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The Olympic model

in ESFI World, glhf

This post was first published at ESFIWorld.com.

If there’s one thread that ties together the vast majority of ‘professional gaming league’ ventures to date, it’s that they’ve adopted an Olympic structure as opposed to a self-contained league structure. The difference is not insignificant, and I feel that this may be the leading contributor to gaming’s state of arrested development both here in the States and abroad.

Distinctive features of the Olympic model include:

  • no permanent venues, instead the events require all comers to travel to a different location for each event
  • often operate on an international/global scale, possibly with national qualifiers
  • no permanent ties between the larger organizing body and the competitiors - you can be chosen as a ‘representative’ to compete for one event and be left out the next (top-down governance)
  • Hold competitions across many different sports simultaneously within the same event.
  • competitors are left to their own devices for funding. Some find sponsors, most don’t
  • prizes are generally optional. *The* Olympics obviously offer none; gaming’s equivalents generally do
  • The sanctioning body’s business model relies on it’s ability to attract attention and spectators to make money, competitors rely on their performance to either win prizes or increase recognition in their personal brand to attract sponsorship deals.

Compare this with distinctive features of a professional sports league:

  • exist not as an autonomous sanctioning body, but as an association of players or teams that put the sanctioning body into existence (bottom-up governance)
  • operate on a local and regional level
  • sanction and hold competitions around a single sport exclusively
  • team sports feature teams as permanent fixtures in cities, solo sports feature tournaments as permanent annual occurances.
  • While individual competitors in solo sports still generally rely on sponsorships and endorsements, players in team sports are under contract to play, and generally get paid win or lose.

While Olympic model competitions within gaming have served to get the ball rolling to this point, the scene at this point is full of entities competing with each other to establish themselves as the ‘olympics of esports’ while there’s a dearth of activity along an axis that actually looks and operates like professional sports. What we’re left with is a disjointed scene where gamers can’t make ends meet and are far too susceptible to abuse from the large Olympic-style entities, and the gamers end up subsidizing the revenues and profits of these entities by footing the bill for everything necessary to participate in such systems, such as travel and accomodations, with no assurances that they’ll ever break even.

Currently we have WCG, ESWC, ESL, MLG, and (to a much lesser extent) the ‘new’ CPL all jockeying for this position as the definitive global sanctioning body for all of esports. To my knowledge, the only entity that’s even thinking about developing local and regional ecosystems around a single esport – something that would look more like a true professional sport – is the ESL. As a result, the gaming scene is no closer than it was 10 years ago to the kind of stability it so desperately needs to start truly developing individual esports into something that can stand with professional physical sports.

Lifespans within ‘pro gaming’ last a few years, at best. Teams pop in and out of existence, and a team that was healthy and doing their fair share of winning one year, maybe even playing their players reasonable sums to play, can be gone the very next.

What the gaming scene needs is not yet another entity to pop up trying to execute the Olympic model, promising that they’re “going to do it right this time.” It doesn’t need larger and larger prize pots for the top few teams and players. What esports needs are structures in which players are offered stability, in which team esports are offered a structure that allows them to be viable businesses, and in which solo esports offer competitors offer structures in which they can compete without emptying their bank accounts.

When you get right down to it, there’s only room for one Olympic model; it would do everyone much more good, both gamers and tournament entities, if more focus was given to cultivating robust regional scenes rather than fighting to be top of the international heap.