The Esports Ecosystem
STG’S Sporting Guide To Esports: Part 3
While there are many obvious differences between sports and esports, the first that comes to mind is typically the fact that traditional sports are physical and esports are ‘not physical’. See more on this issue here. However, that major difference between sports and esports comes down to infrastructure. Put simply: traditional sports have a long established infrastructure and esports does not.
In traditional sports there is a very clear pathway that athletes follow to make it to the ‘big leagues’. In hockey, you progress through PeeWee AAA, Bantam AAA, Midget AAA to the Canadian Junior Hockey League, then to the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), or if they’re lucky, the NHL. In order to move up from one league to the next, players must attend regular practices, skills sessions, summer camps, tournament teams, Christmas camps etc. After all of this, these players are then selected, or not, to move up to the next level.. Once a player plays in the CHL, or another league at that level somewhere in the world, NHL scouts frequent their games, taking their pick of athletes who may be good enough to make that final jump.
While there are some behind the scenes complexities or variations that may occur throughout an athlete’s journey to professional hockey it is a fairly simple pathway to understand and follow. From the time a player puts a stick in their hand for the first time, they more or less know what they have to do to make it to the NHL.
Nothing like this exists in esports. The industry is so brand new, that there is no clear path or trajectory that esports athletes can take to make it onto a professional team or into the ‘big leagues’. Players can be scouted from a specific game’s leaderboard, athletes may be noticed on their Twitch stream, athletes may be noticed after they win a successful local tournament, athletes may get talked up on a Reddit thread - there is no standard procedure for a player to take to become a professional esports player.
This means athletes do not know how best to progress their skills. Should they continue to develop their streaming persona, or work solely on their strategy for picking characters in League of Legends against upcoming opponents? Without proper infrastructure skills may come to athletes at the wrong time in their progression, thus holding them back through no fault of their own.
The Overwatch League (OWL) which only launched late last year is the closest we have seen to a traditional sports infrastructure being implemented in esports. The OWL follows a traditional sports league model wherein there are 12 permanent, city-based teams who follow a regular season play format. This is a first in the esports industry. Games like Dota II, Hearthstone and League of Legends all have their own ‘World Championships’ and qualifying tournaments across the globe, but there is no formal underlying league structure to get players into the qualifying tournaments and eventually the World Championships. Let alone onto the teams that are competing at this level. This is unheard of in traditional sports. Dare I say all traditional sports have a clearly defined performance pathway set out for athletes to take part in on their way to an elite level.
In addition, as a result of the lack of infrastructure across esports, athletes are not taught basic formalities of winning and losing. Whether through formal training, or by growing up in sport, traditional sport athletes are taught how to be coachable, behave appropriately, act professionally, react to a tough loss and remain calm under pressure. These basic skills that have the ability to make or break a game are not present for esports players. The majority of these players learn behind a computer screen in the comfort of their own homes, on their own equipment, with no audience, (but maybe that of the internet which doesn’t always promote sportsmanship). The stakes all change once they get on stage in front of 150,000 fans. There is a lack of professionalism across esports, which can result in players who appear to be highly skilled being recruited to professional teams, then not being able to perform has to high player turnover on a lot of professional teams. To further complicate the process, esports in general are at a point where select games are so competitive, that players may make it to a professional esports team, but not last more than a month because there is another player who is gunning for their spot. Especially when controversies arise with an athlete who is acting inappropriately because they do not have the experience or knowledge to know better.
By developing a pathway with build in infrastructure, whether through camps or modules from the game company, athletes would be able to learn about performing at competitions earlier on. This would also allow athletes to socialize in tournament settings before their first league of legends qualifier or NBA2K game at the professional level. This would also protect professional teams from unwarranted behaviour when they are signed.
An esports infrastructure would also make the industry as a whole easier to understand and more legitimate through the eyes of the general public. The majority of the general public, whether they watch hockey or not, understands that the players you see on the ice in an NHL game likely played competitively as children, then as teens and were then drafted to the NHL. That makes sense to them and helps them to understand the game. The same cannot be said about any esports game at the moment. A member of the general public would not know how a player made their way onto one of the professional teams playing in Dota II: The International (the Dota II ‘World Championships), therefore wondering what classifies these athletes as the best?
This confusion bleeds into other crucial areas of the industry, including sponsorship, viewership, media rights and more. As an example, brand name sponsors who want to get involved in the esports industry do not know how, because they do not understand how the industry works. They do not know how to segment the industry or who to target within it. This is a major loss to both major sponsors and esports athletes, leagues, teams etc. who are in a position to be a great fit for that sponsor.
There are glimmers of hope. Traditional athletes who are very involved in the esports industry are pushing for development pathways, and looking to educate esports athletes as they step into new professional leagues. With professional sports organizations like FIFA and NBA getting involved, there is a natural fit for infrastructure to help develop the future of their esports teams, as they do in with farm teams and feeder leagues in traditional sports.
Esports is moving fast, and it is important to think about how athletes are being developed, if leagues and tournaments want to continue to grow and be sustainable. STG is working to support the esports industry as they lay the groundwork for a sustainable infrastructure.