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Centralization and gaming in the 00's

in glhf

Regular readers at this point will probably have realized that I spend a great deal of time researching and reflecting on the first decade of competitive gaming, trying to mine it for lessons we have (and haven’t) learned, and trying to figure out a proper direction from here. One of the major themes my musings seem to land on consistently is that of centralization.

But, what about good old-fashioned hype?

I used to think that the gaming bubble that culminated and burst with the CGS folding was mostly fueled by endless hype. I’ve found that gamers, just as professional athletes, tend to suffer from extreme grass-is-greener syndrome, and will happily pile on to each and every new bandwagon that comes rolling into town.

It’s hard to blame them when the potential for a paycheck is involved, but hardly any pause is ever taken to consider what buying into the hype means for the scene long-term. It’s almost the same thing as the subprime bubble on Wall Street; nobody gave a crap what all these tranches of bad loans meant for the global economy, the only thing that mattered is that they were all the rage that month, and that everyone was making money trading them (supposedly).

Everyone bought into what the CPL was peddling because it was the only game in town, and the idea that we were participating in the creation of a new profession was not just enticing, it was downright sexy to a generation that hadn’t known a world before Mario. The WSVG came up on the scene in 2006 seemingly out of nowhere, armed with plenty of intrigue and hype – yea, they’ve got it all figured out this time, mainstream here we come – leaving the CPL hobbled without the Intel sponsorship that was their very lifeblood. Unfortunately the WSVG didn’t in fact have it all figured out and deflated just as fast as they came to be.

Adrift and slowly sinking, the American scene invested its hopes heavily in the CGS in 2007, essentially leaving all other competitive constructs to rot. Yea, the CGS has it all figured out this time, television coverage from the get-go, salaried players, etc. Large swaths of the top competitive scene were bought up wholesale, with little thought to what would happen if the CGS were ever to go belly-up – that was unthinkable – this was going to be too big a deal to possibly fail.

Everyone has their price

Strong gaming brands that had taken the better part of a decade to build were sold to the CGS and repackaged, putting price tags on years of gaming heritage out of fear of being left out of the party. Entirely new brands were invented from thin air to sit along side them, all tailored to fit within a contrived geographical construct and an even more hackneyed competition structure.

The scene willingly centralized itself in the CGS and abandoned all hope at self-determination. We’ve all seen Wayne’s World but failed to see the comparison here. Silence! The players have spoken, and they want a combine at the Playboy mansion! Consequences be damned, the CGS said ‘up, up, up!’ and everyone bought into it without even a thought to whether its model could actually be viable. And I mean everyone; from all the top Counter-strike teams, to racing gamers, to fighting gamers, to well-respected commentators, to team owners and sponsors. The sentiment was very simply that the train was leaving, and you’d better not think about it and just get on board.

I’m not trying to be malicious about this; I’m merely trying to point out what effect the CGS’s arrival had on the scene – all of a sudden whoosh you were either inside or outside, and nobody wanted to be outside the CGS, since there was to be nothing outside the CGS anymore. That this process took place over several weeks, as opposed to several decades or even years, says that the scene was nowhere near ready for the sort of exposure the CGS wished to bring to it, and that nobody in the scene was thinking further into the future than the following month, if that.

Things looked promsing at the start, as they usually do; slowly but surely problems crept up. The television side of things was cramping the competition’s integrity and in the process we learned what side’s interests were going to be served first. Murmurs of dissent amongst the ranks were increasingly ignored. But what could be done about it? Nothing – the CGS owned the teams, the CGS owned the players; the CGS ran the scene now, and indeed ran it straight into the ground in 2008.

Since the entire scene packed itself into CGS’s train, since there were no escape pods or alternative venues, the scene crashed when it crashed.

It was unavoidable, really.

I find the story of American gaming last decade to practically Shakespearian in nature, in that the very thing that allowed the scene to grow rapidly on a global scale is the same thing that made its decline that much more precipitous; in the roots of the scene’s success, its downfall can be found. I’m talking of the scene’s ability to grow collectively over the internet.

