Developers and Esports, Part 1: How did we get here?
It is never easy to explain what esports are to an outsider.
How big is it? Is there any money to be made? How professional is it? Is there a governing body? These are all the questions you might expect in a serious discussion, however answering them, might be a bit of a challenge.
Unless you are looking to break it down into separate disciplines, you are going to have a hard time describing what esports are today.
Flagship games, like League of Legends and Dota 2, are both huge and progressive in their own right. However, the two could hardly be compared to one another (even though they often are), not to mention measuring them to lesser titles. One is highly structured, with the vast majority of professionals competing in a developer run league, culminating in a developer organized World Championship with little to no worthwhile outside tournaments. The other, sees most of the competition happen in third-party organized events, with prize pools ranging from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, with a single developer produced event a year.
If you take a look at major esports competitions these days, it’s not that hard to notice that most of the developers have a new found interest in their respective esports scenes.
Riot has League of Legends’ Championship Series. Blizzard has the World Championship Series for Starcraft 2 and the Championship Tour for Hearthstone. Even Valve, who historically kept their distance from the community, have The International and recently added majors for Dota 2, and then there is whatever they are doing with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Valve has even released a competitive matchmaking for their hat wearing simulator, Team Fortress 2 (it needs more work). The involvement varies, but developers of most major esports titles these days are dipping their toes into the (un)familiar esports waters.
However, this was not always the case. As recent as 2010, the concept of game developer or publisher taking an active interest in developing the esports scene was almost non-existent. There are a few exceptions here and there, most notably QuakeCon, which has been held every year since 1996 and every year they organize a competitive tournament that goes along with the convention. Sure, prize pools ranging in low five figures in US dollars is hardly impressive, but nonetheless, QuakeCon is a great showcase example of developers realising the value of esports.
And it makes complete sense. If you are id Software and your game is a competitive title such as Quake, what you will want to do in order to increase the competition. If your target audience is people who like to compete, make it worth their while. Make it bigger, better, and more exciting. Especially looking at Quake 3 Arena and more recently Quake Live, where id Software gave up on a single-player mode altogether and fully embraced the world of esports. How silly would it be if you were to make a competitive game and there were no tournaments to compete in?
But it was not like there were no outside competitions forcing the developer to step up. There was no lack of tournaments. When the CPL closed down, Quake did not disappear anywhere from the premium events. There was still DreamHack and KODE5, later there were Intel Extreme Masters, FACEIT and many others. And QuakeCon is still going strong.
Even though every other league pretty much gave up on it a while back, best Quake players in the world still gather once a year in Dallas, to fight for their supremacy.
And yes, this year as well, beginning on August 4, Quake enthusiasts will once again come together to battle it out for their share of $25,000. However, in spite of their admirable dedication, id Software could hardly be called the ones responsible for the modern trend of developers getting involved in esports.
In June, 2011, during the annual gathering of gamers from around the globe known as DreamHack Summer, League of Legends Season 1 World Championships took place. In a far corner of the venue, eight of the strongest teams in the world clashed for the groundbreaking (at a time) prize pool of $100,000. In comparison, Blizzard’s StarCraft 2, which was released at around the same time, flaunted a prize pool of $30,000 and League’s direct competitor, Heroes of Newerth, had a measly pool of a little over $11,000.
There was no way a relatively unknown title that was around for less than a year would be able to hold an event of this size without the support from the developers. At a first glance, it is not too different from the way the business was usually done at the time. The aforementioned Heroes of Newerth title did not just appear at DreamHack. Its developer, S2 Games, covered all of the organizational fees and funded the prize pool, making it a prime example of what it was supposed to be - a promotional event, marketing for their game.
What Riot Games understood and what others did not, is that there is little point in investing precious marketing money in something that is going to be the same as everyone else. So they went for a high risk, high reward gamble, and it payed off.
Their Season 1 World Championships became the most watched tournament of the whole event, with a peak of over 210,000 viewers. In comparison, one of the most popular tournaments at DreamHack, Counter-Strike 1.6, averaged viewership in low to mid five figures.
You do not need to work in the video game industry to realise that making a game is not cheap. But what most people forget, or rather, do not realise, is that marketing costs for the game are as large as production itself, sometimes even larger. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, released a little before Riot’s League of Legends, cost around $50 million to make and it's marketing budget went over $150 million. Infinity Ward spent their budget the same way any Hollywood movie would; high production value trailers, buying air time, they even made a viral video. It only comes to show how important marketing is for a new game, even for an established and popular franchise such as Call of Duty.
There is little point in speculation, but it is fair to assume that Riot did not have that kind of money. What they had, instead, was a goal and a clear understanding of what their game was and what it was not.
What Riot Games did, was exactly what id Software did many years before them. They understood that what they are making is a competitive game; a potential esports title. And there is no way they will succeed if there is no place to be competitive at.
You can spend a million dollars on banner ads and elaborate marketing strategies or you can produce and fund a $100,000 event and spend the rest to promote the hell out of it.
In retrospect, it was the right choice. Soon thereafter, Riot Games announced the second season, featuring an almost revolutionary prize pool of $5 million, kickstarting a new era in the history of esports.
After that, many developers tried to follow the path set by Riot Games. Some have succeeded, many have failed, others changed it and made it their own. But it started something, that raised esports to the level it is at right now. Esports were around for decades, yet in the last couple of years, the pace at which esports is growing is nothing less than mind boggling.
It is hard to imagine that this year, one single tournament will have a prize pool larger than all of the tournaments put together just four years ago. Ten years ago, esports revenue was at several million dollars, but in 2018, it is set to become a billion dollar industry.
Welcome to the NFL.
Please look forward to the second part, where we will take a closer look at various developers, their involvement in esports and difference in approach.