Can new esports initiatives tame the videogame industry’s wildest frontier?
Can new esports initiatives tame videogaming’s wildest frontier?
After years of being understood as a niche phenomenon within the game industry, professional gaming is now better understood as a new form of business entirely. Despite recent highprofile investments by major publishers – notably Activision and EA – a substantial amount of esports’ growth has occurred outside the auspices of the companies that develop the games involved. This part of gaming culture was born with the player community, and the international showrunners that now dominate it – companies such as ESL, DreamHack, Faceit and MLG – all originated outside of the traditional game development apparatus. If anything, Activision’s recent acquisition of MLG demonstrates that gaming’s traditional stakeholders have been pushed into a reactive posture by the rise of esports.
The ad-hoc and unplanned development of professional gaming has resulted in a diverse industry with dozens of points of internal division: philosophical, natural, personal, in terms of sponsorship models adopted, games played, and spectators attracted. In addition, esports is still struggling to find its place in the wider world. There is a strict generational gap between this new form of spectator sport and traditional sport, which impacts the way esports are reported on by traditional media (if they are at all) and the degree to which they’re understood by traditional sporting organisations (if they are at all.) Even the game industry, used to seeing itself as a young and misunderstood, is guilty of misunderstanding this younger form.
This is gaming’s frontier, for better or worse. Esports’ relative isolation and its lack of internal consensus, coupled with its stunning growth in popularity, makes it ripe for exploitation. Some of this is benign and carries the stamp of legitimacy – outside companies swooping in to ‘own’ parts of the scene.
In other cases, opportunism takes the form of corruption. In early 2015 Valve suspended five professional North American Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players from team iBuypower for match fixing, along with the managers of their opponent, NetCodeGuides. Later the same year, CS:GO player Kory Friesen of team Cloud9 openly alleged in a YouTube video that he and “everyone” in the professional Counter-Strike community abused the stimulant Adderall as a performance-enhancing drug.
Stories like this are becoming more common. In October 2015, authorities in Korea – where esports are far better established than in the west – made a series of shocking arrests of top-tier Starcraft II professionals who had also been found to be fixing the results of matches. Cheating and corruption are an international problem that affects every esport, a direct consequence of the organic growth of the industry and the lack of any form of central governing authority. “There’s no centre to the industry,” says Ian Smith, commissioner of the new esports integrity initiative, ESIC. “It’s a series of islands, and some of them are linked by rickety bridges and some are not at all. Some have lots of traffic between them and some have none.”
Instability has a direct consequence for the esports industry’s financial viability, Smith says. “If you look at the numbers and demographics in esports broadly, you would expect at this stage that esport would have about 30–40 per cent nonendemic sponsor inventory. Pretty highend stuff: Coke, Pepsi, Visa, Toyota – that level. But you don’t see that, and across esports, the penetration of non-endemic sponsors is less than five per cent.”
The principal sponsors of the majority of esports teams and leagues come from within the game industry: hardware manufacturers, retailers and so on. Even these have been stung from the lack of regulation within the scene: US PC hardware retailer iBuypower, for example, now has its brand directly associated with one of the largest scandals in North American Counter
Strike. For smaller companies within videogames, exposure to esports’ large audiences is often deemed worth the risk. For non-endemic sponsors, it isn’t.
“That level of sponsor has been stung in the last couple of years by scandals in football, athletics, tennis, you name it,” Smith says. “More or less every sport has become risky in terms of brand management because of bad things.”
This is a problem that the entire industry now has to face: they have
“There’s no centre to the industry. It’s a series of islands and some of them are linked by rickety bridges”
the audiences, players and venues, but sponsorship is bottlenecked by a lack of structure. Esports governance itself now represents an opportunity to organisations with a stake in the business, and the past few months has seen a rush of initiatives intended to build consensus, centralise governance, and boost profitability.
The World Esports Association, WESA, was announced in May with an initial membership that included representatives from some of the most important stakeholders in Counter-Strike:
Global Offensive. Its founding commissioner, Pietro Fringuelli, is a lawyer with experience in media who has previously performed an advisory role for the German Bundesliga. WESA positions itself as a consensus-building body that seeks to establish guidelines for the industry as a whole on matters ranging from consensus to dispute arbitration to player contracts. It’s an ambitious remit, made practical by the organisation’s initial emphasis on CS:GO alone.
Despite the need for better regulation, the organisation’s announcement was met with controversy. Its membership included only one tournament organiser, ESL, raising questions about its effectiveness among the many other leagues involved in the CS:GO scene. Then, only days after WESA’s announcement, member team Faze left the organisation citing the lack of transparency surrounding WESA’s methods. Since that time, WESA has communicated almost nothing about its ongoing work.
The rules-forming body ESIC, founded in July, has a more specific remit: anti-cheating and anti-corruption. Smith was formerly the legal director of the UK Professional Cricketers’ Association, and has held roles within the Federation Of International Cricketers Associations and the Committee of UK Anti-Doping. He is sanguine about ESIC’s chances of effecting positive change within the industry, but conscious that simply announcing an initiative is not enough.
“The first answer is for the industry to acknowledge the problem,” he says. “That big-picture issue still has a long way to go. There’s still a fair amount of denial. There’s also a sort of avoidance of the topic – people recognise that it’s a problem, but there are so many problems, so many things to do, that this comes far lower down their priorities than it ought to.”
For anti-cheating to be successful, Smith argues, the industry needs to work more closely with players. “You’ve got to educate the participants,” he says. “By far the best deterrent to any kind of corrupt behaviour is education.” It’s here that esports encounters problems distinct from traditional sport. Many players and spectators are very young, and haven’t grown up in a ‘sporting’ environment in any sense of that word. The most toxic tendencies of the gaming community directly impact esports’ ability to be governed. “One thing that has struck me in contrast with my experience in traditional sport is the sheer virulence of social media and the chatter around esports,” Smith says. “It’s real WWE trash talk – but it’s nastier than that, because at least WWE trash talk is part of the show.”
Players’ resistance to authority and preference for holding court on Reddit and Twitter is an obstacle that esports have yet to overcome. Maturity is needed, but this is a chicken-and-egg problem: without a player association to encourage a wiser culture, the culture isn’t wise enough to produce a player association. In its absence, the role of governance falls to team organisations and leagues – and this, Smith argues, is a trap.
“In every sport ever, over the past 200 years of modern sport, teams and leagues will tell you that they look after the players and look out for their best interests,” he says. “It’s the biggest lie ever. Their interests totally conflict. The teams need the players, and it’s far, far better if [they’ve] got those players where they’re unrepresented collectively.”
Integrity is this new industry’s biggest challenge, a corner that needs to be collectively turned. This will take a cultural sea change – one that experienced outsiders can foster, but not force. For players, the stakes are high. The success of initiatives such as ESIC and WESA is dependent on their willingness to help themselves. “At the end of the day,” Smith says, “the rules are for them. Let’s say there was a major fixing scandal in Dota 2, and
Dota 2 dies as an esport. Does this affect DreamHack? Well, a little bit. Does Valve die? No. So who does it register with? Who dies along with [professional]
Dota 2? Dota 2 players.”
“One thing that has struck me in contrast with traditional sport is the sheer virulence of social media”
Commissioner Ian Smith from ESIC, the new esports integrity initiative
LEFT Esports events now regularly fill football stadiums and concert halls. The audience is enormous, but non-endemic sponsorship is notable for its absence. ABOVE The process by which players enter the scene is still highly informal, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation