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.

Thanks, Marcus – a Dyrus obituary

Some of you know that eSports is something I came into by accident; it was never supposed to be a career, but more a hobby.

Marcus helped pull me in.

I started playing League of Legends casually in 2010, a little bit before Season 1. Garen has just been released, putting my start date around April of that year; I was garbage at it, and to a certain extent, I still am.

Marcus helped me get better.

I picked his stream out of a lineup of the popular players of the time; I started with Chauster, migrated to TreeEskimo, then finally found a chill stream with a monotone guy who wasn’t above the occasional trolling.

Marcus wasn’t (and isn’t) totally emotionless; you just had to grasp the subtleties of his happiness, frustration and triumph. When he did emote, you knew it was something both serious and worth paying attention to.

Like that stoic dad who never needed to raise his voice, it became easy to respect the guy behind the keyboard because a lot of us could empathize with what someone in his position faced.

That’s particularly what draws me to eSports: seeing how young men and women with a very specific skill set deal with a massive amount of attention and expectation. Marcus did as well as anyone could have hoped, but also seemed to hide his struggle behind a barrier that few of us will ever really pass by.

And that’s fine. He’s entitled to.

This weekend we saw Marcus’ tearful goodbye speech at the 2015 League of Legends World Championships, along with an outpouring of gratitude and memories. While his statement was somber — he thought he had let his fans down — it felt like he didn’t need to apologize. He tried his best, stayed true to himself, and that was enough.

While some might argue that he isn’t worthy of the praise that people might heap on him now that he’s done, I think there’s value in someone who’s performed at a consistently high level during his career, represented his generation of players and stayed loyal to his teammates.

When others stepped to criticize TSM, Marcus was one to defend them. When people thought to speak for him, he realized that people could never see the whole picture. Like I said before, he was stoic until he needed to be otherwise, and even if people disagreed, they tended to listen.

Despite never winning a Worlds, Marcus will be remembered by the League community as a unique personality and voice. However, as he retires, a number of his posts seem to point towards a period of rest and reinvention.

After giving so much of his time to this game and seeing competitive League of Legends evolve from fighting about players streaming weekly online cups to competing in a full-year, unified league, I would not blame anyone for wanting that time.

While the Internet tends to reward those who go “all in” on their passions to make a living, there’s a sad problem where it tends to suck the fun out of it. For a little while it’s been more evident that long-time players are tired, burned out, and that can cause negative feelings to seep into something they once loved.

Trust me, that really sucks.

Despite League being such a unique and vibrant phenomenenon, sometimes you just need to step back and find out who you truly are. We might see Marcus step back to the spotlight soon, or we might see him fade away and be more comfortable watching from the outside.

I don’t think anyone should blame him for taking either route.

Thanks, Marcus. You were different, in a good way. I hope you find the peace you deserve with the people who support and love you. You gave me a personality to empathize with and follow as I waded into the shallow end of eSports, and you were still there while I tread water in the deep.


Matt Demers writes about eSports from Toronto. Follow him on Twitch and Twitter.

Games in Motion: Dignitas vs Cloud 9 HyperX

Up until this week, I was noting a very worrying trend for LCS matches; I was getting bored. Games lacked a certain competition that usually glues me to the screen; while players can do some wonderful plays in one-sided stomps, I’m a lot more engaged when I’m on the edge of my seat, knowing that the balance of power can shift at any time.

Perhaps that’s what made this match between Dignitas and Cloud 9 HyperX awesome. Dignitas’ run up until that point was rough, as they were thoroughly trounced at the Battle of the Atlantic and ended their first three LCS games with a 1-2 record. Cloud 9, on the other hand, are regarded as the strongest North American team, winning the Season 3 Summer Split and avenging their World Championship loss against Fnatic at BotA.

All predictions pointed to a pretty one-sided match, and a Cloud 9 victory.

But that didn’t happen.


