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Breaking up the band

in glhf

It struck me today, on the news that Na`Vi’s Dota squad was dissolving, that despite the preposterous amounts of money sloshing around the scene as of late — conjuring valuations of tournament organizers and teams that seem years in advance of reality — today’s process of player development and team organization would not seem out of place in 2005’s scene.

Despite how far it appears esports has come, it remains mired in a dominate-or-bust mentality regarding gameday rosters, tying the fate of five players inextricably together. Cracking the top twenty teams in existence for a particular esport, and staying there for a decent stretch, even if championships remain consistently out of reach, does not seem to signal the need for adjustments in strategy, tactics, or lineup; but is rather a signal that the squad is an unsalvageable failure and must be scrubbed.

It gives me the impression that we’re talking about something more akin to the music scene than anything that aspires to be considered a sport; where the whole endeavor hangs in the balance on the interpersonal relationships of the individual players. When a lead singer goes on one bender too many, loses the crowd during one too many gigs, or just turns into a major dick, yes, you’d expect the band to fall apart.

But this isn’t music. To me, it’s another striking example where something backwards is continued on a ‘because esports’ mentality and is causing real damage to quality of play and the longevity of player careers. This sort of event is commonplace, and is always met with “aw, such a shame, all good players, hope they find a new home” missives.

In most cases, most players shouldn’t be on the hunt for a new home. It has and will continue to result in the early retirement of players who still have many years of great play in them, even if they may lack that extra edge that could help propel a team to championships, or simply didn’t have the good fortune of finding their perfect counterparts yet. Their continued presence on top caliber teams would result in the passing on of experience to prospects coming up the ranks, or perhaps a late resurgence of greatness; instead they leave their game and reduce the overall quality of play by their absence.

An historical precedent of treating squads as indivisible is a factor, but the widespread lack of dedicated management and coaching staff, answering to team ownership instead of being considered part of an indivisible package of players, is an equally strong factor. When faced with the unraveling of a squad due to interpersonal sniping, squabbling, and blame games when results don’t come, and there’s no independent authority outside the group of players tasked with managing conflict and identifying problems, the only option available is to simply cut the whole lot loose.

Another historical precedent working against the scene is the absence of rosters larger than the number of players ‘on the field’ during matches. Why are subs taboo? A roster of ten or more players would actually make most sense in a game like Dota, where players could more comfortably specialize in a smaller group of heroes, and would thereby let teams field different lineups based on what heroes get picked in a given game. I think it would even pay dividends in a game like Counter-Strike, where teams may employ different lineups based on their opponent, the map, or even the side they’re about to start playing; and the ability to sub players would certainly cut down on fatigue. Instead we see a loosely constructed team cartel making demands about maximum best-of-threes and best-of-fives per day.

Yes, a player’s union would indeed help with this; but a more realistic and quickly attainable option would be for teams to stop treating their squads as atomic units. But, like most things I’ve written about here, I don’t expect any change on this anytime soon; it may honestly require a massive consolidation between teams and tournament organizers to bring about the scene stability that may be prerequisite to larger team rosters and the widespread employment of managers and coaches.