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Kluwe for Commissioner

in glhf

In arguing that he’s uniquely qualified to be emperor of all esportdom, Chris Kluwe trots out a favorite tired trope of armchair esports executives everywhere: that all that ails the scene can be blamed on its state of total anarchy, and the cure is a top-down imposition of a single authoritative body, one that will bring order to the entire scene as a whole.

After naming said pipe dream for what it is in a quick tweet, Kluwe asked for some clarification. Very well, here it is.

Both components of Kluwe’s thesis are problematic: chaos is not the dominant facet of the scene, and esports as a whole does not need grand unification from above. Kluwe’s perspective on existing scene mechanics, how individual esports relate to one another, and how esports fans form their affiliations, describes an esports worldview that is divorced from today’s reality, and has not taken into account the most fundamental lessons from pre-Riot esports history.

Off we go then:

Currently, there is no functional “league” in esports, and it’s a void that needs to be filled.

This is presented and left largely as self-evident, despite easily recognizable examples in Riot’s management of the League scene, and in Valve’s initial moves away from laissez-faire with the establishment of a major/minor tournament pattern in Counter-Strike and Dota in conjunction with existing tournament organizers like ESL, MLG, FACEIT, etc.

The support provided for this void that needs filling, and the illumination of what exactly this functional league looks like, comes in another piece penned over on Splyce where — with no apparent grasp of esports history, let alone irony — Kluwe presents the exact blueprint for the Championship Gaming Series’ abysmal format: bring delegations together from all corners of esports, have them battle in formats that link them all together, have centralized ownership and management of everything, and maximize the synergy. We can there begin to see that Kluwe is looking for cohesion at a level in the scene’s hierarchy where it absolutely does not belong, and doesn’t actually match examples in traditional sports presented as supporting parallels.

From the Splyce piece:

An overarching structure that brings together all the individual components under one umbrella. If esports wants to be taken seriously, to compete with the NFL, MLB, NBA and the rest (I wanted to throw in some soccer leagues too for non-American readers, but then we’d be here all day), then the publishing companies of these games need to band together and form an actual league, with consistent rules, qualifications, and formats that span game types.

To continue our NFL analogy, the publishing companies need to become the owners of teams. They have the capital to bring everything together, to pool money for tournament prizes, and to discuss big picture issues between themselves (stuff like broadcast rights and maximizing ad revenue streams). Robert Kraft may only run the Patriots (which we’ll equate to DotA because their fans, well, you know), but he has a vested interest in making sure the league runs smoothly, because a more compelling product means more people watching means more money coming in.

Traditional sports leagues the world ‘round utilize single-sport infrastructures, both domestically and internationally, granting them the corresponding sovereignty to carry out operations in the particular manner in which it sees as most beneficial for the sport it ultimately serves. The argument presented by Kluwe is that in order to be taken seriously, and compete with major traditional sport leagues, individual esports need to forget trying to forge similar paths for themselves.

Instead, esports as a whole should hope for a confluence of events less likely than a Leicester repeat: that all the big publishers behind esports titles (Valve, ActiBlizz, Riot, etc.) will band together, selflessly spend untold millions of dollars snapping up teams, totally dick over relationships with existing tournament organizers carefully grown over decades, and build an agenda-less neutral governing body that will simultaneously fill all the structural and competitive needs of all current and future esports titles in one gigantic intergalactic single-entity kegger, as though FIFA and MLS spawned a bloated, belching, grotesque lovechild that plodded around the world, cheerfully eating its cousins.

Just wanted to make sure I had that right. Continuing:

Nintendo, Valve, Riot, Activision, EA, and other publishers working together could establish such a league. The current owners of teams (which could probably use some regulating) would then act more as General Managers, overseeing day to day operations within the teams, and the discrete genres within the team would now be like different positions. The CS:GO unit would be equivalent to the wide receivers, the LoL unit the defensive line, and so on and so forth. Each unit is responsible for part of the team’s overall success, but still operates within their own specialty. An entire season could be set, encompassing all genres of esports games, culminating in a grand showdown between teams, like a combination of the Super Bowl and the Olympics.

