essays and pithy thoughts

Layer of abstraction

in glhf

Major League Gaming is a layer of abstraction by design. By that I mean: by acting as a venue for multiple games at any given time, and therefore trying to position itself as a proxy for ‘esports at large,’ it can theoretically ensure its own longevity by having the implicit ability to shift its support into different games as necessary. It’s how the CPL operated, also, before it.

The justification for this approach revolves around several assumptions.

  1. It assumes a sub-scene around any one given game is too small to support a professional tier on its own. By bringing several scenes together under one tent, you can create a whole that is large enough to generate the sort of revenue required to support them all. In economics terms, the goal is to reach an economy of scale.
  2. It assumes that the publishers are largely uninterested in supporting the scenes around their games themselves. The task of a multi-game traveling tournament circuit becomes much more difficult if publishers wish to step in directly.
  3. It assumes that games come in and out of vogue so quickly that it’s practically impossible that any game could sustain professional-tier activity for longer than a few years.

These assumptions lead to the establishment of ‘league’ entities which are concerned most with their own survival. They can flip between games from tournament stop to tournament stop, in pursuit of the largest possible audience, without much regard for the effect those changes will have on the scenes below, because in the end, the leagues aren’t answerable to them. The assumption is that as long as esports as a whole continues to grow, there will always be a ‘next big game’ to jump to. The model of the tournament circuit is therefore predicated on the short-term maximum monetization of the upswing of a scene, and the ability to dispose of it after it peaks.

The thing is, all of the above assumptions have come under assault over the last couple years, and I think it means significant problems for this model.

It’s pretty well certain at this point that the entire esports scene will continue to grow. I think it’s also pretty well certain that novel new game genres aren’t going to pop up; what we’ve got in terms of types of games that can support a robust competitive scene is what we’ll continue to have. It would follow then that as time goes on, the leading game for each particular genre may change over time, or roll over into a sequel, but will stay rather constant, and therefore the growth will be within each genre and not spread across an increasing number of games.

This represents a threat to the first assumption. At some point – and it’s possible we’ve already passed it in several games – the scene behind an individual game will reach a size that it can be an economy of scale on it’s own without other games. For these scenes, a layer of abstration that will just bundle them up will become more and more unnecessary, to the point of redundancy.

As indivdiual scenes have grown, publishers have started taking notice, and it’s only natural for them to look at what’s going on and seek to cut out middlemen. As scenes are growing, you may see publishers going to leagues and paying them to run tournaments, as we’ve seen with MLG and League of Legends, but such arrangements can’t possibly be permanent – especially as things continue to grow and the publishers can run things from top to bottom.

And as publishers start to invest in esports scenes, and begin to see the positive symbiosis that results, it’s only rational to assume that publishers will do what they can to sustain at least, continue to grow at best, these scenes attached to their games, and do it over longer periods of time. Publisher involvement lends itself to the convergence of interests between them and the scenes around their games – it’s the diametric opposite of the dynamic between scenes and a tournament circuit that’s just running their game at the current point in time. It’s a great thing for publishers, and scenes, and a major problem for circuits.

This doesn’t mean that publishers can’t screw things up – they can. Case in point: WCS. It does mean that circuits inevitably get crowded out of the main events, for better or worse, in the long run. Evenutally, if current trends hold, single-game-leagues emerge the winners, with publishers most likely at the helm.

So what can happen? Well it doesn’t necessarily mean doom for the circuits – but the trends do point to a permanent second-rate status for circuits. As time goes on, it seems increasingly likely that publisher involvement will continue to crowd out third-party tournaments for top-tier competition, leaving circuits with also-ran games or with the ability to act as a ‘platform’ for marketing teams to run a couple one-off tournaments as part of a short-term promotional effort.

It’s this whole situation that I think will inform what course MLG plots over the next several years – it’s a pretty critical time. Do they continue with this model and where it inevitably leads or look for something else altogether?