Esports Heaven got to sit down with the Esports Historian, Duncan "Thorin" Shields, to discuss the fate of Arena FPS & RTS, a hypothetical universe where Riot was more "hands-off" with League of Legends, and more.
This is part 1 of a two-part interview, stay tuned for part 2.
This interview was conducted through audio and transcribed by the interviewer.
We’ve seen you dip your toes a few times into offering analysis and coverage of traditional sports like MMA and basketball. Do you see yourself expanding in this direction more seriously, and if not, what is preventing you from doing so?
Yeah, I think it's almost certain I actually will. The key question is the aspect of how serious it is. I would say I only do the occasional piece. Like you were referencing I was doing some writing with Pinnacle when I was working with them—who I don't work with now because I have a different betting related sponsor—where they specifically pitched me the idea of since they do sports betting and esports, they asked if I had ideas for pieces where I could talk about both at the same time.
The idea was, you had two draws to it. Maybe the guy who's a little bit into Counter-Strike, but is reading my article about the NFL—might want to bet on CS then.
I think that was the premise of it. I don't really know how effective it was, but it was good for me. It allowed me to experiment with that format. So I would say especially after having done it—without sounding arrogant, since it's an inherently arrogant statement—I'm shocked at how bad sports writing in general is.
I think compared to esports it's not bad, it's probably at a similar level. But I would even say some of the really great thinkers and writers in esports are levels above a lot of people in sports. I know there's the odd person who is very, very good at sports writing. But even then, a lot of the really great people, even some of the people that—I'll even say names just to make people upset—if I said someone like Zach Lowe, everyone's gonna go, "Wow, incredible! Yeah, one of the best!" Yeah, he is.
But he also is utterly himself trapped in very simple sports media narratives that you would hope great thinkers would transcend and go beyond. But unfortunately, they are all in a little clique of journalists. And they are all people who at the end of the day want validation from players and other people.
They buy into the usual thinking. The reason I'm bringing this up is—one of the areas I always have found is an identifier for when I should do something, it's when it's the intersection of something I already enjoy or would find challenging and would like to do, and then a potential market or an audience that exists. You're not just doing it for fun. I have these thoughts, and I watch sports myself anyway. I just don't have output. I have all the inputs, I don't have the outputs that I have in esports. So the key thing is, I do think there's space. I think if you go and read any of the stuff that I wrote with Pinnacle, you'll see it has the same kind of flair, the same kind of setup as how I'd have my esports thoughts.
So in the same sense, I would just say to some degree, how different I am in esports almost necessitates that there will be some audience for me (because there's always gonna be someone who doesn't fuck with the consensus, the mainstream). I think in the general sporting world, it feels like it's the same vibe. So I enjoy doing it. I've actually found that because a lot of the sports writing isn't that good—not only are they not talking about things I would want to talk about, they don't do it in the way I would like to.
The obvious example I would give would be just go and read the piece I wrote that was contrasting how Faker and kkOma from League of Legends—how you divide up the balance of who did what and who was the key part of the relationship—with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady from the New England Patriots in the NFL. Just go read that piece and tell me if you've ever read anything like that in sports writing. You'll be hard stretched to find pieces that are even attempting that kind of thinking.
I think it's an area that I don't necessarily know if it will ever be my job. I think that would probably require not only a lot of success, but also maybe reduced interest in esports. So in the past, I used to tease that maybe if there's no esports games I'm into, I would move on. But I don't really know if that's the case anymore.
Because to be fair, I don't really get bored of League of Legends. It's not an actual game just for the raw game mechanics that I find incredibly satisfying. It's the things around the game. And also, let's be real, I've invested a lot of my own time. So I bring a lot to the table to myself. As a result, I can make a lot more of the game than I would if it was just a game I enjoy. I can artificially generate some of the interest. So I suspect that it will over the next year or two. just creep up on how much of my output is things like—in this case sports output, but I also do other fields as well, but just media/journalism in those fields.
You made a very powerful video on Redeye’s legacy and what he means to the scene, and you stated you hope one day he’ll come back to the scene. I think veteran leadership in esports is one of the most undervalued things in the business. Who of the old-school people in the industry do you most wish to see back, that could benefit the space the most?
