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.

TSM Banner

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.

EVO 2014 Banner

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.

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.

The real winners of The Summit 4: Team OG

The real winners of The Summit 4: Team OG

Like many Dota fans, I had the chance to watch The Summit 4 this past week. The Summit, produced by studio Beyond the Summit, tends to be a bit of a gift to the community in the sense that it’s a casual environment for pros to compete with eachother while interacting with the audience through commentary. Whether they take that chance, though, depends on them.

I had the chance to go to The Summit 3 back in May of this year, and had a great experience. However, I noticed that there were definitely a couple different types of pros: some were content to hang around the house, while some decided to leave for the hotel immediately after winning or losing their sets.

Even though Evil Geniuses won The Summit 4, and Team Secret won The Summit 3, I believe that the true winners are the ones who take the time to put in the extra hours in a comfortable, inviting setting to increase their presence on camera.

If we go by that metric, I think the real winners of The Summit 4 were Team OG.

A bit of history: Team OG were formerly (monkey) Business, a Western team formed in August 2015 after The International 5. Johan “BigDaddy” Sundstein reunited with former Fnatic teammate Tal “Fly” Aizik, who competed with David “MoonMeander” Tan with compLexity Gaming at TI. Andreas “Cr1t-” Franck Nielsen was picked up after ping-ponging around multiple mid-level European teams, and Amer “Miracle-” al-Barqawi brought the hype and uncertainty that comes with being a ladder star, but having relatively low competitive experience.

Considering the calamity that comes with the post-TI atmosphere, I was ready to see (monkey) Business become another team that tried something new, then broke up when the going got tough. BigDaddy had had a middling time with Cloud9 at TI, and his shift back to the mid lane role that he excelled at in Heroes of Newerth was an uncertainty. Fly and Moon’s TI went better than most people expected, but coL crumbled in the lower bracket. Cr1t- and Miracle- were unknown factors, and could easily be duds.

As with most things in these cases, I was pretty happy to be wrong.

It turns out that in esports it’s standard for the best orgs to own the rights to the players they contract. There’s so little transparency, if any, between the players and the organization. Players are often never consulted on what brands they will be promoting. They’re never included in decision making.

This is why we’re launching OG.

(monkey) Business turned into Team OG at the end of October. They announced that they would be “bankrolled” by Hitbox.tv, a Twitch.tv competitor that I primarily know as where games Twitch doesn’t like go to stream. Games like Hatred (violence porn), Huniepop (porn porn) or Project M (dubious legality) find homes and fans on Hitbox, and while the viewer numbers rarely compare to Twitch, the company seems principled and committed to getting better; hell, they even have 4K streaming now (RIP bandwidth).

Team OG joining Hitbox meant that they would be given a degree of autonomy, but would still be leashed to streaming on the platform. For many people reading this, you know that similar arrangements rarely work out for the teams involved unless they receive a large enough contract amount to offset the lower discovery rate and the “inconvenience” of an audience having to leave Twitch.

Ironically, BigDaddy was involved in a similar agreement when he was part of Fnatic, as he was obligated to stream on Azubu. His once-high stream numbers dwindled without the same exposure, and his partnership with them ended when he left Fnatic; the team have since returned to Twitch. [Disclosure: I worked at Azubu as a contract content writer during the time Fnatic were at the company. I had no interaction with the team during that time.]

Many of us know that the digital consumer can be finicky and lazy; if they can’t consume content in a way they’re used to, it can be difficult to convince them to change venues or put in extra work to find the same content. OG ran a huge risk in going to Hitbox: would their audiences follow them? Would they even have audiences at all?

The Summit 4 banner

This brings us back to The Summit.

Team OG took some initiative at the event, casting multiple games from the couch when they probably could have spent the time preparing for their matches. The matches went so well that many Reddit threads and social media matches praised them, asking for more. Beyond the Summit must have liked the experience, because they actually labelled the games they cast as “OG Casts,” like the video below.

In the casts, the players showed both their expertise and their personality, which is essential for any eSports player wanting to expand their audience. Those two facets of a player are main drivers in follows, engagement, and spending: you either think the player is amazing at the game they play, or you think they’re entertaining as hell.

For Team OG, this is absolutely crucial in their stage of development, because if they want to keep control of their brand, they need to be able to have numbers that bring leverage. I didn’t have the foresight to track numbers from before the event, but I can only imagine how much their personal Twitter numbers shot up during that time.

We all want to have more control over the content we put out. We love streaming and see it as by far one of the most important ways for us to kick back with our fans and soak up the DOTA2 universe. The guys at Hitbox believe in making sure players are on equal footing with the organization; they will continue to guide, sponsor, and help us every step of the way.They’ve been incredible to work with in getting us here. Go check out Hitbox.tv, register and prepare your bodies for our streams.

Looking at the team on Twitter, it’s clear which players have the bigger following: Fly and BigDaddy have momentum from their time on Fnatic, a huge name in eSports in general.

  • BigDaddy – 85.8k
  • Fly – 36.6k
  • Moon – 22.2k
  • Miracle- – 18.3k
  • Cr1t- – 14.2k

However, I can imagine that both Cr1t- and Moon got a big boost from this event, as they spent their fair share of time on the couch. Fly got a lot of positive feedback from being the “straight man” to counteract jokers, which is a great position to be in: like the boy bands of the late 90s, having a social niche helps cater to the individual tastes of fans, but it doesn’t matter at all if you aren’t trying.

OG may have won the Frankfurt Major, but the team stands to lose a lot of momentum if they can’t keep their winning ways up. Even worse, if one member of the team stands out in a specific way, they risk getting picked up by a team with a bigger budget. Team OG’s strength is in their unity for the moment, and being able to give themselves an injection of fan support is crucial to their continued success.

Being able to show initiative in investing in a team’s stability is a good sign for a brand; while I doubt they all had a meeting and said “we’re going to try to be on the couch as much as possible,” it does nothing but good things to put forth the effort.

Speaking a little to other teams, I really hope that more recognize that this kind of interaction should be part of their job. The gameplay is the core foundation, sure, but the fan support is the reinforcement and safety net. If you suddenly get injured, kicked, or your results fade, having a secondary form of support (the entertainment) means that you will be able to try to fix your problems in a more comfortable environment with less pressure.

This isn’t to say that a team should get too comfortable, but knowing that you’ll be able to keep the lights on while you grind your way back to the top definitely removes a lot of stress.

So congrats, OG. I hope you’ll be around for the next Summit, and that your player-led focus works. God knows we could use some new variance in the way organizations are run.


Matt Demers writes about eSports from Toronto, Canada, and catalogues his attempts to improve at Dota at BetterDota.com. Check it out, and subscribe to his newsletter if you like his writing.