Why Grassroots esports are the impossible problem
TL;DR The grassroots are relegated to a space with poor monetization and scale in an industry that prioritises both when directing their resources.
- Open tournaments suck and do more harm than good
- Skill appropriate competition is next to impossible to do well at scale online
- Grassroots organizers have poor ways to effectively monetize
- No existing operator in the scene has business incentive to change this
- Lack of success so far decreases faith in grassroots programs adding fuel to this negative cycle
The start of this article makes some pretty bold statements but let’s look at them one by one and examine what I mean in more detail.
1. Open tournaments suck!
Now a lot of people, including myself, have great memories from open tournaments such as the legendary Go4LOL series run by ESL myself and my friends would play every chance we got. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise we all have good memories from these tournaments because we are the ones still here, engaging with esports. But what about the other side.. Because in a big open single elimination tournament, 50% of the field is knocked out in the first round and at the end of the second round only 25% of the competing teams remain and if my 14 year experience of running tournaments has taught me anything, it’s that most of those first round games are likely to end up as being very one sided creating a terrible experience for around or over half the participants in the tournament.
Recurring issues like smurfing, account sharing, cheating and more usually pop up during these events as they tend to be fairly large forcing the already overworked tournament operator to work at the edge of their capabilities often creating wait times to speak with an admin exacerbating issues that pop up. And once all of this is added to a competitive field of players with way too much skill disparity you start getting a recipe for disaster.
In fact, in my 14 years of running grassroots esports tournaments both as an individual and an employee or director of an esports department of a developer, I have never seen an open tournament series grow in participation over time because of how entertaining the tournament format was irregardless of the player feedback or sentiment about the experience. In the rare cases you would see more teams in the second tournament, this would be mirrored with significantly more interest in the title in general leading to more new teams signing up, replenishing the ones that churned from last tournament and more.
This leads me to the next point.
2. Skill appropriate competition is almost impossible to do online and at scale
Because of the industry's hyperfocus on scale a lot of attempts have been made at unlocking skill appropriate online competition at scale. Things like real world identification systems, phone number verification and more, yet the problem of smurfing and account sharing still persists and will likely persist until we can reliably and digitally monitor and verify the identity of the actual player behind the controls in real time, something that is likely quite a ways off from being a reality.
And this is a huge problem, it means that an enjoyable tournament experience where you go through competitive and well matched games, find some success among the failures and walk out the other end as better friends and teammates with valuable lessons learned, is only available to a tiny fraction of participating players. If we think about it, this means that the experience needed for participants to turn to each other and go “We have to do this again next week” is only reachable by a tiny fraction of the participating players making it extremely difficult to generate any type of organic growth in competitions at the grassroot level fueled simply by the joy of participating. Instead we have to look at other drivers like bigger prize pools or other player incentives, something grassroots organisers have a hard time scaling with their limited resources.
Which conveniently leads me to the next point.
3. Grassroots organizers have a hard time monetizing effectively
When it comes to monetization of their efforts, grassroots organizers are dealt a pretty rough hand. Some games prohibit entry fees into tournaments, others have long lists of prohibited sponsors and in the case of merch you can do a little something as long as it doesn’t have any of the game IP on it because then you are in trouble. In fact, most of, if not all possible monetization avenues for grassroots organizers are blocked or contested in some ways and access to other resources they might need like visibility and promotion is in most cases limited as well.
Grassroots organizers struggle with even more problems, as in most cases they are not well known and lack efficient avenues of self promotion and as such don’t present a good case for most sponsors or media partners. Add this to an already limited scope on possible monetization and it becomes fairly obvious why we haven’t seen more success coming from the grassroots esports scene.
Now if we operate under the assumption that in order to deliver a high quality tournament ecosystem and experience that has any chance of growing over time you need at least one person being able to dedicate themselves to this pursuit and get compensated for their efforts, it’s hard to see how this environment with the limited monetization opportunities it is afforded is ever supposed to be able to support the dedicated full time effort of one person, let alone the five you would need to actually do this properly.
4. No existing operator in the space has business incentive to change this
Reading the above inevitably begs the question then, if grassroot esports are so important for the future of esports then why hasn’t one of the existing operators in the space done something about this yet? From my perspective the answer is simple, no one has a good enough business reason to do it.
Let’s start by looking at game developers, they are already doing a lot by operating the top level ecosystems and even there they are starting to stray away from the core purpose of their business, the making and monetization of video games. It would be foolish to expect game developers to massively add to their esports investment in an effort to create a hard to manage and non scalable grassroot scene on a title by title basis. In addition to this, for anything to be truly successful in the world of grassroots esports it ideally needs to be game agnostic and not game specific, making it a hard task for any developer. This is no fault of the game developers, it’s just not their business.
Then you have the existing esports organisations who are already busy with their primary task of monetizing the top level ecosystem at the team level and securing their own revenue streams. Something that a large project like setting up grassroots esports ecosystems that are difficult to monetize just doesn’t go hand in hand with. In other words, they are already busy building the environment we enjoy today.
Outside of these parties, the only other operator that could fuel this are peripheral and computer part companies, but again this isn’t the core focus of their business and due to the difficult environment in the grassroots space they have a hard time finding a trusted partner with a proven track record to fund, as most don’t last that long.
5. Lack of success so far decreases faith in grassroots programs adding fuel to this negative cycle
This problem is not one that is likely to just evaporate on its own, and the continued struggles in setting up sustainable initiatives at the grassroots level just serves to decrease faith and investment in the space over time.
In some ways it feels like the grassroot esports ecosystem in general is fueled by new titles generating excitement and sparking the same naive hope that something will work in the long run while the same mistakes are made by new people in a new grassroots community.
Now I don’t claim to have the magic bullet for this problem, but I do believe there is more that can be done by us in the esports industry to build systems and structures that help games succeed in the world of esports and helps create more gamers interested in engaging with competition or esports in some way.