Oh, that's a tough one. The problem is—unless it's someone who left very recently—I'm of the opinion that a lot of the people who were the geniuses and the visionaries, and sometimes very, very good at their job in the 2000s, a lot of them who left I wouldn't welcome them back. And I wouldn't ask them to come back.
A lot of them left, because they didn't really believe in esports, they didn't really sometimes even care about the games that much by the end. And some of them just thought "I work to make a lot of money." And that's all they wanted. So they went to some other field. And some of them had great successes, some of them didn't. And that's why some either have an eye on esports, because it's gotten so massive, and they think, "I could do a run back!" Or they naively think "Well, I haven't been that successful in this other area." For example, it turns out being a computer programmer is a really hard job. So then they think, "Esports has gotten really big, maybe that could be where I could cash in on my name for a cushy job."
So you'll notice a lot of the people who make a comeback—especially in the last three or four years— never live up to the billing of what you hope. They're not the person they were before. The reasons they left are probably still just as valid as to why they shouldn't really be here today. So I'd have to really go back in time. I'm going to give you one that's a really obscure one—you literally almost certainly will never have heard of this person, even if you watch my content. I've referenced them, but only occasionally, but I will have some upcoming content on this topic. So I've kind of woven a teaser in there.
There was a guy before I started writing around the year 2000, who used to write for a site called XSReality, which is now a ESReality. And he was a guy from Quake with the alias "Onslaught". He was a Finnish guy. The reason I'm going to do some content about him soon is—I wouldn't say he was an inspiration, because my reasons for writing weren't like seeing someone else and being inspired. I'm not that kind of person, really. But he is someone who was massively influential on me early in my career. Because when I used to read his columns—he was like a polemic column writer—when he would write columns, his writing was unbelievably prescient. You genuinely wouldn't believe this was written in the year 2000. You would actually not even probably believe me if I told you in 2010. It was written in the year 2000.
He already predicts things like that games will become more casual, because people don't actually want hard games. And as a result, if you're a fan of hardcore games like Quake, your time is over. He said this in 2000. He's talking about the way that developers think about the game and the fact that a lot of the really great esports games are just essentially happenstance—the developer didn't intend them maybe to be multiplayer or to be used in that way. Or didn't intend mechanics like rocket jumps, or the pathing things in StarCraft, etc. As a result, the thing that you enjoy wasn't designed. That guy won't make a sequel that'll be equal to the game. That guy won't make the next spiritual successor to something like Quake that's more genius. If anything you've already hit the high watermark. If that's what you're here for, you're probably going to watch washed-out sequels and stuff.
The prescience of it is what's crazy. I genuinely don't know what this guy was tapping into, that he was able to put his lens onto esports, and he genuinely intuited decades in advance of things happening. He's an example of someone I would love to see come back. I don't know if he could do it now. But it's one of those people where if they were that amazing in 2000, what would they think of now? What would they think of five years ago, some of the things that have happened in the esports industry? It's the kind of person that I would love.
I'll give everyone the secret: whenever it comes to content, I don't even pretend to be some altruistic person. I don't believe altruism is real. I just pick the people I like. The people I would like to read an article or would like to read more articles from. So he was absolutely one of the best writers I've ever read in terms of ideas. I would love to know what he'd think about esports now. Beyond that, it's a bit tougher to give you names. I can give you people who are very good at what they do. But beyond rare examples, like Redeye or Richard Lewis speak (some of these people haven't totally left the industry yet) there aren't that many people I would put forward that supersede their job. A lot of them were just good at what they did. I know everyone tries to bill it now that all the old OGs were visionaries and geniuses. A lot of them—they weren't in that way.
Related: Into the mind of the esoteric esports historian: a Thorin interview
Speaking of old-school esports—you’ve been someone very pessimistic about Arena FPS ever making a comeback. I think justly too—Diabotical tried and it kind of flopped. But you being a BW fan like me, I wanted to know if you think RTS are also dead. We have a small scene in Korea, but StarCraft remastered and SC2 free to play didn’t make a big impact. There’s a game like Diabotical called Immortals, it’s got StarCraft people behind it and wants to make a more casual experience. Do you think RTS can still make it?
