Two weeks ago I got some pretty good news; I would be travelling to Los Angeles to do social media for an esports company called Beyond the Summit. BTS does an assortment of Dota and Smash Bros events, and would be hosting a four-day-long coverage hub for the upcoming Manila Major Qualifiers.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I recently had the chance to play around with the Dota 2 Reborn beta after it launched earlier this week. Obviously, being a beta, there’s a bunch of stuff that needs to be improved — things like connectivity issues during custom games, spectating and Hero MMR are all kind of struggling.
However, I thought I’d write a bit about what I did like, which was quite a lot; as I said before, in my previous blog post, the main enjoyment I’m getting out of this is knowing that Valve are implementing and improving Reborn so quickly that it doesn’t feel like I have to just deal with the crap for the foreseeable future.
The interface for Reborn is smooth as hell, and that’s something that really makes me grin. With some games you just feel good going through the menus, and this is one of those times.
There’s less of a loading time going from tab to tab. Things load quickly, and assets rarely “snap in” unless there’s some kind of model to load. For screens like the hero select or the armory, you have an easy-to-navigate set of buttons that click, snap and shift with awesome effects.
Things like the “ready to play” button moving from “accept” to a list of icons to show who’s ready just look awesome.
The Friend Feed
These kind of features tend to be a little cyclical: if no one uses them, they fall by the wayside. However, I’ve made a habit of checking and commenting on friends’ stuff from time to time, just to give a bit of light-hearted ribbing or just see if it works.
Knowing that my friends are playing and progressing gives me an idea of where I stack up against them, and that’s always a motivator to get better. I’ve been playing more Dota over the last two weeks than I have in months, and having incentives like streaming, the Compendium and friends to play/compete with are really helping me get more out of the game.
It also helps to see who’s queuing up for custom games, and I’ve already found myself grabbing lobbies with people I haven’t talked to in years because “hey, what’s one game?”
The Game Itself
Reborn made a bunch of changes to the map, both aesthetically and functionally, and from the few games I’ve played on it I really enjoy it. It’s not something so huge that I’m sitting there saying “Damn, never again am I going back to Source 1,” but at the same time things feel snappier: I played a Viper game where killing creeps seemed simpler. I played a Keeper of the Light game where I was a bit let scatterbrained than normal. I had more awareness. I was more clutch.
Completely subjective, obviously, but that’s the whole point of this article – for all I know, playing on Reborn with the mentality of trying something new out could’ve given me a huge placebo effect.
I mean, that’s at least better than hating it, right?
I really can’t wait for Reborn to get to the point where the things I love about Dota 2 1.0 (heh) are implemented: I play a lot of Compendium Challenge games, and not having those count for heroes and challenges kind of sucks.
Like I said, though, I’m amazed that there’s been a wealth of changes already from Valve to fix things that players are noticing: this isn’t something that’s released as a novelty in order to sit on the shelf and rot. This is the next life of Dota 2, and hopefully one that will last as long as possible.
In short, it’s pretty awesome from the get-go, but what’s really great is that this is only the foundation from where things get better.