusiasts and casual spectators.
  4. The lack of diversity in ownership of teams was serious trouble in the long-term.
  5. The teams had zero viability as independent businesses outside the television production.
  6. Rapid expansion to 16 teams worldwide in the first year is straight lunacy.
  7. Considerations of culture and mainstream acceptance of a gaming league presented at such a level were either ignored or unexamined.

All these points seem to reference each other, I realize, but when all piled up they all point to the last point: CULTURE. It all comes down to that – sports and culture are inexorably linked, and the growth of both a sport and the culture that embraces it is a process that must be given time to develop and must be carefully balanced against each other. A sport cannot grow at a faster rate than cultural acceptance allows – a sort of cultural demand must exist for a sport in order for it to flourish. So, while I’ve tried to organize these points in some sort of progressive manner, this piece may seem to be a bit circular at times. To be frank, the these faults were so glaringly obvious that the closing of the CGS was no surprise to me, and also makes me wonder, that with such a massive budget behind this endeavor, how the leadership could let it fail in so many respects.

1. Teams had no real connection to the cities they were said to represent in their names.

This is the first of many half-baked practices that we’ll examine here; the link between a team and its host city is so fundamental to the business of sports that I can’t understand how it could have been overlooked. City-based sports franchises work because the team has an actual presence within that city. The Chicago Bears play half their games in Chicago so their fan base can come and see them in person, they have sponsors that are based locally in Chicago, and they take care to involve themselves with community-building programs alongside local charities and businesses. The Chicago Bears can include ‘Chicago’ in their name because they truly are a part of the city.

When the CGS first came about I was still living in Chicago, on the north side, in Rogers Park. I saw there was a team announced for Chicago, so I was curious where they were going to be playing and when the first season would start so I might take an opportunity to go spectate a home game and see things go down firsthand. I just naturally assumed that a team named ‘Chicago Chimera’ would be playing in Chicago. I was wrong – all matches would be played on a sound stage in California.

That cheapened the league immediately. They severely underestimated the casual viewer they planned to drag in – simply playing a highlight reel of popular tourist spots while a commentator rambles on about the city does not in any way link the teams to their supposed home cities for any engaged viewer. Maybe the channel surfer will gloss it over, but anybody who spent anytime following the league would realize these city associations meant precisely nothing.

The reason for this is understandable, to a point. The logistics and cost of having teams travel around the country to play their matches, as well as transporting HD camera equipment from location to location was probably a bit too much to stomach, and shooting everything at the same studio over the course of two months was a reasonable cost-cutting measure. At the same time they were also cutting down the legitimacy of their league, and if they would have been a bit more creative they may have found some ways around this issue. (Of course, I have some thoughts on this, they will be included in my next posting.)

2. The lack of division between the television production and the league itself compromised the league.

The utter failure that was the XFL illustrates this point most painfully: a sports league (or ‘property’ as was the word used by the CGS Commissioner) that emphasizes the glitz, special effects, big hits, and the small details over the real meat and potatoes of the sport will crash and burn. The XFL was the bastard lovechild of professional wrestling and American football, born into existence by NBC and the World Wrestling Federation. It pushed silicone stuffed cheerleaders to the forefront and turned the relatively regimented and regulated game of football into a no-holds-barred Roman-gladiator bloodsport. In the XFL the advancement of the sport was not the primary concern, rather all this was to fuel a television production. As a result, the public didn’t bite and showed no interest, in fact an airing of an XFL game at one time held the record for the lowest rated show on a major network for 6 years.

We see the same syndrome in the CGS, where there was no division between the television production and the league – they were one and the same. The games and formats were watered down in order to suit the needs of the television production – when it should have been the other way around. This had far-reaching effects in the scene, particularly in CSS, where everyone basically started playing with the truncated format, changing gameplay style significantly and doing away with the pistol round, and was done under the banner of ‘playing like the pros.’ The damage is done and as a result I think the CSS community has been dealt a blow that it won’t recover from until Valve releases a completely new version of Counter-strike.

