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Oversaturation

in glhf

This topic has gained some steam as of late; this is far from the only mention I’ve seen of it, it was just the most convenient to quote, and some of the ensuing conversation was useful (in other words, click through on that tweet). I also think this topic deserves a bit of a breakdown, as it’s almost universally been mentioned with an implied obviousness and an implied negative bend; that it’s on the whole a bad thing that needs some sort of immediate correction.

But first, are we actually over-saturated?

In the sense that there is now far too much content being produced that it’s impossible for any one person to keep up with it all, sure, we’re well past that point. I’d say we’ve been past it for about a year now, shortly after the DIY streaming boom really started to pick up pace, and more players and teams moved streaming to a central place in their overall business strategy.

Thus, at it’s core, we’re discussing a simple issue of supply and demand. More specifically, we have found that increasing the supply of content has no effect on the demand for the same.

The saturation

I think it can be assumed that the overall demand for esports content stays fixed relative to the total audience size; while it may vary in response to specific large tournaments rolling around, over extended periods of time I think the total appetite for content finds a distinct value that only increases by the addition of new audience members, a value that can be described in viewer hours. Whether it’s specifically three hours, thirty hours, or something in between per person per week isn’t particularly important for this thought experiment, only that trying to get the existing audience to consume more, more, more, more has rapidly diminishing returns.

So, before the arrival of all the conditions that make for widespread ability to stream (processors that can crunch a game and encode simultaneously, simple streaming software, affordable broadband connections with greater than 2mbps upload, and a free-to-stream platform on which to distribute video), the barriers to entry for streaming esports content were quite high. This meant that if you had the resources to produce a video stream, gaining an audience was pretty easy. Even my own outlet, geared towards being ridiculous and entertaining over being serious, routinely filled our capacity of several thousand viewers in these conditions. With plenty of demand for content and only a few outlets able to fill it, choices were slim for viewers, and it was a perfectly reasonable task for a fan of esports in general to take in everything being produced.

Now, largely due to Twitch and XSplit, the ability to produce a stream is largely commoditized; anybody can do it on the cheap. This has resulted in an explosion of content that has far surpassed the demand for it. More players are streaming practice sessions, smaller tournaments can pretty easily add video coverage, and even the larger tournaments and leagues are streaming on a very agressive schedule. The result is that it’s no longer possible for any one esports fan to keep up with everything being produced, thus viewers have to begin making choices in what they want to watch and what they want to skip.

And if that’s what we’re basing our diagnosis of over-saturation on, we now need to look at the conclusion that it’s a problem we need to directly address.

The un-problem

The fact that it’s no longer enough to put up a stream of middling quality to attract a decent audience is really a good thing. That esports viewers have choices to make is a good thing. The notion that all streamers are more or less entitled to some sort of audience just by virtue of existing and producing content is being challenged, and it is definitely a good thing.

We’re never going to find ourselves in a situation where the demand for esports content is met perfectly by production, and that everyone producing content gets the audience they feel they deserve. It’s simply not feasible to coordinate a match between those two variables for any length of time, and the only way to address the issue directly would be to start placing limits on who can and cannot stream, and start rationing viewer hours, and that’s just a ridiculous thing to suggest.

And I’ll be frank about this: it’s really not possible to make wholesale complaints about content oversaturation being a problem we need to address, and not carry the implication that the creation of esports content needs to be regulated and controlled somehow. They’re two sides of the same coin.

That’s not to say that the assertion that we’re past a reasonable equilibrium between the demand for content and the supply of it is an incorrect assertion. It’s that this imbalance will create the conditions for self-correction, and I think the self-correction may have some positive effects over the next several years.

The positive deflation

It should result in a lift in the overall quality of content, as the audience won’t feel compelled to pull up sub-par shows to get their fix simply because it’s live and because esports. Streams and shows that aren’t cutting it won’t fall off immediately, but this is more a matter of attrition over time. Producers will either step things up to stay competitive with other shows to retain their audience; try to get innovative with different formats, topics, or methods of delivery to find or create new audiences; or just hang it up from lack of audience, concluding that it’s just not worth the time spent. This I think will be the primary force behind a return to equilbrium, and it’s a positive thing.

It should simliarly result in the emergence of some sort of pecking order amongst the several ‘major’ tournament circuits still jostling for dominance, particularly in the Starcraft scene, as growth there calms and there’s no longer a thirty-foot wave for everyone to ride on. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a good deal of the over-saturation people are feeling are due to existing tournaments and leagues massively out-producing the demand for tournament content as well. I think this also is a reflection of the audience seeing more or less the same group of players being featured in every last competition, and we’re running up against the audience’s capacity for what can only be described as a lack of variety between the events each circuit is putting on. At some point, both the players and the audience are going to start making choices towards which tournaments they’re going to play and watch, respectively.

I also suspect it should result in the emergence of more unique fanbases around particular games, with the notion of the general esports fan weakening as a demographic that can be effectively targeted. If there are several games each of which are producing enough content to easily fill the demand from a single individual fan, the more likely it may be that each individual fan will choose to spend most of their attention toward a single game while keeping a loose engagement with others, instead of trying to keep a good grip on everything going on as the esports ecosystem continues to expand. If this becomes the case, I see it as a massive positive, as it would naturally follow that leagues would shift to try and meet the needs of a single community more completely, instead of every event trying to shotgun esports as a whole, resulting in the single-sport leagues we desperately need in order to accelerate growth past the point we’re in now.

So while it can be argued that the scene as a whole is devoting too much time and resources to the production of content, and that the supply of esports content is outpacing the demand for it, we should find that it’s only natural for this to occur given the explosive growth over 2011 and 2012, and the other technological hurdles that were leaped to make it orders of magnitude simpler to produce a stream. It’s actually a good problem to have, and it’s one that will resolve itself in time, and could help produce the conditions for future growth as it self-corrects.