The essential question for those driving businesses in esports should be this: if we want to be as large as the NFL, or UFC, or [fill in a professional sports league here] while not looking a whit like any one of them, is that a problem?
Another year is coming to an end, and once again we get treated to a barrage of retrospectives. Did this year turn out to be ‘the year‘ as we heard predicted by leading figureheads through saccharin blogs posted to the Team Liquid forums? In ways, it was; and in others it wasn’t; a mixed bag of sorts that I think we’ve come to find the scene holding each December for the past few years, each of which were supposedly going to be ‘the year‘. We are again able to celebrate evidence of genuine growth and many individual stories of success, but see also plenty of waste in the way the scene carries on; with notable teams folding; with the scene grappling with perrenial issues of professionalism and basic decorum ‘off the field’; with ends still not meeting for many established parts of the scene’s business machinery, big and small, old and new, while we fret about the seemingly contradictory notion that the scene suffers from an oversaturation problem.
So, what I really don’t want to know is whether this year, too, will be ‘the year‘. I want to know whether this year will be the year the scene faces up to the difficult questions it ignores year after year.
Is it reasonable to expect that simply scaling outwards the current way the scene operates will produce a greater ratio of solvent teams? If it takes ten small insolvent teams to keep the machine moving enough to keep one team solvent, is that an acceptable way forward? What is there to suggest that as ‘the esports pie’ grows, that the number of hungry teams fighting over it won’t grow also? Is there any reason to suggest the leading leagues actually give a damn about this issue?
If a professional league is really a traveling event production team, and if it and the teams it is supposed to represent share literally no equity or concrete sense of a shared future, on what foundation can it be said their value rests on?
If a professional team travels to every event it participates in, has no means of identifying a distinct market over which they have exclusive domain, and no means of deriving revenue directly from that market (which doesn’t exist) through ticket sales and becoming part of the fabric of a community they’re not constantly fighting a global turf war with other teams over, on what foundation can it be said their value rests on?
Can esports find long-term solvency for a robust professional tier of just one game, when the primary channel through which fans interface with it is a video stream? Have the many well-produced and well-attended single-game events this year made a dent in our perspective?
Are there any sports that were explicitly built primarily towards remote screen viewership and are still around to tell the tale? Can the examples of which be counted on more than one hand? Is there something to that?
What is the path to deep cultural acceptance and integration for esports, to the same degree that many traditional sports enjoy around the world, when esports operates nomadically – without home bases, without home teams, or even consistently held annual events around the same time of year at the same location each year – when it’s so obvious that all of the above are the very factors on which that cultural integration hinges? Can esports skip entirely the notion of establishing a bulkhead for a sport in a major city, say like Seattle, in a team that would host scores of small events every year, and expect Seattleites to embrace esports like they do the Seahawks, or the Sounders?
Yet, that’s exactly what the defacto leader of esports in the Americas just told PC Gamer was entirely feasible.
I don’t think these problems have solutions that can consist entirely of growth and scale. They’re problems that require careful consideration of everyone’s business model, and admissions that we’re traveling in the wrong direction in some areas, and are knowingly working against ourselves in others, simply to preserve a state of the scene that, as a whole, consistently spends more than it makes, year after year.
Is 2013 the year we come to grips with that?