…lies in what fans are actually fans of, besides the sport in general. This difference creates the difference in business models. In solo sports, fans follow their favorite player. In team sports, most fans keep their loyalties with their favorite team, even though players come and go over time. Through examination of this key distinction, we can arrive at the root cause of team gaming’s recent floundering in the States, and the reason why solo games such as Street Fighter and Starcraft are enjoying massive growth, based on the way each game’s scene is structured. The fact they’re the same is the problem, and it’s team games that are furthest out of alignment with the reality of professional sports.
In solo sports, the players themselves are the top-level competitive units. In solo sports, fans follow their favorite players. With the exception of team-oriented competitions in solo sports, like the Ryder Cup in golf or the Davis Cup in tennis, players play for themselves. As such, they rely on themselves to get to tournaments, and their immediate compensation is tied directly to their performance in tournaments, week-to-week. The tournaments themselves also typically operate independently of each other, and take place on an annual basis in roughly the same location every year, creating that critical factor of geographical continuity that the players themselves can’t provide. In some larger solo sports, professional-level tournaments can band together under the umbrella of a ‘tour’ or ‘circuit’ to provide a thread of continuity across each annual run of tournaments.
The solo sport structure is one where each player is in a strictly adversarial relationship with all other players, and rely on prize money and endorsement deals to make it work for them. The thread of cooperation between players and tournaments is basically limited to prize money and any appearance fees that tournaments might give top players to get a commitment to show up. This works because there’s simply no other way to construct a solo sport that would still make for a cohesive business model. A solo sport league where there was a finite number of players, each assigned to a specific city, competing in a home-away structure, is simply contrived and doesn’t make a lick of sense for anybody. (Looking at you, Championship Gaming Series…)
In team sports, the teams are the top-level competitive units, and act as the primary economic engines of their sport. In team sports, fans follow their favorite teams. While the more devoted fans of a sport may also have their favorite players as well, and the particularly insane fans participate in such inane activities as fantasy leagues, fan loyalty is the primary fuel of a team’s economic success, and the team’s main product is the home game. I can’t stress this enough: sports teams earn their money from hosting matches in their home town. The source of a team’s revenue is their ability to sell tickets to home games and procure sponsorships from local businesses. While each league is configured a bit differently in regards to revenue sharing, this is the essence of how teams make money The league is a competition-based co-op of sorts, a scaffolding that allows teams to prosper together by cooperating to produce a matchplay product for fans, while also making sure the playing field is fair and level for all teams.
By taking up a well defined operating area, teams provide that critical geographical continuity that the tournaments provide in solo sports. In other words, the teams in team sports are the gaming equivalent of events, in and of themselves. Since it not only makes no competitive sense to have teams travel halfway across the country or more to participate in every major opportunity to compete, but it also makes no economic sense as well, you won’t see a single (successful) team sport operate in the manner that team gaming does.
Players are also a very distinct group from the teams themselves. This is both for economic and competitive reasons. Since players are employees of teams, and ownership of teams stays separate from players, it allows players to move between teams without damaging the competitive continuity of the league. In every major team sport, no team’s roster looks exactly the same from one season to the next, however this matters very little to most fans – their loyalties lie with their favorite (and typically hometown) team, rather than with a specific set of players. This allows for a natural ebb and flow to rosters without having to start from square one every time large roster changes occur.
Such a structure takes the fiscal risk of managing a team away from the players. And while the team owners stand to make the most money and profit directly from the operations of their team, they’re also to expected to shoulder the risk of running the team and all the expenses that team operation comes with. These expenses are kept to a minimum since travel is kept to a minimum, and the revenue model is predictable and reliable since it’s based on sales and local sponsorship deals, instead of prize money. Players are paid more on past performance and projected future performance rather than immediate performance; a team can go on a big losing streak and players will still get paid regardless.
This is all because the matches played are the product being sold to fans, and players and teams are equal partners in the production of that product. Tournament circuits don’t exist because they don’t make sense for anybody.
Solo games are flourishing because their scenes operate properly. Team games aren’t because they’re trying to operate like solo games.
This week I plan to attempt some analysis on how team gaming can get from where it is, to where it should be, in order to operate in a manner that can actually make money. It’s possible that MLG can make changes for the better, and actually live up to its moniker. It’s also possible that something better can take its place. What I’m not entirely sure about is whether team gaming has a chance in hell until a solo game makes it really big; at this point, I’m not sure that team games don’t need a solo game to act as an ambassador to the mainstream before team gaming has a chance at legitimacy.