How do esports teams decide which games to support?
As a diehard esports fan, the announcement of a team taking their first steps into a new game is always one of the most exciting news pieces to read. Whether it’s a team that I’m familiar with expanding into a game I haven’t watched yet, or a team that I’m not aware of coming to an esport that I love, such announcements are always exciting for fans.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve wished that a team that you love would pick up a player that you love, or to become involved with your favourite game. For years though, I’ve wondered exactly how esports teams decide on what games they’d like to expand into. What makes a team decide to sign a Street Fighter pro over a Hearthstone player? How do teams decide when its time to pull out of an esports scene?
To answer these questions, I reached out to the brains behind compLexity gaming, Root gaming, and Splyce. I talked to each teams’ respective CEO about the different factors that come into play when expanding into a new game, or leaving a scene that they can no longer be involved with. All three teams had commonalities, but there were certainly differences as well.
For compLexity gaming’s CEO Jason Lake, esports has changed quite a bit. Jason has been entrenched in esports since the early 2000s, predating the current esports boom of mainstream popularity.
‘In the early days it was more about what you liked playing than about business. I started complexity because I loved Counter-Strike and saw a future for it. In modern esports, the potential Twitch viewership comes into play because the more touch points and impressions a game can produce for sponsors, the more valuable the game.'
Complexity predates the creation of Twitch, or even JustinTV, Twitch’s predecessor and former parent company. For many esports fans, its nearly impossible to envision a competitive gaming landscape that doesn’t include livestreaming. As someone who has been in the industry through this transition, Lake is a great example of someone who entered esports through passion, and who now combines that passion with statistics.
Jason spoke to this change within the industry when I asked him about the challenges faced in transitioning into a new game.
"The first challenge has traditionally been financial (but in today's investor funded ecosystem it's less relevant to some).’ He continued on to say ‘to field top tier teams you need competitive player salaries, coaches, managers and quite often a team house. It's important to surround the players with knowledgeable support staff and those costs can grow quite quickly."
Lake said that after they’ve nailed down the financial side of things, complexity starts looking at who they want to sign to the team.
"This isn't necessarily rocket science, but having an eye for talented players or squads who will be the best in 6 or 12 months is a skill not every organization possesses. The dilemma of 'Beta Allstars' can be very real."
What about when its time to pull out of a scene? Lake told me that the decision to leave an esports scene is largely another numbers game, inverse to that of moving into a new scene. However, the decision is once again is a mix of finances and passion.
"When a scene's costs surpass the return and viewership is in decline, a game has peaked and is in danger of becoming part of esports history. Many of us who genuinely love the games do our best to stay loyal to different titles but sometimes the economics dictate exit strategies."
I asked Lake if we’d see coL expanding into any new genres in 2017, but he was tight lipped on details, telling me, "We're still evaluating a few titles for 2017 but nothing I'd like to discuss at this time".
OSC-Root is an organization whose history is intertwined with compLexity, as Root was absorbed into the larger coL brand in 2012. For Root gaming’s Paulo ‘Catz’ Vizcarra, passion is a central factor in decision making for Root. Catz told me that he’s happy to be able to do what he likes for a living. Root is self-sustaining thanks to the team’s sponsors like Twitch, their largest sponsor, and the title now title sponsor, the Oceanic Starleague Chamionship (OSC). Recently, Root incorporated the OSC tag into its official name, becoming OSC-Root.
Despite sponsorship though, Catz told me that Root is still a passion project for him.
"It has been a financial net loss for me as an individual, but ultimately, I am doing what I want to be doing is what it comes down to for me."
Root is known to most as one of the powerhouses of StarCraft 2 outside of Europe and Korea, but they’ve also had some success in Hearthstone, Super Smash bros, Dota 2, Smite, and are currently dipping their toes into Overwatch. Catz told me that the decision to move into different gaming communities is a mix of passion and economics.
"We’ve only had games [that] I play and like," he told me, "When they emerge, it's about opportunity cost; so for example, we had some of the biggest Hearthstone players. The problem is when they grew to be big, they had better offers and the conflict was always between keeping our SC2 players or players in other games that could yield better economical results to us as an organization."
At the end of the day, though, Catz and Root gaming always chose SC2 above the rest. "Kind of self-limiting on that front," said Catz, "We’re always exploring and looking for opportunities regardless, but that is a second priority for me. Either way, we do StarCraft because I like the game and see a value in spreading it; it's taught me enough that I like sharing through it."
Although Root’s approach of putting passion ahead of economics may result in less potential exposure for the brand, the team’s dedication to SC2 has not gone unnoticed. In the past several months, Root has recruited the popular streamer Neuro, up and coming caster Wardi, and the Protoss powerhouse herO. Root even lends its brand to community members like myself and other people producing SC2 content. That sort of passion might not always mean a huge payout for the team, but it's certainly noteworthy.
In 2017, Root is an example of the passion that esports was built on in the early 2000s.
By all rights, Splyce has become one of the biggest esports teams in the world. Stepping into the esports sphere in 2015, Splyce wanted all eyes on them as soon as possible. Through written content and high profile signings, Splyce landed haymakers to the esports news cycle until it was impossible for fans to ignore the brand.
Now, at the time of writing, Splyce has rosters in League of Legends, Call of Duty, CS:GO, Gears of War, Hearthstone, WoW arena, Smash Bros, Overwatch, StarCraft 2 and several streaming partners. Although the organization is based primarily in North America, they have players and staff all around the world.
So how does such an enormous but new esports team decide which games to invest in? Splyce’s owner Marty ‘LazerChicken’ Strenczewilk gave me some insight into the matter.
Like compLexity, Splyce relies on numbers to inform them on their decisions, though other factors do come into play. Strenczewilk told me that "viewership, growth, league structure, monetization, exposure for our brand, developer relation, location and what players/teams are available (will we be able to win?). It also, of course, depends on our budget and what other games we are already in."
With so many factors at play, it seems like Splyce must be playing some three-dimensional chess when making their decisions. Despite the complex nature of these factors, Splyce has still found themselves with one of the most diverse game lineups of any esports team.
After expanding into so many games, Splyce has learned a fair bit about what it takes to make a good first impression on a scene. Strenczewilk told me that "making sure we have the internal knowledge to truly understand the space of that particular game" is key to their success. Splyce also focuses on picking winning teams and players from the outset, which is certainly easier said than done, and perhaps a problem faced only by the most affluent esports teams. Byond that, Strenczewilk says that "monetizing around that game (and) making sure we have the infrastructure to support that game properly" are equally important challenges.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of appropriate timing. With the sad news that KeSPA's famed StarCraft tournament, ProLeague, was coming to an end, and that so many Korean players were finding themselves teamless, Strenczewilk and Splyce saw an opportunity to pull the trigger on expanding into SC2.
"We were looking at SC2 for about six months but never saw the right player for us. The large release of top teir players in Korea opened the rare opportunity to hand pick the player you want who has the right personality, skill and fit for your org".
As for the future? Strenczewilk said that they "don’t have any specific plans for expansion this year, but who knows what the future holds."
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images courtesy of ESL, team press kits, and Root gaming