Week 1: North American League Championship Series

Dignitas Cloud 9
Zed (1) Kassadin (2)
Kha’Zix (3) Kayle (4)
Yasuo (5) Annie (6)
Jinx Shyvana
Thresh Elise
Dr. Mundo Riven
Gragas Leona
Vi Lucian

The pick and ban phase told a big story in terms of what each team was looking to do; Dignitas spent all three of their bans on mid-lane champions, denying C9’s Hai any comfort picks. Cloud 9 answered in kind, taking Kayle and Kassadin away from Scarra, and keeping an Annie support from disrupting the diving composition they wanted to build.

With Hai cut off from many of his regular champions, Cloud 9 made the call to choose Riven in order to fit with their theme; each of their picks had abilities to chase and lock down their opponent with crowd-control, letting Cloud 9 outlast engagement and kill those trying to escape.

I don’t want to say that either team lost the game within the pick phase, since no one was forced onto champions they were particularly uncomfortable with. I don’t doubt Hai’s ability to play Riven, but what we’ve seen from these LeBlanc/Zed/Riven mid choices is that they need to snowball quite hard in order to survive.

The game started with a familiar “line of scrimmage” set up, transitioning into a traditional 2v2 bottom lane. From there, the early game progressed pretty evenly; each side got their initial farm without much incident. Early aggression was deflected by supports in the bottom lane, while mid and top traded when they could.

Things picked up at the five-minute mark with a timely gank by Crumbzz’ Vi on Balls’ Shyvana. CruzerTheBruzer’s Dr. Mundo got a great first blood, which gave him a little boost to fend off the Dragon Lady’s relentless push.

The commentators pointed out two things that were extremely relevant: Balls’ goal in the early game was to bully Mundo and take the top tower. He was unable to do so because of Cruzer’s under-tower last-hitting and Vi’s gank killing his momentum. The First Blood gold also let Mundo start building tanky right away, which kept him from getting forced out of lane.

While this was going on, however, Cloud 9 equalized the momentary advantage by taking Dragon immediately and sending Riven to keep their top tower from taking too much damage. Both of these actions kept a snowball from forming, and almost reset the tension of the match.

This game had a very distinct ebb and flow. When Scarra swung momentum in Dignitas’ favour with a solo kill on Riven, it was hard to celebrate; fans know how good Cloud 9 is, and that they could take that power back whenever they wanted.

To their effort, LemonNation’s Leona and Sneaky’s Lucian tried to do just that soon after in the bottom lane with the help of Meteos’ Elise, but great positioning by KiWiKiD’s Thresh allowed Imaqtpie’s Jinx to escape despite her Flash being down. The Box took up such a large portion of the bottom lane that Sneaky was kept on the other side of it; without any major source of damage, the gank was called off.

Moments later, a counter-engage by Vi left both teams with little health, but no kills; even a roaming Gragas couldn’t find anything due to Sneaky’s timely Flash. Opinion on the roam was a bit split, as the commentators lamented that Scarra couldn’t pick up any kills; however, as Coast Gaming’s Alex Penn pointed out:

Cloud 9 took the second dragon of the game with a bit of a Cold War standoff; no one from Dignitas engaged, which is almost a little strange. For those of us who’ve followed the team for a while, this kind of restraint is a marked improvement; losing multiple members at that dragon fight could have easily meant a revitalized Cloud 9.

It was clear, however, that Dignitas wanted to take advantage of a trend we’ve seen emerge from Cloud 9; the latter is successful because all of their lanes are individually strong. However, when placed in a situation when they’re working from behind, or when one lane loses convincingly, it may be difficult for them to catch back up.

Hai’s Riven had an especially difficult game, with Dignitas punishing him repeatedly to the point where he was a non-factor in later team fights. While I don’t want to single this out as the chief reason they won, a Riven without any items is like a LeBlanc without items: significantly less scary.