Again, the mainstream viewer has been underestimated. The sports fan doesn’t want a cheap plastic version of a sport – they want the authentic article, the real McCoy. This is why the XFL failed, if more football was going to be made available for consumption, people wanted more of the NFL, not a clown car knockoff. This is why the CGS gained very little mainstream attention, it wasn’t truly authentic gaming, it was instead an over hyped loosely scripted game show being made to look like a legitimate sports league. ESPN’s Madden Challenge is an example of how to do a gaming series show properly where the competition and the TV production are the same thing. They plucked people from the gaming community as they were, no useless teams or other contrived league constructs, and showcased them without a bulky fabricated league structure that doesn’t make sense (something I’ll expand on in the next section) – nothing overdone, no multimillion dollar sets, just major focus on the competition and the gamers themselves.

If something like the CGS ever comes into existence again, it will have to exist as a wholly separate business interest outside of whatever media coverage it has if it will have a chance to survive, and must be economically viable with or without lots of television coverage. Otherwise you get what happened with the XFL and the CGS – when the television production goes down, so does the entire league.

3. The mashing together of team games and individual games into a unified, points-driven format has no parallel in sports, and is confusing to both enthusiasts and casual spectators.

This was the most frustrating part of the CGS‘ attempt to make itself look legitimate, because it was so awkward and forced. In an effort, I’m assuming, to make each episode of the show be more cohesive by pitting one team against another, but still showcasing all games that were played, each team was comprised of several units: one CSS team of five players, two Dead or Alive players (one male and one female – another ridiculous decision that I discuss in a previous post), two Forza Motosport players, and one FIFA player. These composite teams would square off against each other as a whole, with each unit playing the corresponding unit on the other team, and a winner would be determined through a convoluted points system that required a 90 second explanation during each episode.

This to me is the equivalent to taking a basketball team, and tacking on a 2x100 swimming relay team, a doubles tennis team, and a golfer to create one homogeneous ‘sports’ team. Then we pit those teams against other similarly comprised teams to find a national sports champion!

It’s really as ridiculous as it sounds, and yet this model was sold as a proper gaming league (and a lot in the gaming community are guilty of buying it wholeheartedly). The argument of trying to include all corners of the gaming world falls completely flat here – by trying to please everybody the CGS pleased nobody. The CGS may have had a shot if it started with one game and expanded from there – CS would have been the best choice, if not then a console-based team shooter – and then added more games along the way. But to steal a line from Offspring, as more games are expanded into – YOU GOTTA KEEP EM SEPARATED! Let each game (sport) have their own independent competition, and don’t tie the performance of a team playing a team game to an individual playing a solo game.

4. The lack of diversity in ownership of teams was serious trouble in the long-term.

There isn’t much to expand on for this point, but it’s worth pointing out – there was no diversity in team ownership. This is a crucial part of how sports franchises work – individual owners each owning no more than one team and looking after the financial interests of their own team while taking part in the larger business that the league is creates the unique blend of competition and dependence that makes the economics of sports work.

This is completely lost in a system where all teams are essentially owned and operated by the same entity. Since all players that signed on for this TV series weren’t signing to a specific team but the production as a whole, if later down the line a team proved to be too dominant for the good of the league (read: the ratings), I would not have been surprised at convenient ‘trades’ being made to level the competition back out. With the production in complete ownership over the entire operation, there would be nothing stopping the production messing around directly with the competition itself in the name of ratings. This is a weaker point in terms of my whole thesis, as the CGS was not around long enough for any such monkey business to become necessary, however it would have been a real concern in the long term if the CGS found success in the first few years, but found support waining as time went on.

This lack of team owners is really part of a larger problem, and that’s the next point:

5. The teams had zero viability as independent businesses outside the television production.

We saw this become apparent not even a few hours after the CGS made a posting about their shutdown: the general managers and the players were blindsided, and at the time of this posting are still trying to figure out they’re now going to do, out a job and without any funding for their teams.

This really ties together the first, second, and fourth points above. With all the teams living off a steady diet of television money, when that dried up these teams were hosed.

They’re now back in the same boat with the rest of the scene, where they have very little leverage to pull sponsorships that would offset the income lost from the CGS folding. If these teams would have actually operated in the cities they called home, they would have been able to find locally-based sponsorships from local businesses, like any local sports team does, from pee-wee baseball and football all the way up to the professional leagues. Instead, they along with the rest of gaming, have to struggle to find sponsors that fall into a very narrow category. A smaller business wouldn’t benefit from the widespread exposure that a gaming team would offer, but a larger corporations with nationwide operations may not see sponsorship of a gaming team as being able to bring them the kind of large exposure they expect their marketing dollars to bring them. So, it’s a very narrow band of mid-sized companies that also have a national reach that could benefit from sponsoring a gaming team, and in the end the economics of the whole thing would still probably not add up for the team.

