By now, I'm sure many of you have heard the recent news from Riot regarding the banning of the League of Legends teams Renegades, TDK, and Impulse (if you haven't, you can read about it here). As someone who played in a professional sports league (the NFL) for eight years, the actions taken by these teams, and Riot's response, do not surprise me, for one simple reason.
Currently, there is no functional "league" in esports, and it's a void that needs to be filled.
I've written about this elsewhere, but today we're going to dive into a bit more depth on what an esports league should look like, the problems it will address and advantages it will provide, because it's a topic definitely worth addressing.
What should an esports league look like?
Right now, the world of esports, when compared to more traditional sports, is an absolute mess. Teams constantly change ownership (and are relegated/promoted on a yearly basis), the quality of professional structured play can vary widely from event to event (compare Riot's smoothly-run Midseason Invitational with Valve's disastrous Shanghai Major, for example), and the players are often stuck in a landscape where they're not even sure if they're going to get paid or not.
Now, to be fair, the reason the world of esports is a hot mess is because it's still in its infancy. But the mistakes being made are not new mistakes. They're the same mistakes the NFL made in the 1920s, when teams were regional entertainment, owned by a local businessman, constantly popping up and folding across the country. They're the same mistakes the MLB made in the 50s and 60s, with the construction of subpar stadiums for expansion teams who were later forced to move. They're the same mistakes every sports league has made and eventually solved. With some knowledge of history, esports can drastically shorten the period in which these mistakes are made, but in order to do so, changes have to be made to the current system.
So how do we accomplish this?
Step one is forming an actual structured league. Currently, major esports events tend to be run by the publishers of that particular game (EVO, IEM and Dreamhack being notable exceptions), because they want to draw attention to their game and thus make more money. This means there are a multitude of different events, typically separated by genre. It fractures what should be an overarching experience into multiple fragments competing against each other.
It also means fans of one genre have no particular incentive to watch another genre. There's no consistency of presentation from one genre to the next, and publishers are always going to put the profit of their game first and foremost. In addition, team owners have no real governing body to keep them in line other than what the publishers feel like doing, and that can vary widely from publisher to publisher.
Fixing all that is where things get exciting.
An actual esports league is one where all these genres are consolidated into one total system (think of each genre as being an individual position on a team), where team owners field teams in all the appropriate genres (similar to how CLG has teams in both Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends, among other games) and where the publishers are represented in a league apparatus, with a commissioner that represents all of them yet remains beholden to no individual team. This independence is important in order to regulate competition, negotiate league-wide advertising and broadcast deals, and ensure the health of the league as a whole.
For example, an esports league could consist of Activision/Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Riot/Tencent, Valve, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft as the league apparatus (think the NFL's front office along with Roger Goodell), with team owners CLG, TSM, Cloud9, SKT, Edward Gaming, Fnatic, etc. underneath them separated by region, and then further separated by genre of game, yet all still tied together under the umbrella of the league as a whole.
Now we have an actual, functioning international sports league.
What problems would this league address?
Fragmentation, which I mentioned earlier, is a big problem. If esports wants to continue growing, it needs more viewers, and right now those viewers are essentially being cannibalized by all the different publishers promoting different leagues and games. Having an overarching league that promotes all the different games as part of the whole helps everyone sell more games, and it also addresses the problem of consistency of product. When you watch an NFL game, you know what you're going to get, no matter who's playing. If I watch a League of Legends game, I might get something totally different than a Smite game or a Dota 2 game.
Another big issue facing esports is institutional stability. If teams are constantly cycling in and out of a league, whether due to relegation, folding from lack of funds, being sold off to another owner with a different name or being banned for malfeasance, it makes it much harder for fans to latch onto something. Esports needs to have teams that can build a history, and it can't just be one or two of them; it needs to be every single one. Even though the Browns are consistently horrible, they still have hundreds of thousands of loyal fans, because the team has a history. This is only possible if a structure is in place to foster that stability.