The main problem is if you boil down briefly the reasons why I don't think a game like Quake will be successful (in the esports context), it goes like this. One, you're never going to get the casual player base, in my opinion, to make the game a must that every tournament organizer has to look out and say, "Do we need to run esports tournaments in this? Would the viewership be really high?" Even the game dev themselves to think, "Wow, we really should pump the multiplayer esports side of this up to match the casual viewer base." I don't think you're going to get that.
Secondly, RTS—just like Quake and Arena FPS games—is I think slightly too high on the threshold of how hard the game is, how difficult it is, and how unsatisfying it is to be bad at the game, that I don't think you're gonna get enough casuals.
And then thirdly, in part because of some of those other reasons, but this is a very, very essential one—if you're not just going to let the game be up to the community to decide how it's run. If you're one of the game devs—which is the modern trend—where I run my esport, I own all the rights, and I exercise them entirely. I decide who hosts tournaments, how the leagues are set up, what they will do. If I'm going to do that, then I have to put the money in myself.
So it has to be worth it to the game dev to actually want to put millions of millions of dollars in, which is what makes people want to be professional players in a game. I think people in the modern day unfortunately are very cynical.
When you hear all those stories in the old days of esports, sadly, some of those people who were pioneers were simply because there was nothing else. If you were the best player in Counter-Strike, and you already got, let's say in CS 1.6 in 2006 you got $1,200 a month salary to play—to you, you might see a story like "I was a pioneer and it wasn't that much back then." But the problem is that it was very good for esports, that it was still one of the top games. In the modern day, I feel like if you only got $1,000 to play CS, but there were other games (like VALORANT) where you could get $5,000, I think probably most would go over to the $5,000 one.
I think basically the modern players, it's almost like they've got the cart before the horse. They want the game, the scene, and the pro career to be attractive before they've even really decided they're going to go in that direction. Whereas to me the way esports was supposed to be (or originally was) is you play the game because you like it, and then you play as a pro because you happen to be good at it. And then after that, you figure out the financials of, "Can I actually make much money off this? How many events am I gonna go to? What's my future in this? Should I put all my time into it? Should I just do it as a side thing?
So unfortunately, I feel like RTS shares too many of the almost negative qualities that Arena FPS has in that regard. I think if you look at the heyday of when these games were enormous, it's basically when game devs themselves hadn't taken full control of the scenes, and it was just an open circuit. And so here's the spoiler: the reason that games like WarCraft, StarCraft, Quake, Counter-Strike [succeeded] is that they were the biggest games. So already, that is not the case at the moment.
And then secondly, most of the people who worked in those companies like ESL, MLG, etc.—they actually liked those games. They came up on those games. So they had an extra sentimental or nostalgic reason to want that game to still exist. It's actually a reason why in some teams in esports, you still see they'll have a Quake Champions player. Because that's usually the team that—like SK— used to have the greatest Quake dueler. It'd be a team where they've got a track record in it. But let's be real, they only have some of those players now for almost nostalgic reasons.
You will probably get a lot more bang for your buck, if that was a Rocket League player instead. So I just feel as though the business of esports isn't at all in the same geographical area of the scene as these types of games, unfortunately. So I think if they exist, they'll be somewhat niche and hobbyist. In some ways, as a result, they'll sort of be like a return to the origins of esports.
Over the years you’ve been someone critical of Riot—just a little bit—you’ve maybe said the way they’ve handled things isn’t the best. So I wanted your perspective on this as someone that dedicates a good amount of their content to Super Smash Bros. Smash Bros despite being seen as a kid game many times has a very adult audience—because there’s no developer interaction at all. Obviously there’s less money thrown around, but there’s so much more freedom. Hypothetically, how much different do you think League of Legends and scenes would be if there was a similar level of freedom?
For League of Legends, I do think there's a world...I've even been thinking of doing a piece of content about this recently where it would basically be like the counterfactual League of Legends. Say 2010s decade and I'd take the decade and I'd show you what did happen. And then I would basically try and hypothesize what you're talking about. For example, what would League of Legends be like if instead of Riot running all these domestic tournaments, it had all this space in the year where it had an open circuit? And so from even going back to Season 2 or Season 3, Season 4—maybe every season was like Season 2 when you had two of the top LPL teams come to this Ian that was in America at one point in a year. And then later in the year, these Korean teams come to a European event like DreamHack or something, and you get to see a match with them and the semis there.