The reasons for this were outlined and partially excused in the discussion of my first point. However, since the television production’s interests were served first and the teams never had an opportunity to build a presence within a city, they had no means of creating a business model for themselves that would ensure their survival if the production went under. With the teams completely dependent on the production, where the show went, so did the teams.

6. Rapid to 16 teams worldwide in the first year is straight lunacy.

No sport in history has managed such a rapid expansion. The CGS never stopped blowing their own horn about how fast they were building new teams in every corner of the world, and how unprecedented it was that they went from zero to global so quickly. This is ironic considering that the reason it was unprecedented is because no other sports organization has been stupid enough to attempt it.

Just because something is put on television doesn’t mean people will watch it, especially when it only airs on DirecTV and Sky and on a channel that doesn’t lay anywhere near heavily trafficked channels in the lineup. The CGS grew exponentially faster than the public demand for the CGS was growing. The effort to extend the operation to cover nearly the entire world during the second year of the league’s (read: show’s) existence blew through funds that should have been used to market the CGS better where it already was: in the States. Instead of creating a larger demand for their product in the US, instead they opted for a situation where nobody gave a crap about their product worldwide.

I apologize for breaking the academic tone I’ve tried to strike in this piece, but there’s really no way around getting personal here; whoever was making the decisions behind the direction of the league side of the CGS was wholly incompetent and a complete moron. Who am I to make such assertions? Some random blogger that has been able to dissect the failure of the CGS completely from the outside…that’s all.

7. Considerations of culture and mainstream acceptance of a gaming league presented at such a level were either ignored or unexamined.

All the previous points tie into this one: whoever was at the top realized far too late that they pushed ‘an idea whose time came too early.’ A nice try at sugar coating a turd; the CGS was not ahead of it’s time, it was fundamentally flawed. The existing culture of gaming and the formats that were widely used and time-tested were watered down, altered, and contorted to supposedly be more digestible for a mainstream audience; instead what resulted was a contrived mess that has no parallel in professional sports. The economics of team sports franchises were ignored in most respects and merely mimicked in other respects, such as appointing general managers and naming teams after cities and regions they have no concrete connection with, leaving the teams hung out to dry with no economic viability outside the television production.

When a new type of sport or competition comes into existence, it must always wait for larger cultural acceptance before it can grow larger itself. The CGS’s most critical fault, and the one that would have led to its eventual downfall, whether it was this year or next year or in five years, was that the CGS looked to push cultural acceptance of gaming as a professional sporting endeavor faster than it was possibly able to go. This was folly, a culture is an entity with countless dimensions and nuances, and a great deal of inertia. I use the term inertia because it is extremely hard for any one individual to exert their will or viewpoint on an entire culture, and it becomes even more complex and difficult to enact change in a culture or move it in a specific direction with every additional person that comprises it. Cultures are very heavy things and they tend to move slowly and deliberately. The CGS thought they could create a demand for something that the American culture wasn’t asking for yet, professional gaming on TV, and do it at a rate many times faster than cultural inertial will allow.

It’s time for me to stop politely dancing around the following as I have this entire article: the Championship Gaming Series was not a professional gaming league, it was a reality television show. The gamers and general managers cannot be blamed for jumping at this opportunity to play games for money on television, but they were cast members on a television show, not really professional gamers, and the self-billed ‘World’s First True Gaming League’ was a joke. The CGS had all the bells and whistles, the television coverage, the flashy game-show-like sets, big name commentators (not going there), and a giant hype machine, and a sizable budget. What was missing was everything that makes a sports league…well…a sports league. Instead of building the foundations of a real professional gaming league, the CGS cut every corner possible, and took a league that was in no way ready to be thrust onto a national broadcast stage onto just that stage. It’s like building the top floor of a three story house, and propping it up on two floors of toothpicks and masking tape.

I hope it’s no longer astonishing to you that the CGS failed. Again, the only thing keeping my jaw agape is how the CGS expected to be successful carrying on as they were.

My next entry: how to build a proper professional gaming league, and what the CGS might have done differently to make their model actually work.