On the other hand, Scarra’s Gragas getting fed was exactly what Dignitas needed. It was clear by the mid-game that he was out-damaging Riven with only a couple of Doran’s Rings and a partially completed Zhonya’s Hourglass. He was also instrumental in dispersing her dives with Explosive Cask, leaving Hai on the outside of most melees.

By the fifteen minute mark, Dignitas stood with a five to zero kill score, but less than a 1,000 gold advantage. Checking the gold totals, many matches were even despite C9 lacking in kills.

The scoreboard also told another interesting story: Crumbzz’ Vi had been involved in all but one of those kills, and it was clear that he was a key reason they had a lead at all. Vi was able to close gaps or immobilize key targets at just the right time; despite Cloud 9’s champions being suited to the chase, they had to burn these gap-closers to avoid Vi’s wrath, putting them on cooldown.

While the small lead in gold was a testament to Cloud 9’s game sense and farming ability, I feel like there was a point where they got frustrated and tried to force some team fights without the necessary vision. A 6-1 lead crept to 10-3 in Dignitas’ favour after an engagement lead to the deaths of Vi and Thresh, but allowed Dignitas’ Jinx and Gragas to mop up.

The important thing to note here is that Dignitas made a concerted effort to peel for Imaqtpie, letting him get crucial ramp-up auto-attacks on Jinx‘s minigun. QT’s always been a slippery character (usually on Ezreal), but playing an escape-less Jinx seems to have put those senses into overdrive. There was no hesitation or over-commitment; it was a nice, pleasant balance that netted him a big lead over his lane opponent.

The rest of the game felt a bit surreal, as I’m not used to Dignitas playing consistently enough to avoid heartbreak. They traveled as team, focused down appropriate targets, warded competently and genuinely out-fought Cloud 9.

All these little advantages came together quite nicely: Imaqtpie’s Jinx was a damage source and focal point for Cloud 9, allowing Scarra’s Gragas to focus on laying down AOE damage and disperse dive attempts with his Explosive Cask. By this time, CruzerTheBruzer’s Dr. Mundo had three tank items of his own, adding considerable bulk to their frontline, while both KiWiKiD’s Thresh and Crumbzz Vi provided engage and disengage.

It’s like someone basically injected Dignitas with a steroid that allowed them to play these champions and their composition’s function to the best of their ability.

They also somehow were able to siphon Cloud 9’s brainpower, as Dignitas didn’t panic when they were suddenly faced with a huge lead. There was no Dignitoss at Baron, costly tower dives, lengthy chases or unnecessary lonely roams. When they took down an inhibitor, they accessed their ability to get another one; when they were turned away from a push, they picked another lane and shoved safely.

Their eventual gold lead gave them a cushion of damage and tankiness that Cloud 9 just didn’t have; Ball’s Shyvana couldn’t provide a necessary front line and LemonNation’s Leona was not an equivalent substitute. Their victory was not flashy, but systematic; they put themselves in a position where victory was the only option, and executed.

I’m proud of Dignitas in this match because they did not win with a crazy level one fight, nor did they play some outlandish composition that Cloud 9 had trouble countering. You could see each individual player shining in their own way – especially KiWiKiD, who has been steadily improving his Thresh. In the end, they made better choices than they usually do and simply outplayed the North American champions.

It’s not every day that you can say you did that; I just hope that this isn’t some one-time greatness that we’ll never see again.

In short, Dignitas:

  1. Defused Shyvana and kept her from taking an early tower; this kept her from finishing Blade of the Ruined King quickly in order to progress to tank items
  2. Killed Hai repeatedly, and kept Riven from farming an advantage back
  3. Forced attention onto QTPie’s Jinx, allowing Scarra to remain relatively untouched.
  4. Chose smart engagements with Vi and withheld skills (Flash and Explosive Cask, notably) until they were absolutely needed
  5. Remained calm and took objectives when the necessary vision groundwork had been laid. No knee-jerk reactions to equalize Cloud 9’s progress

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