The ESports Arms Race

Written by PhilPhoenix
Oct 26 2011, 12:03 PM EDT

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Ever since StarCraft II was released, MLG has been the go-to source for North American events. It took some time to get it right, but after an event like the one held in Orlando this month, everyone can agree that MLG is pretty close to nailing it. However this month there was another big name trying to make their mark on the eSports scene: IGN. Their third IPL event was held live in Atlantic City earlier this month, and with this massive increase in scale over their previous events they made a very bold step into the territory that MLG had more or less been alone in occupying. Based on what we’ve seen from both organizations this month, it’s clear that the competition is getting tougher, and organizations like IGN and MLG are going to begin pushing even harder to get a leg up on their competition, inciting a veritable arms race to see who can create the most entertaining and watchable events.

Stephano wins IPL 3

The key to becoming a household eSports name lies in offering a mix of year-round content to maintain a presence and explosive live events to offer unique opportunities for both online viewers and live attendees to experience their favorite games in a specialized way. For example, MLG’s content has always been focused on its live events; they hold the event, allow people to attend, and then base almost all of their online content – matches, interviews, replays, etc. – around that event. Only very recently have they announced their plans to create online tournaments and to make a transition in 2012 into “seasonal” leagues with a large portion taking place online and culminating in a live event to serve as the season’s end cap. IPL has already embraced a similar model after getting their feet wet with two online-only events. Each league has its own unique permutations, but the overall idea is the same: maintain a consistent presence in between the large showstopper events.

As the market for eSports tournaments continues towards a saturation point, the devil is increasingly going to be found in the details. As Day[9] and others have said repeatedly, now that we are reaching a point where there is too much to watch, viewers will begin to vote with their eyes. As viewer counts dictate the most successful and profitable ventures, other events will either vanish or redefine themselves to fit a smaller niche – after all, not every tournament can be an IPL or MLG, some organizations simply have more resources or more ambitious goals. As we’ve begun to see, viewer numbers (both concurrent and total) are now being used as proof of the popularity of this nascent form of entertainment, although we haven’t reached the point where there is a very distinct difference in these numbers between events.

So what will be the deciding factor? How can one tournament or event differentiate themselves from the pack? The most important thing to do right is to treat the players well. Being fair and considerate to the players is the best way to build a good rapport with any game’s community. But let’s treat that as a given, as most of the big-name tournaments already have this under control. One of the true deciding factors is going to lie in production. So far both MLG and IPL have a high level of production quality, but something is missing from them and from other events as well. There is no sense of artistic or thematic unity in these events beyond a generic sportsy or sci-fi theme. While this sort of catch-all theme is somewhat appropriate for MLG because of the wide variety of games they feature, an event like IPL that is focused almost entirely on StarCraft should move beyond the standard “futuristic computer screen” look that we’ve all seen before. IPL Season Two made an attempt at a different approach with its gyrating gears and faux-watercolor portraits, but it was mostly unsuccessful. It was drab, incoherent, and just plain ugly.

MLG Orlando

I don’t mean to sound too critical here. When it comes to running a strong tournament, this level of production quality is really the icing on the cake. In order to establish a tournament that can have a lasting and repeated impact, there is a huge list of fundamentals that need to be addressed first. Maybe we’re not quite at the point where this level of artistic polish is necessary, but it will be soon enough. And when it is, any large-scale tournament would benefit from someone in the role of an “Artistic Director” or similar position – basically someone who is responsible for the aesthetics of the event. Anything from a unified theme to color schemes, promotional material, score cards, anything that appears on a stage or screen can fall under his/her purview. There is a similar role involved in both film and theatrical productions, and what is a live tournament if not a big complicated show?

Besides just looking nice, each larger-scale tournament needs to focus on what they are best at. MLG has grown from a traveling Halo tournament into a premiere gaming event with something for every kind of gamer to enjoy. IPL, on the other hand, was born from IGN, a media organization, and as a result they were able to nail their live/online presentation on their first try and provide a staggering amount of extra content to fill in the gaps between matches. Neither approach is inherently better than the other; each is working to master the fundamentals discussed earlier while also offering their own spin on what they think a big tournament should be.

That leaves us with the little guys. How will this arms race from larger groups to claim the lion’s share of viewership affect smaller-scale events? It’s hard to say, but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. There will always be players who don’t want to spend $60 on a competitor pass at MLG and lose in the first round but who will happily go to a local PC café to play some games and chill with friends, and that’s who those tournaments want to cater to. It may be harder for smaller-scale events to attract well-known pros in an effort to grow their brand, but they will be a great staging ground for new blood to cut their teeth on the competitive scene.

So what does it mean that there is a burgeoning arms race on the horizon of eSports? It means things are going well! The best thing we can do as spectators is to vote with our eyes and not hesitate to ask more of those who are creating these events. We have to be understanding – not everything can be done right away – but it’s important that we praise those who go the extra mile to impress us and expect other organizations to rise to the occasion and match them blow for blow in the battle for viewership.

Written by Phil Fine