A third issue, and one salient to current events, is competitive fairness. Right now, the publishers are the ones in charge of deciding rules and dispensing punishments, and that can anger people. A lot. From appearances, it seems like Riot acted appropriately with the most recent bannings, but there's a reason the NFL has Roger Goodell and the front office, and that's to provide an impartial bad guy for everyone to get upset at when the law has to be laid down. People may question the wisdom of Goodell's judgements, but they don't question his partiality (unless they're Patriots fans, because those yahoos whine about everything). Having a functional league apparatus means that when issues like what happened with Renegades/TDK/Impulse arise, it isn't Riot taking the heat for trying to fix things, but the league itself, which has no dog in the fight.
One last problem, and it's probably the thorniest, is that of obsolescence. Esports aren't like traditional sports. In traditional sports, the rules of the game, for the most part, stay fairly static. Sure, you get the introduction of the forward pass and helmets, stuff like that, but the fundamental core of a traditional sports game stays essentially unchanged. That's what helps them last for hundreds of years.
In esports, this is not the case. A game can go from being the coolest thing on the block to being abandoned for the latest hotness in under the span of a decade (if not a year). Graphics cards are constantly evolving, and that's not even taking into account new possibilities opened up by stuff like virtual and augmented reality. Technology changes far more quickly in the digital world than it does in the analog world. Having an actual esports league that can vote and determine which games are being represented is the closest way to establishing the permanence traditional sports enjoys as esports is going to get.
What advantages would this league give?
The big one is collective power, but it's also going to be the toughest hurdle to overcome. In order to create this league, the publishers are going to have to give up individual power over their particular game. They won't like that. However, in return, you harness the collective power of all the other publishers, including their audiences, which nets everyone more money in the long run. They'll be able to pool their resources to create amazing prize pools, provide institutional support for teams and generally expand esports from what it is now to something truly massive in scope (like traditional sports leagues).
People want to watch spectacle. They want to be entertained. By cooperating, instead of trying to compete against each other, publishers will be able to grow esports in leaps and bounds, especially when it comes time to negotiate things like merchandising and broadcast deals.
The second advantage, which I covered briefly before, is competitive fairness. When people watch a sporting event, they want to know that their team is starting with just as much a chance to win as the other team. A lot of this is due to basic human notions of fairness, but a lot more of it is due to betting (and there's a very hefty amount of that happening with esports and daily fantasy sites). When a publisher levies a punishment (or even worse, when it fails to act against wrongdoing), it runs the risk of drawing massive amounts of ire. When the league levies a punishment, it's viewed as far more impartial.
The third advantage is legitimacy. When people see one game company pushing their league, they wonder how long that particular manifestation will last. When people see multiple companies working together to create a long-term structure, one that spans multiple genres and platforms, they're far more likely to buy into it as something that will stand the test of time. This gives you the generational hold that all sports leagues desire — parents that pass the love of the game down to their kids (and for esports, the game has to be esports itself, not any individual facet, due to the technological problems of obsolescence).
Fourth, building off what I just said about obsolescence, is that a league protects publishers from that fate by providing a system by which individual games can be rotated in and out. Assuming a league of the seven publishers I mentioned earlier, it's very easy to draw up a framework where each publisher gets to rotate in a new game every seven years as their flagship esports game (assuming they want to — it could just as easily be an update to a game that's proven to be longer lasting than normal). You could also have a slot for voting new games into the league, to take advantage of something that grabs the public attention. And let's not even get into the marketing opportunities of being able to sell something that's "The Official ______
Ultimately, esports needs to consolidate, rather than continue its present fractured course, because that's what every other successful sports league in history has done. The problems that Riot was forced to address in their latest ruling are going to arise again, along with others, and it's time esports was proactive about these matters rather than reactive, which means buckling down and creating an actual esports league.
Obviously there are unique challenges facing an esports league, due to the logistical and technical specifics of video games compared to traditional sports, many of which I didn't even begin to address here (players' union, owners' union, CBAs, etc.), but all of them are solvable. I know, because I played in a league that figured out how to make them work, and I paid attention to how they did it.
Vote Chris Kluwe as esports league commissioner. Thank you and good night.
Chris Kluwe punted in the NFL for eight years, has been playing games of all sorts since he was seven. He gave a TED talk on VR/AR and sports, wrote a couple books, played bass guitar in a band, blah blah blah why are you still reading this? You can follow him on Twitter.
(images in this article via Riot Games)