NFL fans aren’t fans of a single position (well, most of them at least). They’re fans of their team, and within that team, they can often tell you who does what at every position. In esports, this means Smite fans suddenly having an incentive to watch Hearthstone, or Heroes of the Storm, because their team needs those points to win this week’s matchup, and vice versa. The community grows. Rivalries are formed. Allegiances are passed down from parent to child, and people become invested. That’s how a sports league grows.

This also gives rise to team strategies – does your team focus on recruiting the best FPS players to the detriment of their other squads and hope that they can carry? Or do they go for a measured approach and look for a key player here and there? These are all things that fans obsess over in the NFL (mainly leading up to and during the Draft), and that in turn keeps them invested in the game. There’s no reason the same thing won’t work in esports.

There’s plenty of ink dry on historical reasons why it already hasn’t worked in esports; again, please reference the Rise and Fall of the Championship Gaming Series. Kluwe reiterates here the exact structure and justification for the most damaging endeavor in esports history. This line of thinking is not only entirely contrived, but it has been tested and proven detrimental. Yet, here it is again.

Kluwe’s stated perspective — that individual teams playing specific games on a multi-gaming team are as interchangeable to fans as pitchers in a bullpen — speaks more to my originally tweeted point than I could hammer home in ten more pages here. Esports is not a cohesive whole any more than all of the traditional sports world is. The Summoners Rift and de_dust2 aren’t two distinct points on the same field of play, they’re fields of play in entirely different sports.

I’m sure Kluwe would find ridiculous the suggestion that the fate of a season for the Vikings should be inexorably tied to how well the Twins did that year, on the premise of forming a ‘true functioning sports league’ where everything in Minneapolis shares a unified outcome. Esports fans in their right minds find similarly ridiculous the suggestion that the outcomes for Fnatic’s League of Legends and Counter-Strike teams should be similarly joined at the hip.

Returning to the SBN post:

Fragmentation, which I mentioned earlier, is a big problem. If esports wants to continue growing, it needs more viewers, and right now those viewers are essentially being cannibalized by all the different publishers promoting different leagues and games. Having an overarching league that promotes all the different games as part of the whole helps everyone sell more games, and it also addresses the problem of consistency of product. When you watch an NFL game, you know what you’re going to get, no matter who’s playing. If I watch a League of Legends game, I might get something totally different than a Smite game or a Dota 2 game.

Yup, you will get something totally different, because they’re different sports. The examples given at the end of this paragraph are pretty analogous to a grouping of American football, Canadian football, and rugby.

That all aside, not one of the very real and functioning tournament organizers or streaming platforms in existence today could produce even a shred of market research to support any of the above assertions. None. Again, esports is not one indivisible whole, and there is very little to suggest that esports viewership is running up against any sort of ceiling.

There are pockets of ‘all esports’ fans that pretend to watch and know about everything, sure. The vastly more common form an esports onlooker takes is one of exceeding interest in one or two games, with perhaps passing interest in the rest of the goings on at best. This should come as no surprise, as it parallels observable patterns in the fandom of traditional sports. In particular — and this is super important — interest in a particular esport corresponds heavily with what games the onlooker plays themselves, in an aspect that diverges slightly from traditional sports fandom.

Take a hypothetical bloke who primarily spends their evenings playing in Counter-Strike’s matchmaking system. Turns out it’s reasonably likely they’ll at least check out top-tier tournament play if presented to them, as it aligns with their interests. A League of Legends stream? Not so much, especially if they haven’t played it at all — regardless if a team involved is the League arm of their favorite Counter-Strike team or not.

Riot ran a rather pioneering experiment in their early esports efforts where they embedded tournament streams in the launcher of their game, hitting the most potentially interested audience right where they lived. It was a smashing success. Now such practice is rather commonplace, and it’s largely responsible for League’s explosive trajectory as an esport.

That’s all to say that this purported cannibalization and fragmentation just isn’t happening. Equally preposterous is the suggestion that there’s a significant cross-promotional opportunity between fans of a multi-gaming organization’s divisions that said organizations have just completely missed, one that only a repeat of CGS’ terrible format could unlock.

