essays and pithy thoughts

Prize pools and diminishing returns

in glhf

Alternate title: philosophical charity should be required as a part of the Twitter TOS.

Second alternate title: fans don’t care about the prize pool.

I think there’s a lot to be said for carrying out market research via Twitter. You’ll get responses directly from people who are pretty well invested in what you’re doing; well invested enough at least that they’re following you.

The character limit forces people to get straight to the point. But it’s also a drawback; particularly if you’re trying to have a discussion and other parties try to undercut you based on semantics or some preconceived notion of what your opinion is.

A simple question, with what I thought was a very simple answer. My thoughts here don’t change regardless of what angle you view the question from; league, player, opinionated pundit, seasoned fan, or “what’s a pylon?”

Players enter tournaments to win money. If we had a scene – in any game – that had the sort of parity where any of the top twenty entrants had a legitimate shot at the title, then back-loading the entire payout to heavily reward the top couple few finishers might make a bit of sense. It might make more sense if there were more to the scene than just the big three, circuits that were more on a ‘minor league’ sort of level. But neither of those models actually reflect reality. The reality is that most players, at this stage in the game, are simply looking to earn enough to justify their time spent playing Starcraft. More players will be able to recognize a potential to do just that if compensation schedules are more evenly spread, rather than weighted towards a massively outsized payout for the grand champion. For players, unless you’re fully confident you’re the top dog, or you’re braindead, you’d rather see a schedule more evenly spread.

Leagues and circuits exist to make money. How do they do that? Provide a platform for competition that will attract good players, so you can put on good matches, which will attract spectators, which can then be converted to sponsorship dollars. Yes, a gross simplification, but good enough for this discussion. The line of reasoning in the paragraph above translates directly to the league’s approach to this question. Do I make the top two or three entrants really happy and screw the rest of em, or do I try to get as many participants a reasonable chunk of the pie as possible while still rewarding outstanding performance? At this point; where there are no ‘pro-am’ type circuits, or even the sanctioning mechanisms in place to create such divisions; where these upper tier leagues are actually the lower tier leagues as well; would $100,000 be better served as additional icing on the top prize, or distributed amongst twenty or thirty developing players? To me, this choice is obvious.

Now, about the fans. Let’s get something straight. Fans don’t give two shits about the relative amount of a prize that a champion or their favorite player might come away from a match with. The money involved is not why people watch sports. They watch because they enjoy the action the sport provides, and they’ve developed a vested interest in a player, a team, or the sport in general.

Would you watch a $20,580 Monopoly tournament? I’d guess not, because it’s boring shit. If it was bumped up to a million dollars, would you watch then? Does a ridiculously large prize pool add anything to the actual spectacle of the match itself? The answer is still no.

If big prize pools and television exposure were to actually result in the generation of new fans, then we would have seen an explosion of interest in Painkiller round about November of 2005. The empirical evidence behind claims that huge top prizes move the needle at all with existing fans or converting the uninitiated just isn’t there.

**In a sport like Starcraft, what separates a routine exhibition match from a hotly contested tournament match is the question of whether there is something significant on the line or not. It’s binary. Cranking up the money at stake to obscene heights will quickly run up against the law of diminishing returns. You can go from a $5 match, to a $5,000 match, to a $500,000 match, to a $5,000,000 match – at some point it will cease to matter how much more cash you pile on, neither player will have the capacity to play any harder or feel any more tension per dollar. There’s a threshold where the size of the prize pool loses meaning, and it has very little meaning at all for any spectator in the first place.

As a spectator, I’m only concerned with what I’m going to get out of watching a match, and the fact that one shmuck or the other is going to come out $10 or $10 million richer doesn’t effect it. Fans care about the prize pool insofar as it gets their favorite players, or at least some good players, to participate, so that they can watch good matches.

Again, to me, a simple question with a simple answer; but this generated some discussion on the Twitter. I’m including it below; because in the end, I’m not interested in being right all the time, but rather in trying to have an debate in earnest. This is as difficult to do over Twitter as it is to do with folks who attempt to define your perspective as narrow and incomplete…hence the post.

Yea I know, weird double-mention.