The key to getting large numbers of people excited enough about anything to the point of separating them from their money–whether it’s a sporting event, an election, or a League of Legends game–is emotional investment. On top of high level play, emotional investment in non-location-based sports is created by (1) a narrative, (2) fans’ strong positive and negative feelings towards competitors, (3) competitors displaying positive and negative feelings between each other, (4) a platform on which competitors can turn themselves into stars, and (5) the fans’ belief that the matches are important or have meaning. The fact is the current formats widely used in commercial e-sports leagues don’t maximize emotional investment as they fail to maximize these five intermingling aspects, and also fail to provide time enough to promote them.
The plethora of tournaments held every year are, knowingly or not, sold around the idea that people will spend time (and eventually money) just to watch high level play. But the number of people willing to tune in to any sport simply for the sake of enjoying high level competition pales in comparison to the number of people who will tune in when emotional investment comes into play. This could be seen last year in the 2011 MLB playoffs, with TV executives bemoaning a potential Brewers-Rangers World Series matchup as it would have resulted in lower ratings. What television ratings show us is that large numbers of people don’t watch a sport for the sake of watching a sport. Large numbers of people tune in to a game because they have an emotional investment in one of the parties involved.
…the number of people willing to tune in to any sport simply for the sake of enjoying high level competition pales in comparison to the number of people who will tune in when emotional investment comes into play.
Fans are clamoring for it. They enjoy discussing the pros as personalities just as much as they enjoy discussing games, and there’s a large demand for a league to not just give players more opportunity to display personality at major events, but to almost force players to let fans see that side of them. This was on full display at a panel at IPL3, as there were more questions about players’ personal lives (what they do for fun, musical tastes, etc.) than about the games themselves. NBC does this with the Olympics. ESPN does this with Monday Night Football. Personality, charisma, and a personal story all work to hook fans, and it’s the responsibility of a league to identify and present this. The league that provides a high-profile stage on which players can display their different, amplified personalities to allow them to become stars will be the be the league that most succeeds in creating that emotional attachment, and building a fan base by giving fans what they want to see. UFC encourages this by paying out bonuses to fighters based on PPV buys and how well they promoted their fights, something I would strongly encourage e-sports to look at. The only difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional gets paid.
Of course, there are issues with a league “making” a star when the players aren’t league-exclusive. That is, IPL could capitalize on the stardom of a player who MLG spent time and money on to help “make” (and vice versa), but the fact of the matter is that stars are what draw money, and there’s no way around that. Boxing is built around Mayweather and Pacquiao. Tennis has Nadal, Federer, Murray, and Djokovic. UFC has a half dozen or so of their own. Non-location-based sports have always been built around stars, and that’s not changing any time soon.
The Product of E-sports
Beyond all the sizzle, the steak of e-sports is players playing games and the outcomes of those games. And it’s impossible to hype or sell a match that isn’t guaranteed to happen, that you don’t know when it will happen, or a match that may not even matter in the eyes of fans.
Commercially, the weekend tournament format has its roots in acting as nothing more than an advertisement. There was never any expectation for these events to turn a profit by selling their own product, they were solely promotional vehicles. (Promotional vehicles in the same vein as The International or the League of Legends Season Championship.) In some ways that’s simply morphed into an independent organization like MLG or IPL running the tournament and allowing multiple other brands to use it as a vehicle. These leagues are turning to PPV because what they’re finding out is that this isn’t enough to sustain their operations.
But let’s go back to the problems tournaments pose to selling matches. The solution to the problem of not being able to promote matches themselves is a tricky one. Obviously, the e-sports-to-MMA analogy isn’t 1:1. It’s important when any sport wants to grow that it doesn’t abandon the fan base that supported them from the beginning. E-sports fans (me included) would reject UFC or boxing-style booking. The idea that anyone can walk in off the street and prove themselves by winning matches is embedded into the DNA of e-sports. The artificial, hokey, and game-show-like aspects of earlier failed attempts like the Championship Gaming Series and G4’s Arena are case studies in what happens when you remove the heart of e-sports and shun the core communities surrounding the games.
These leagues are turning to PPV because what they’re finding out is that this isn’t enough to sustain their operations.
It is possible, however, to keep the soul of e-sports while at the same time using a competitive model that has built-in the necessary time to build and promote narrative, stars, and individual matches. It’s just a matter of slowing down the pace; increasing the number of meaningful, sellable events; tweaking the tournament structure; and trimming redundancy and fat.
Next we’ll take a look at an actual example of what I mean by tweaking the competitive format. If you have any questions or comments leave them below and I’ll address them in the last part of this series.