The current state of the scene does not need to be explained for the umpteenth time; things are pretty grim. So lets not dwell any further on how shitty things are, the further focus of this blog will be my best attempt at trying to encourage discussion on where we go from here. My focus will also center around team gaming as opposed to individual games, as I feel a distinction needs to be made between the two and the trend of trying to tie the two together needs to be broken for either to flourish fully. I will try to keep mentions of past failures of the scene purely academic, only when there is something to be learned from someone elses mistakes. This discussion will likely be fragmented across many posts to come, so I invite you along for the series, and please leave your comments.
One aspect of competitive gaming that has been accepted as a big strong point is its inherently global nature. Gaming went from zero to international in a real hurry. It seems to me that the primary reason for the easy bypass of starting in a handful of localities and spreading from there is clearly the internet - obvious I know, but important to note. Without it we have a much different scene over the last decade. The net makes it easy for people to team up with people hundreds of miles away, and it’s not uncommon for members of a team to be spread out across several states (obviously, in the US. One interesting thing about the Euro scene is that many teams form up along national lines - but that’s ouside the focus of this post). Really, the only common geographical feature that members of a gaming team need to share is timezone, as it’s most important that all members are online consistently around the same time daily, and have decent pings while playing each other.
Online play, combined with the structure of the major LAN league/tournament circuits, allowed gaming to develop as a national-based scene immediately. To get gaming off the ground initially, this was a big advantage, as it still allowed individuals to be a part of it even if they were the only person (that they knew of) within 50 miles that was into gaming. Since the major LAN-based tournament circuits were interested only in getting as much bang for their buck as they possibly could, major tournaments were few and far between, and even though there was a fair geographical spread of stops across these tournaments, the ‘come one come all’ approach that these tournaments took basically made every event a one-off national tournament.
This sort of model makes sense for individual games (think pro tennis, golf) but is a horrible way of doing things when it comes to team games. The biggest hallmark of team-based sports is that a team represents a locality, and they play mostly against other teams in their immediate region. The internet allowed gaming teams to sidestep this vital part of any sports team’s identity. In most cases, teams exist in this nebulous quasi-regional state with members spread over hundreds of miles and noplace to definitively call ‘home’ save for the USA or Canada. Again, this is part of the reason why gaming was able to grow very quickly, but it is something that contributed to its precipitious decline over the last year.
Why is the connection to a specific locality so important to a sports team, and thus by extention a gaming team? The answer is two-fold.
The first part is the fan base. Locality becomes extremely important to a team trying to build a fanbase when you get down to asking the question of why someone would be a fan. Lets face it, the determining factor in ‘fandom’ will more often than not fall to geography; it’s the town they grew up in/went to school at/worked in or was the same for a parent that indoctrinated them into the fold. And in terms of trying to interface with your current fan base or attracting new fans, nothing beats the ability to get out in a community and interact with them directly in the place they actually live and work in, holding events, doing community service projects, and lets not forget actually playing in the city you’re said to represent (looking at you CGS).
I will admit that there are several teams still on the scene today that are carrying fan bases that are nothing to sneeze at, crowds that pile onto their website daily, take part on the forums, and spectate a lot of matchups, either on HLTV and the like or on streams. The problem with such a fan base is not the quantity, but the location. Where exactly does the fan base for a gaming team exist?
This question may not be important to us, the existing enthusiast that’s net savvy and already deep in the scene. It’s an extremely important if not the only question to a potential sponsor of a gaming team. So onto part two: being able to build an easily identifiable and targetable fan base makes the task of gaining sponsorships easier.
When a sponsor is evaluating whether to spend marketing dollars on a team sponsorship, they want to know what kind of return they might expect from it: who am I going to reach by sponsoring this team and how is it going to help my business? Sports teams can offer a strong answer to this question, as they can provide targeted exposure within a specific city, a particular demographic, and can appeal to sponsorships in an extremely wide range of industries, since it’s inferred that it’s not just hardcore sports geeks that are showing up and taking part in their scene, it’s a group with a wide range of interests and needs.
This principle applies all the way down the chain of competitive sports, right down to the gaggle of local sandlot baseball teams in your town. What’s the name on the hats? During my stint in Little League I wore the names of a local contracting company, a local pizza chain named Sam’s Pizza, and the orthodontics office that would later subject me to 4.5 years of no luck with the ladies. All these businesses saw value in shelling out good cash to support the operation of the league - it provided targeted advertising in a unique way towards people in the immediate community.
With the gaming scene’s current structure, teams are seriously hamstrung in trying to find sponsors because of their lack of locality. What does this translate to? Most teams can never figure out a way to actually be viable businesses and the scene spins it’s wheels. Most companies that would take an interest in sponsoring a gaming team are large tech-sector companies, and see most teams as not being able to provide them with worthwhile exposure, or too small to really spend time in developing a relationship. Companies outside the tech sector, but are small enough to benefit from the lower-cost sponsorship of the typical gaming team, don’t need the odd form of broad, internet-heavy, widespread exposure that a gaming team is offering, they’re more interested in reaching a targeted audience within their operating range, so they’re not interested either. That leaves the gaming scene left fighting amongst themselves over a narrow band of potential sponsors and a really small pool of marketing dollars to go after.
Not convinced? Look at what happened to every single CGS team after it folded. The scrambling these teams did to try and land new sponsorships was ridiculous, and in the end only one team was able to land feet first, mostly due to that Lake had some cash back to keep things afloat for a bit and just refused to give up. All the others perished. Why? The CGS wasn’t formed to allow teams economic viability, and when the TV production was shut down, there was nothing for these teams to stand on.
That’s what it really comes down to: is the average pro team in the red or the black? Who benefited most from the scene over the last decade, the collective of gaming teams or the people who owned and operated the major tournaments? How do teams make themselves more marketable for sponsors and start making gaming really pay off? All fodder for my next post.