I'd like to do that counterfactual because basically if you follow games like CS:GO and Dota, and then you come over to games like League of Legends, one of the constant thoughts in the back of your mind is, "Man, this scene is not only impoverished compared to what it could be, but they don't even know what it could be." Because a lot of the people that are fans of it only came from this game or they've come up in this era of League of Legends, Fortnite— these very controlled esports to some degree. So they actually just don't even realize they're sort of sheep in a pen. They think they're free. They just don't know what the limitations are.
So I would love to see what it could've been. Because I actually have always personally thought, it's one of the reasons I'm not really that impressed by Riot. To me Riot is like someone who...because when they invented the game, they didn't in any context, invent it for esports. It was basically a casual game, a fun game. All the esports success that came off it, in my opinion, a lot of it is happenstance.
A lot of it is luck. Sometimes it's even having like an incredible resource, mismanaging it, but you had such an incredible resource you still actually succeed despite mismanaging it. It's just only people compared it to what it could have been—what its potential was—that they'll even realize you sort of scuffed it a bit.
So as much as Riot's had all this success in many areas: adoption of the game around the world, production values on some of the broadcasts, the amount of sheer number of players they've gotten that want to play the game, how long the esports run for. These are all great things. But I do think actually, in almost every area, they could have made it better.
They could have been more successful, they could have been more sophisticated. They could have progressed things and innovated and I think a lot of areas were just a bit stale. I still think a lot of the format things are literally decades behind in the case of Worlds, for example. I think there's actually many areas where I'm just...it's not even that they're always bad, it's just sometimes it's just underwhelming. It's like, "Meh, this is the best you could do?" So they do sometimes feel like the rich kid who inherited all the wealth of the father. And then they can say, "Oh, I am rich and wealthy." It's like, "Yeah, well, you were kind of given that." So if you piss away half of it, and at the end you can still say you've got $10 million, that's not the same as a businessman doing business and getting $10 million. That's different. That's an accomplishment in a way where you just didn't fail entirely.
So I just find them as a bunch not particularly interesting, to be fair. So sadly, if I paint this alternative, it would almost be the esports version of that meme, where it's either a super clean-looking utopia, or space-colony, and says "This is what life would be like if everyone stopped watching Rick and Morty." In my article, it would be the esports version of that, "This is what League of Legends would it be like if Riot got the fuck out of the way."
Because the sad thing about a lot of this is, it's not even I'm telling them what they had to do. If they'd have just gotten out of the way there were people in the industry like they've done in other games like CS:GO who would have done some of these things. So that's why to me, as much as I can appreciate what it is, what it isn't is sometimes more infuriating. Because I think this game could absolutely, basically could have been like the number one esport game ever.
What about the freedom of media in the field? Part of the reason I asked that question is that while things like Valve broadcasts have an open circuit, they can still do things like ban 2GD from hosting events. In Smash, it's very open. Would esports benefit from having more mature broadcasts?
The whole thing with that topic to me is that first of all—I wouldn't say it's selfish because I think this is just the way everyone operates, we're just being real and people stop putting on this fake conceit—I'm interested in things that I like. So I am obviously not a 14 year old boy. So as a result, even if it was somehow an amazing broadcast for a 14 year old boy, it wouldn't appeal to me.
So first of all, I do find that the League of Legends/Riot approach almost certainly does not appeal to me. It's almost like they intentionally miss the angles I would want on things and they downplay the parts I would want to emphasize. And then they massively overplay the parts I don't give a flying fuck about like the fact that some other woman in the entire world is called Perkz. That's not a very interesting storyline to me.
I wouldn't hit that for more than about five seconds. But everyone in League of Legends was enthralled by that for weeks on end, as if it's some incredibly fascinating detail. They were obsessed by that like I was about that Onslaught guy I was talking about earlier. "Oh my god, what pearls of wisdom might we find out next about what she and her hamster (or guinea-pig, or whatever the fuck it is) think about League of Legends. I don't find that interesting at all. Like again to me, that's like kid's programming, that's not for me.
The wild thing is, as far as I can tell—you can never quite know how much you can trust the data on this—the data implies that actually most fans of League of Legends aren't 14 year old kids. I know the game looks—because of characters like Lulu and Tristana—it looks like it's a little kid's game because of the veneer of the game, but actually it appears like it has got an adult audience. So to me, I just find it infuriating that we pretend like it's all 14 year old kids.