I know what you’re thinking: without the internet, there is no scene last decade! I’m not trying to suggest that gaming’s progress over the last ten years has been a net loss; gaming on a professional level is an idea that enjoys more widespread acceptance than it did at the turn of the century, and we owe that progress to the scene’s ability to organize globally over the internet, and to the major prize circuts that operated in that time, regardless of where the scene finds itself now. What I am arguing is that, in order to avoid the boom-bust cycles that were fueled by the intense centralization of the scene in its really early stages, we should instead consider other methods of growing gaming that don’t operate on an high-pitched international level. In order to make sure we don’t keep repeating history, we need to dig out the heart of what worked and what didn’t, and why.

The internet allowed gaming to leapfrog the slow, deliberate process of growing a new sport organically on a local level before attempting to take it larger. For most people interested in gaming competitively, chances are they were the only such individual within 10 or 20 miles. The ability to form teams over the internet and compete on a national and international level from the get-go was the thing that allowed a scene to exist in any capacity around 2000.

The implications of this were both important and largely ignored while circuits like the CPL really started to gain traction around 2004, and the scene, already monolithic with very little activity that wasn’t on a national level, found itself almost inexorably tied to the success or failure of the CPL. There was nothing else, no local activity to fall back to if this privately owned company started mismanaging its growing responsibility to the scene. This was fine for most, as there was no real opportunity for most gamers to participate in a local scene due to their own isolation anyway, and it was doubly fine as long as the prize money kept flowing. Most teams and players took for granted the notion that a plane ticket was necessary to participate in any sort of meaningful competition, and most teams were comfortable with losing money year after year – this is just how it was.

The result of all this was that the scene had no foundation. Instead of building a sustainable business around gaming, (if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors for a second) the scene was really more akin to a glider aloft on a strong updraft of prize money. What happens when that wind subsides?

Times have changed, yet we’re stuck in the same pattern.

Team gaming today still operates as if we were still operating under the same constraints as we were in 2000. The scene waits for the next big prize circuit to come around, and has basically used the WCG as the only reason to continue competing. Instead of taking the opportunity to build a proper foundation to the scene after the collapse of the CGS, most top level players evacuated the scene, seeing nobody else lining up to shovel money at them, and clearly not having the business sense needed to construct something that served their interests.

The parallels to be found on the console side of things are startling. MLG operates as a veritable monopoly, and is trying to expand it into the PC side through an alliance with Blizzard. In either case, PC or console, if you would like to compete offline, you either make it to an international level of play or nothing. We carry on with this as if it’s a good thing, as if the fact that the massive commitment needed in both money and effort just to be present in offline gaming will somehow spur growth. We carry on as if somehow, this time, the right people will be running the next big prize circuit, and that we’ll all get to live happily ever after.

The truth is such centralization and push towards high-profile international competition is about as far from the way sports begin their growth as you can possibly get. Soccer didn’t become the world’s sport overnight, it got there through a long process that started in the 1850s in London as a collegiate league cup that’s still running to this day. Baseball in the States didn’t start immediately as a nationwide professional league, it instead was sparked by a local craze in New York (around the same time that soccer was getting its start) that spawned several leagues, a merger of which eventually formed what we now know as the MLB.

There’s many similar stories in sports history; the common thread is that a localized spark of popularity in a sport acted as the foundation for growth within a sport’s scene. The reason for this wasn’t media exposure or excessive hype or cruise ships full of prize money – they simply made themselves a valued part of the fabric of their local culture first, and it spread organically from there. Lots of smaller regional organizations popped up, ensuring that the best interests of the sport were served through healthy competition. Models of sustainable income were built because of the local, not international, quality of the sport.

Localization, not globalization.

Teams as businesses, not prize winners.

If gaming is to succeed in the 10’s, this is what we need to embrace; else you may be reading this exact same post in 10 years.