An example in action
To prove that I’m not just talking in vagaries about tweaking the tournament structure and slowing it down, let’s look at an example of a competitive format that does this. The goal is to maximize the potential for emotional investment, appeal to both casual and hardcore fans, and keep the integrity of what esports is. Whether or not a model like this is economically viable at this time is unknown (MLG and IPL don’t release financials). And when I say “events”, it’s not necessary that every one be a massive live event à la MLG’s 2012 Fall Championship in Dallas. (See you there if you’re going, by the way.)
In this example model, let’s ignore any potential lower divisions and simply focus on the premiere division.
The radical departure from the current systems employed by MLG and IPL is that premiere division players play only one series of games during an event, moving up and down a ladder/pyramid system. This is what I mean by slowing down the pace to where you can promote individual games, create and promote a narrative, create and promote stars, and push every match as extremely important.
Here’s an example of how that premiere division would be broken down into six matchups at a monthly event:
|Tier||Purpose||Loser Moves To|
|Tier 1||Championship||Tier 3|
|Tier 2||Title Eliminator||Tier 3|
|Tier 3||-||Tier 4|
|Tier 3||-||Tier 4|
|Tier 4||Promotion/Relegation||Lower Division|
|Tier 4||Promotion/Relegation||Lower Division|
For a clearer picture, here’s an example of that premiere division playing out over four events. Competitors who have qualified for promotion from a lower division to the premiere division are in italics. Winners at that event are highlighted in orange. Player names used are only for example.
Instead of fighting for a weekend or seasonal championship won via a strict tournament, a reigning champion defends their title at each event in one main event game. Questions about the economic viability of a model like this comes from the need of an event to take place monthly for a model like this to be taken as legitimate from the games’ communities. As was stated earlier, it isn’t necessary every event be large, but if there isn’t monthly premiere division play the validity of the model comes in to question.
“Reigning, defending champion of the world”
The psychological and narrative effect of having a reigning world champion is very different from that of winning a weekend tournament or season. A reigning champion is easily identifiable to newer or more casual fans that will only be watching or paying attention to big events. There are a large number of people who would only want to invest a few hours a month in watching or following along with the biggest games and stars, and a championship game each month gives them a starting off point.
At the same time, underneath that champion is a ladder/pyramid that helps create a narrative of players rising or falling, creating rivalries between players who may meet multiple times, etc. with top-tier players playing only one match at each event, and it determining whether they rise or fall in the ladder for the next event. All this serves as incentive for fans to watch every event because they know each event is important and will have a direct bearing on the next event, and so on. Every series, every match, every second of the event is deathly important. In an era of over-saturation in esports, it will be perceived importance that sets one league’s content apart from the next.
But one of, if not the most important aspect of this model is its ability to help create stars.
When a fan sees the same player multiple months in a row in the premiere division, one of the hardest parts of helping that player turn themselves into a star is done: exposure. Exposure both in terms of high-level play in important matches and exposure as a personality in vignettes, interviews, and general attention. There’s a 1:6 turnover rate in premiere division players every month. The two players knocked out can have been in the premiere division anywhere from one event to several events to more, but at any given time there will be at least two players in the premiere division who have been there six events or longer. Two players who fans have watched for at least six months, following their stories, getting to know them as personalities.
There are issues with a league, in today’s esports landscape, crowning their own reigning champion. With payouts the size they are now, top-tier players can’t be expected to not attend other events. And if a league’s reigning champion were to have a bad showing at another tournament that could potentially devalue the prestige of the championship. One possibility is that fans will recognize that the competitive model of a one-off event is different from that of a league with a rolling format where championships are earned over months instead of a weekend. It’s also possible that they wouldn’t, but it would be the league’s job to get that point across.
For precedent, UFC’s period of largest growth occurred when, who hardcore fans saw as the greatest heavyweight fighter in the world, Fedor Emelianenko refused to join the UFC. In that instance, paying fans didn’t dismiss the UFC Heavyweight Championship. And those hardcores who may have had questions were still watched and paid for the UFC product because it was more compelling than any other product. It goes back to the similar point made earlier that it’s an inevitability that players are going to play in other leagues, but it still makes the most sense to provide a platform on which a player can turn themselves into a star because that’s what’s going to draw the most money. The same thought process goes behind having a reigning champion.
The idea that you only get one match out of premiere division players at each event seems counter-intuitive at first, but limiting top tier players to one series per event makes each series important and special, easy to follow with minimal time commitment, and a special event. At every other tournament you can see many Stephano games at random times over a span of three days. You can see Stephano games cast for free on Twitch.tv all the time. But in this example format, Stephano plays one series on Sunday evening at a set time and that’s the match that really matters. That’s the match he’s been preparing for against his specific opponent. That’s the match that the league’s been releasing YouTube videos for, been hyping on their free weekly stream (same time, same place each week… people are creatures of habit), that Stephano’s been talking about (as players are paid a bonus based on the number of buys or views and event does, providing incentive for players to promote the events). And you need to be there if you want to see him play in the one series that matters. That’s the one series that you get together with your buddies once a month to watch.Different isn’t necessarily better, but when you’re both different and more engaging than everyone else, you’ve got success.If you want to make PPV a more social experience, a set card allows this. It stops being a three-day-long chaotic combination of pools, double elimination brackets, and extended series; and instead becomes an hours-long event with a card of high stakes matches that begin at a certain time and happen once a month. An added advantage of adopting a format such as this now is that it serves to differentiate that league from the glut of other organizations holding tournaments all the time. Different isn’t necessarily better, but when you’re both different and more engaging than everyone else, you’ve got success. See UFC’s success without Fedor.
With the glut of esports content today, what will also differentiate one league’s matches from the next is their perceived importance. Pumping out more content in irregular fits and spurts just creates more noise. If this reigning championship is portrayed as, and believed by fans to be, of great importance, suddenly all the league’s content is important. Every match that is played from the bottom of the lowest division to the top of the premiere division is played for the sole purpose of winning that championship. And with a format such as the one laid out above, every second of every match of every series is deathly important. You lose that one series, you’re one step closer to being demoted. You win that one series, you’re one step closer to being crowned champion.
Every league is fighting against the oversaturation, and the importance of your matches is one more important difference maker in standing out above the noise of the rest.
Later we’ll take a look at the potential pitfalls with monkeying with the established formats, take your questions and comments, and wrap things up.
If you have any questions or comments leave them below in the comments and I’ll address them in the last part of this series.
In the meantime, here’s one of my favorite moments from 2012 in esports. The end of the EVO UMvC3 Grand Finals. Hype: