Who benefits? ESPN, TSM, and the great eSports gold rush

Who benefits? ESPN, TSM, and the great eSports gold rush

Disclosure: I worked at theScore eSports from Jan 2015 to Nov 2015. I worked with Rod Breslau and Tyler Erzberger during my time there, and edited their work. Darin Kwilinski edited my work while I worked at Azubu from April to June 2014. All three now work at ESPN.

ESPN, the largest sports media company in the world, launched an eSports vertical today. This is obviously a big deal for a number of people, as the opportunity of writing somewhere stable will enable more people to make a living from eSports.

It’s important to note, though, that the writers aren’t the only ones who are going to be looking to get in the company’s good graces; for many eSports teams, ESPN’s entrance marks huge potential to catapult themselves into a whole new audience.

If you’re familiar with enthusiast journalism (like with gaming, comics or film), you know that relationship-building dictates a lot of your success. You need to be able to give reasons for people to visit your site, and in most cases, this comes in the form of exclusives — things you have that no one else does, or things you have first.

A big thorn in any publication’s side is the building and maintaining of relationships so these kind of exclusives can flow freely. In most cases, leaks will be attributed to a nameless source, in order to protect that person from backlash within their company; however, this means your readers’ trust is often only as strong as the length of time since your last mistake.

In eSports, the lack of a players’ union means that leaks and exclusives that may paint people unfavorably can result in a loss of trust, punishment or straight-up blacklisting. If a team can’t find anyone to punish, they might just go after the publication themselves, denying them access to players or statements. I wrote about this in 2013.

ESPN thankfully doesn’t have to worry about any of this, because they’re ESPN.

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Let’s put ourselves in, say, TSM’s shoes here, for a second.

I’m Andy “Reginald” Dinh, owner of Team Solomid. I’ve built up probably the most successful Western brand in League of Legends, had a respectable CS:GO team in the past, and currently sponsor a number of smaller players in other games upon which I make a decent return. However, I’ve realized that I’ve started to hit a bit of a wall.

With the eSports or general “gamer” audience, my brand has become huge. Because I’m at the forefront of many of the games I sponsor, I’ve seen my acquisition of fans plateau. However, there’s only a limited amount of people that I can hope to convert to new fans, as there’s a good chance that anyone who knows eSports knows who we are already.

So, where do I go from there?

What ESPN represents in a new acquisition stream for eSports, as not only will industry fans be checking it out, but legions of new people, as well; if they were on the fence about the hobby’s acceptability or viability, they likely won’t be now. If TSM positions themselves as “the people’s team” in the games that ESPN covers by providing exclusives that place them prominently, new fans will see them as a logical jumping on point.

Ask any new NBA, NFL or football fan: if they’re new to the game, they’re at least going to know who the Lakers, Patriots or Real Madrid are. They know because their players are famous, and the teams have a good shot at either going far in the playoffs, or winning the whole league. They have bandwagons that can fit whole cities inside of them.

While many will look at their local sports teams, there’s only so much heartbreak they can take (ask Torontonians); fans, especially new ones, want to feel like they are part of something special, and there’s no more special feeling in sports than seeing the team that you’re cheering for win the big one. That feeling turns to loyalty. That loyalty turns to money.

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This leaves us with ESPN having substantially more leverage than arguably any other eSports publication before it, because they take the present arrangement of teams usually having larger followings than the people who cover them and flip it back to what large media is used to. Historically, musicians, artists or organizers would want their stories in the news, because the exposure was always worth it.

Due to their mainstream audience, resources and the respectability that comes with being covered by ESPN, the network now has something to offer top-tier eSports teams. Instead of teams producing interviews themselves (which keep the ad dollars and followers generated in-house), there is reason to let someone else in.

From my experience, teams know the current arrangement, and will use it to their advantage; they know that anyone asking for interviews do so because their players will drive traffic. This is why the TSMs, the Cloud9s, the Fnatics and the Evil Geniuses of the world are rarely going to turn down the BBCs, the CNNs and the HBOs: they represent an opportunity to make themselves into a friendly, well-spoken face for the new eSports fan to attach themselves to. The trick is making sure they don’t leave.

I’d like to wish ESPN well with their entrance into eSports journalism, as I hope the organization has the patience to see the vertical grow. While they likely won’t be flawless (no one ever is), they will likely enjoy an advantage that most publications don’t: they’ll be the hot girl without a date to the prom, rather than the ones holding up the wall.


Matt Demers writes about the eSports industry in between losing MMR for BetterDota and experimenting with social media. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch and YouTube.

“Who Benefits?” is a series of posts looking into different eSports media issues and how the average fan can think more critically about them. Previous posts about Team Ember and Team OG are live.

Twitch and the art of running marathons

Twitch and the art of running marathons

While Twitch.tv has made huge strides in terms of user engagements, the past two years have seen the rise of a form of entertainment that deserves special mention: the marathon.

Watching something for long periods isn’t exactly something new: before Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, people decided they needed a refresher on the series, and many more people will make the twelve-hour journey through the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions. However, what makes the Twitch brand of marathons interesting isn’t so much the content, but the factors that allow them to thrive.

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while, mostly because it flies in the face of what many analysts will tell us about the consumption habits of the modern viewer: I mean, how many times have you heard of millennials’ short attention spans when it comes to Twitter, Vine and Instagram?

Bring back the watermark, save your content

Friends, I think it’s time we had a serious talk. This might be a bit of a controversial topic, but I think we’re at the point where revisiting something might save us a bit of a headache in the long run.

I think it’s time we start being obnoxious about watermarking.

I know, I know; watermarking is probably the easiest way to scream “terrible experience” to a prospective viewer of your stuff. Watermarks stick out like a sore thumb, and by being distracting you could argue that they lower the quality of the piece just by being there.

However, I think the negatives of their inclusions are outweighed by the fact that content theft on the Internet is getting downright stupid. You’ve seen it before — you’ve had to — some family member or friend shares a post from a local radio station that’s a YouTube mirror of someone’s Vine. It might not even be a Vine – it might even be something they ripped from another channel and uploaded it like it was original.

You look at the Likes/Shares/Views/Retweets/Reblogs, and that post has hundreds, if not thousands. The original author will never get the benefit of them. The re-poster doesn’t give a shit about where it came from or crediting it properly. The viewers don’t care about where it came from; they get their chuckle, they move on.

They’ll throw out a caption saying that they “don’t know who made this, but it’s .” That’s a shitty deal. ‘s might be a nice gesture, but it sure as hell doesn’t put money in your pocket, or followers in your tally.

So I think it’s time we did something about it.

There’s a good argument for keeping watermarks off your product; you are almost guaranteed to get complaints about it, and pissing off your audience is never a good thing.

However, it’s gone beyond innocent misunderstandings to full-blown cottage industrys. Your content is making people rich. Your content is getting people book deals. Your content is building other peoples’ success.

They are hiding behind “parody” accounts and “curator” titles, and at worst, will make people think they’re doing you a favor — saying “it’s good exposure” doesn’t fly when you aren’t giving out credit in the first place.

This video does a pretty good job of summarizing it. NSFW language, at times.


When you put in hard work and expertise into something, do you not think you deserve to be rewarded for it? With ad rates in the tank (and adblockers costing publishers an estimated $22 billion in 2015 based off of a study by Pagefair and Adobe in August), there has been a renewed look at crowdfunding, patronage and sponsorship to help make your creative product sustainable. If your content isn’t growing your community as much as it could — and worse, growing someone else’s more — why wouldn’t you try to take that back?

I’m not saying you should be plastering your whole video with marquee, but the next time you’re about to publish something, take a look at it and think: how hard would it be for someone to rip me off? How hard would it be for someone to download the original, crop out my corner watermark and re-post it? How much does it mean to me to be recognized and rewarded for the hard work and expertise I put into it? Is there a way that I can make sure that it’s easy to attribute it to me?

I know this kind of suggestion will likely make photographers, vloggers and streamers nervous; especially for the first group, theft is a huge problem, but ruining customer experience might lead to less licensing or sales. It’s also harder to get people to recognize you as a good talent if they cannot appreciate the full scope of it with a watermark marring it.

Considering the manpower and effort it takes to hunt down theft and deal with it through terrible, apathetic systems (I’m looking at you, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram), it might we worth having the mental argument with yourself to see which route you’d like to take.

Over the past year I have firmly come to believe that the average consumer of content (the one who has no personal investment in your product, because he/she doesn’t know who you are) does not care how the sausage gets made. They do not care where or how they get their content, so long as they get to enjoy it. This sadly presents us with an insurmountable problem: we cannot go into every person’s house who watched your lifted video and educate them on why they should give a shit.

All we can really do is present a way for those who want to support and learn more about the person who made the original piece; if they care enough, they’ll follow, share and support. However, counting on someone else — the thief — to do that when they have no inclination to is equally as much a fool’s errand.

So go ahead. Put that Twitter handle watermark where it’s impossible to crop out. Throw a “don’t steal my photography” in 50% opacity. Reclaim a little bit of what people are taking from you, because I can assure you, otherwise they will not give a fuck.


Matt Demers writes about eSports and the Internet from his place in Toronto, Ontario. Please don’t copy-paste this article. Follow me on Twitch and Twitter, and subscribe to my newsletter.

Who benefits? Ember and public player salaries

This is going to be the start of a new series called “Who Benefits.” At its core, the series looks at marketing and PR decisions in eSports in a critical way in order to attempt to decipher choices and why they’re made.

The origin of the name comes from a panel in DC Comics’ Identity Crisis #4, published in 2004. Faced with a murder mystery of the wife of a fellow hero’s wife, Batman is tasked with determining a motive and possible culprits. He muses:

It’s the first rule of solving a crime. If you want to know who did it, you need to find out who benefits.

The stuff I’m going to be writing about are not crimes, nor the people who make them criminals. I’ve found, though, that “who benefits?” is a great question to put yourself in a mindset to look at choices made by companies that might have more motivations than what’s on the surface.

Whether these motivations are good or bad are up to interpretation.


Today’s post is going to be about Ember Gaming, who took some initiative and did something that eSports teams rarely do: they talked about money.

Obviously in the West there’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to talking about salaries. In most workplaces, talking about what you make is discouraged, mostly because it presents an uncomfortable situation for the company where employees may be surprised to know that their current salary is lower than their perceived worth. An employee who knows that someone else who does “less” work is paid more may resent that, especially if they cannot negotiate a higher salary.

In eSports, salaries and revenue are usually a pretty big mystery. Twitch, Google Adsense, YouTube and other platforms have clauses in their TOS that keep the amounts private; someone using those platforms who disclose the exact money that they’re making stands to lose their account (and often their earnings with it.)

However, Ember decided to make their players’ salaries public in a Medium post by their owner, Jonathan Pan.

Bonuses include sign-on and performance.

  • Gleeb — $57,500 base, $15,000 in bonuses, total comp $72,500
  • Contractz — $60,000 base, $10,000 in bonuses, total comp $70,000
  • Goldenglue — $65,000 base, $27,000 in bonuses, total comp $92,000
  • Solo — $65,000 base, $21,000 in bonuses, total comp $86,000
  • Benjamin— $60,000 base, $15,000 in bonuses, total comp $75,000

For context, Ember are not a LCS team, but will compete in the North American Challenger Series during Spring 2016. They do not have any sponsors, nor are they backed by any headline-friendly source of money, like the Sacremento Kings’ owner forming NRG.

As far as I can tell, they are hoping that they will be able to build up an organic brand with money from investors, perhaps including members of Bitkraft, an eSports investment group that Pan is a part of. Bitkraft was founded by Jens Hilgers — founder, former CEO, former chair, current member of the Supervisory Board of ESL. [Edit: Pan (or someone from Ember) has informed me that Bitkraft are not investors, nor will they be in the future.]

Brands with large, loyal followings are more likely to sell for more money later on down the road, or at least remain healthier for longer periods of time.

As many former Challenger players can attest, Challenger players do not regularly make this level of money; many community members have also noted that the perceived values of the players included (many of whom have not competed at a top level) may not warrant that salary level.

Those things don’t really matter in the context of this blog; again, the main thing to ask ourselves is “Who benefits from publishing this?”

Keep in mind, these points below are subjective, and merely my opinion.

Benefactor: Ember

One of Ember’s main motivations in publishing this piece is marketing and introducing themselves to a League of Legends audience who usually gives bigger teams a bigger portion of mindshare.

Had they not involved themselves in this debate, there’s a good chance their players and team would not be as prominent, as they’ve now established themselves as “the team who cares.” Much like Renegades before them, Ember are attempting to break the hegemony of the TSM/Cloud9/CLG trifecta in North America by establishing their identity as player-focused, independent, and different.

The messages that they’re sending imply a focus on being genuine, and hoping that resonates with an audience, and that audience will take their actions at face value. According to them, Ember are plucky. They’re willing to do what other teams do “for the good of the players.” They are willing to take risks. They are willing to invest in their players to become better people.

Selected quotes from the piece:

We believe in family, friends, lovers, and community.

That is why we decided against purchasing a LCS slot directly. We would rather invest in the challenger scene and work with regional players who want the opportunity to compete at the highest level of esports.

Companies have more leverage when there is information asymmetry. And that’s wrong. Last night, we shared our players’ salaries with each other. Today, we are going to share this information with the rest of the esports world so that players in CS and LCS are armed with some facts before their next negotiation.

Ember are hoping that by getting involved in a player welfare debate they will be regarded as being on the correct side of it. Due to taking definitive action in starting the debate, they ensure that they will always be mentioned when it is; if TSM or any other team comment on this issue, Ember will be linked to it.

That means a bigger audience for their team, which means a bigger potential for return on investment.

This is crucial for a team like Ember, as eSports teams are finding that their potential audience is shrinking with every new announcement. As Ember do not have the hook of a novelty behind their formation (like say, Mark Cuban buying a team), they need to find a way to stick out from the deluge of other news.

So why not establish themselves as one of the good guys? Why not set themselves up as an underdog that fans will believe are making a morally right decision? Why not have that kind of positivity and goodwill attached to your brand?

If this becomes the dominant narrative, Ember gain a number of side benefits, as well:

  • Positive mainstream coverage when/if that reaches publications. “Breaking the mold” stories are always good for business.
  • Mediocre play becomes forgivable, to a point. Organizations who treat their players well usually have a lot more leeway.
  • They become seen as a more modern brand for eSports moving forward. A lot of the language in the post is consistent with the Venture Capitalist/entrepreneurship crowd, enabling their owners to take thought leadership roles.
  • Said thought leadership roles become valuable when bigger money becomes involved in eSports. As larger teams become “claimed” by larger sponsors, latecomers will look for more stable opportunities.

In short, Ember want to avoid getting lost in the shuffle and put the best foot forward when it comes to launching their team. By doing something that allows them to set a narrative about their organization, their values and their impact on eSports, they ensure that people will likely remember them enough to come check out their games despite their lack of star power.

They also hope that by presenting a genuine image, they will build loyal, enthusiastic fans who want to believe they are helping to change eSports for the better, even if fans see no benefit themselves.

I’d say this strategy has paid off for them, as the response on Reddit and across forums seems positive among the rank-and-file, non-professional observer. Ember are seen as doing something positive and different, and are shaking up a faceless industry which is easy to push blame onto.

While others may bring up issues with the model, the average viewer may not think critically enough to care, or may have moved on to the next shiny thing by now. The vagueness of the immediate impact works in Ember’s favor, here: we may not know if it even matters in the long term, but in the short, they definitely “win” as much as they could have.


Matt Demers writes about eSports while living in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch and sign up for his newsletter about eSports and culture.

Fishing for pre-feedback, and how it hurts your product

Today I’d like to start a series of posts where I examine some of my pet peeves when it comes to content creation. These posts will attempt to deconstruct bad habits and common mistakes I see made, as well as provide decent reasoning for thinking them a problem.

As a disclaimer:

This article is not based off of anyone specific, nor is it meant to be passive-aggressive. This is more to help explain my methodology when it comes to making content, and pass on some of the stuff I’ve had to learn the hard way.

I’ve been guilty of every point I’m about to write about in the past; all I can say is that I’ve come to view them as mistakes.


Part 1: Stop fishing for pre-feedback

Fishing for pre-feedback occurs when you make a post about something you’d like to do in the future with the intention of seeing if “anyone would read/watch it.”

Here’s the thing: asking that question hobbles you in a number of way that outweighs the focus group testing that you think you’re doing.

For starters, it makes you look like you aren’t confident in your own product. No matter what your level of success it, your direction should be your own. You should know whether something is going to be received well or not – if it’s something that won’t be, but you want to do it anyway, response should not dictate whether you take the plunge.

Putting what you do in the hands of random people on Twitter means you are sacrificing your identity to those who can be fickle, misguided or selfish. In short, you need to be doing this for you as much as you’re doing this for them, because the passion you bring to your project bleeds into it. Something created with interest and drive will turn out better than content that isn’t.

It also causes a problem where it creates expectation in the finished product. As many of us know, starting something new is a process of compromise: we have a vision in our heads, but sometimes you need to be able to change things as needed.

For example, if I asked my Twitter following if anyone would like the concept for BetterDota, there’s a good chance that some people would respond positively. However, if I over-promised and wasn’t able to deliver, people would remember.

Originally, BetterDota was going to be a lot more ambitious, and only telling a select few people of my idea allowed me to gauge interest and tweak it when I realized that five videos a week would be a little too much work.

Sometimes, privacy is project planning is liberating, because if you’re going to mess up or drastically alter an idea, doing it without people noticing allows you to lose fear associated with trying new things. It allows you to eventually launch your product with confidence, knowing it’s something that you can handle because you’ve set the terms and experimented.

In short: do something because you want to do it, not because other people are hyped for it. When you eventually do make your idea public, having something tangible to present rather than just an idea creates a much better first impression. I can tell you from experience: having someone ask what happened to a project you hyped up and then abandoned sucks.

Lastly, and perhaps most dangerously, when you fish for pre-feedback you run the risk of satisfying your ego to the point where the work never gets started.

Many writing teachers I’ve had fight over the idea of whether telling an audience about an idea is a good thing or a bad thing: on one hand, you become committed/responsible once that idea is in public, but on the other, your ego can get stroked enough to kill the drive to actually follow through. It’s important to remember that your audience always remembers being lied to: they will likely only stand this a couple times before calling you out on it.

You also owe it to yourself to knuckle down, create, and then release. You owe it to yourself to be consistent, improve yourself, and earn that praise. It builds resilience, habit, and an organic audience.

While your self-worth should never be determined by the amount of views or follows you get, your brand and progress are built with shipped products, not ideas. Ideas count for nothing if they don’t get made.

Part of building a brand and respect as a creator is doing the leg work, having a vision, putting something out there to getting torn apart, and then doing — like DJ Khaled says so eloquently — another one.

Working in eSports is a grind, and as gamers, we know that experience well. There is a lot of work that will never be seen by a larger audience, and you will rarely get a pat on the back for the time spent learning, experimenting and failing.

However, I can assure you that failing fast and failing often allows you to truly get a feel for your identity and what sets you apart from other content creators. It keeps you from becoming a copy of someone whose success you envy, but will never achieve yourself. It keeps you from becoming a meme machine Facebook Page that rips peoples’ stuff off for hits.

It builds a pride and confidence that allows you to stop caring about what other people think, which is more than a high school platitude: it is probably the single most important quality to have in terms of maintaining motivation, drive and mental health.

The grind makes you stronger. Seeing an idea you had take off is one of the best feelings in the world.

However, half-assing it (or let’s be real, not trying at all) means you’re admitting that you don’t deserve that success in the first place.

Get out there, put your head down, and work.


Matt Demers has written about eSports since 2012. You’ll be able to find another instalment in this series soon — and yes, it will get made. Follow him on Twitter.