As you alluded to, I've always tried to tailor my content to an adult. Someone essentially like me, if I wasn't the one that was making it. I make what I would want to see. So I do think that again, the game is massive. That's another example of where Riot we're at bat, they've absolutely fucking swung and missed. It's not like they swung and hit, and then they got like 4 million kids that are into it. And now it's the number one kid's game. It's not even that. There's just so many bruteforce casual people who are older, that enough of them say, "Oh, I'll watch the odd game. Yeah, I like this team. It's not bad." That's more the vibe it feels like that people have towards League.
And all I will say is this, the proof is in the pudding. If it was the best approach ever, and they were right, and I was wrong philosophically, wouldn't the numbers be better than ever right now? Especially when people were all locked in their fucking houses, etc? They aren't, the numbers have gone down. The LCS broadcast is in trouble right now. And remember that LCS broadcast is the ultimate Riot broadcast, because that's the original one, that is the Riot global people who on some level are the ones who oversee that, and they aren't one of the spin-off broadcasts that took in all this outside talent. So you look at that—that's the canary in the coal mine in League. That tells me that even their own fans aren't that interested in the games compared to how much, in my opinion, they could be.
I think if you treated them seriously, like we do in games like CS:GO, and you had more of an adult vibe about it, the fans would respond similarly. They would feel the game was more real, they would feel the vibe was more authentic, they would feel like it was more interesting as a result. Because at the end of the day, as much as we all tune in to watch what someone does on the server, we still do get like how epic it is, how cool it is, framed by what goes on outside of the server on the rest of the broadcast and how it's packaged. That does definitely influence how we feel about the game, the scene, and how important these matches are. So I have always thought that was an area where there are limitations. I would say they just bottleneck what's possible for the scene.
Now obviously, I'm not going to go completely the other way. Even though individually as a sovereign human, I do believe in ultimate free speech—I don't necessarily know that for example, some of the jokes 2GD was making are necessarily the right jokes for the host of that type of a show. We can have an interesting discussion about that. But at the same time, a world where you can't have someone like 2GD at all on your broadcast, which is the Riot world...I'd rather gamble on a few jokes not hitting and sometimes being inappropriate than just not being able to have 2GD, LS, Monte, me—people like this on your broadcast. Because in my opinion, these are the most interesting people to watch.
Something I found really interesting was a couple months back, when leaving Flashpoint and Tweeting and Monte, you stated “We will work together for many more years, perhaps even beyond these childrens' games, and on much grander and more successful projects, brother.” It’s all hypothetical, but do you have any idea of what that might entail?
We've sort of hinted at it already, which is even though we already had the whole Insight on Esports Twitch channel, obviously from like the first year that Summoning Insight was around in 2014, we already had that to show Summoning Insight live and to put the VODs on YouTube. And so basically, as you might have seen, that channel also then we added another show.
We had the Four Horsemen with Richard Lewis. We're gradually expanding that concept, and in the coming months (I can't say much yet, because until things are official there's not really any point even saying things yet. You just risk the deals getting fucked up) there will basically be a project that will be spawned from that genesis point. And will potentially draw in other creative content type people in the industry that we're interested in working with or already have worked with. And we'll gradually build that up as a platform.
One of the things I've been very clear about when I'm doing a lot of my shows is you might have heard that one angle I often come with in the last six months is—just like with Flashpoint—I'm not going to be part of the traditional esports industry anymore. Now when I say that though, the distinction is clear. I'm not saying I am leaving esports. As long as I'm interested in esports games, and creating content for it, I'll probably always do it. But I'm not going to work in the traditional industry for the traditional companies. And like with Flashpoint, try to be part of a company and steer it a certain way by just being an awesome employee, and hope you move up the ladder. I'm not gonna do that.
From now on, I'm gonna do my projects that I own, I have the equity in, I get rich off it if they do super well, and have full 100% creative control over. That's the approach. And so people like me and Monte are very much on the same page for that. And there are others in the industry I get the feeling want to sort of jailbreak their way out of the matrix that is the esports industry and hopefully we can be the Morpheus and Trinity.
Stay tuned for part two, where we explore an industry focus and Thorin's aspirations going forward.
If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @OddballCreator.