Growth in the tournament audiences for individual titles, and especially for today’s big scenes in League, Dota, and Counter-Strike, are continuing to grow at a quickening pace despite the fact that the number of titles with recognizable esports scenes also continues to grow. That’s evidence against cannibalization, and instead suggests augmentation across the scene under existing scene mechanics.

A third issue, and one salient to current events, is competitive fairness. Right now, the publishers are the ones in charge of deciding rules and dispensing punishments, and that can anger people. […] Having a functional league apparatus means that when issues like what happened with Renegades/TDK/Impulse arise, it isn’t Riot taking the heat for trying to fix things, but the league itself, which has no dog in the fight.

League of Legends is not the only esport. Such a dynamic only exists there.

It is the primary function of sports leagues in the traditional sense, as the literal embodiment of teams doing business with one another, to have a dog in the fight. They exist to moderate between teams and above all protect the sport and the business around it.

But really the most perplexing part of this argument is that the mandate for an ultimate esports league would come from the publishers, asserting previously that publishers should buy up teams and contracts wholesale through said league, but then also argues that said league would somehow shield the publishers from frustrations when things go sideways. These are contradictory standpoints. In reality, any thinking onlooker would understand that such a league construct would be anything but independent from the publishers that put it into existence, puppetry would be the norm, and publishers would routinely find themselves at the business end of rather pointy pitchforks through such weighty direct involvement.

One last problem, and it’s probably the thorniest, is that of obsolescence. Esports aren’t like traditional sports. In traditional sports, the rules of the game, for the most part, stay fairly static. Sure, you get the introduction of the forward pass and helmets, stuff like that, but the fundamental core of a traditional sports game stays essentially unchanged. That’s what helps them last for hundreds of years.

In esports, this is not the case. A game can go from being the coolest thing on the block to being abandoned for the latest hotness in under the span of a decade (if not a year).

Constant title churn was a defining part of the first two decades of esports history. There’s very little to suggest that such churn will continue.

The big esports in 2013? League, Dota, Starcraft, CS:GO; with the FGC doing it’s thing.

The big esports in 2016? League, Dota, Starcraft, CS:GO; with the FGC doing it’s thing.

The core format of Counter-Strike in particular has remained basically unchanged since its release in 2000.

So in esports, the presence of relatively static core formats is absolutely the case. You just have to accept that, once again, esports is not a singularity, but merely a collective label for a group of electronic sports.

Esports may be in its adolescence, but it’s emerging from it pretty quick. The hardware generating visuals and the input schemes may continue to evolve, but there’s a select few formats that have seen years and years of near constant top-tier play and still bring excitement to the most veteran of onlookers and players, and practically all new titles that have been brought to market over the last several years with the explicit goal of spawning a new esport have been resounding failures. Sure, there’s always the possibility that some entirely new genre in video games will birth another such format, but any clear-headed analysis must conclude the likelihood of that happening before the decade is out, let alone at the nauseating pace exhibited in the early 2000s, is quite slim.

What this all should suggest is that these battle-proven scenes should feel the impetus to build the sort of permanent institutions to further their specific sport and protect their own longevity that their cousins in traditional sports have. The critical mass that this handful of games now enjoys is ultimately the best hedge against the obsolescence that Kluwe warns of; there’s now too much at stake for the publishers themselves in the scenes around League, Dota, and Counter-Strike in particular that the publishers have a vested interest in ensuring that top-flight play continues unimpeded.

The scenes around these games should want institutions bespoke to their game; balancing the needs of players, teams, tournament organizers, and the publisher of the intellectual property their sport rests upon; and begin looking towards competitive structures that move beyond a steady stream of weekend tournaments that can feel incoherent at times.

Ultimately, some mild incoherence here and there is not the picture of an ecosystem gripped by chaos, pleading for rescue. Instead, it describes a strong group of newly emerging sports that would benefit greatly from the establishment of said bespoke institutions, independent from one another, at the mandate of existing teams, perhaps in cooperation with existing tournament organizers, and certainly in cooperation with the publisher of their game; in a manner that is actually consistent with the development of today’s large traditional sports.