Opinion: Esports Should Start From the Ground Up, Not in Reverse

JAY WON SINATRAA
Esports has cemented itself as one of the fastest-growing industries in America | Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Esports has cemented itself as one of the fastest-growing industries in America. Backed by rich investors, the well-oiled machine of corporate America has no problem throwing its money at prominent game publishers like Activision Blizzard. The publishers take it in stride, parading their companies at the forefront of esports. And, while esports has made immense progress these past few years, power has shifted back to the investors' pockets rather than to the driving force behind esports: the competitive community.  

Competitive gaming or esports runs similar to an ecosystem. Players compete on teams under organizations funded by sponsorships and outside investors. The money is then pooled back into professional competitions that are streamed on a range of platforms, consumed by fans. Without any of one of those things, the ecosystem would fall apart, and esports as a whole would struggle to gain traction. Just like in every ecosystem, there is a chain of command and a hierarchy of participants. In this hierarchy, the bread and butter of esports is the community. Without players or fans, esports wouldn't be esports. You wouldn't go to a baseball game to watch an empty field just like a Call of Duty player wouldn't log onto Twitch to watch a broadcast of a stagnant game.  

Esports is entertainment, and entertainment begins with people. Unfortunately, in recent years, the hierarchy has been shifted. What was once the principal process in the ecosystem has now been chewed up by publishing companies. Call of Duty and Overwatch are two recent examples of the top-down process that has started to hurt the ecosystem.

Call of Duty, one of the few games with a year-long life cycle, took the biggest hits this year -- even before the COVID-19 pandemic. With the new franchised Call of Duty league, the viewer count and production quality have decreased, and it doesn't help that most of the pro scene doesn't appear to even like the game they're playing. One of the most noteworthy names in esports history, Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag, tweeted his disappointment with the state of Call of Duty, and Michael Condrey, former studio head at Sledgehammer Games, finally spoke out. He said, "Analytics, SB matchmaking, monetization, dedi server coverage, etc. all driving from ATVI central tech and production teams. Frustratingly little influence on those corp decisions despite their impact on our games and the COD community."

The sparse content, limited incentives to play, and poor server coverage render the game unplayable in almost any competitive scene, including the inaugural Call of Duty League. And, with already minimal coverage, the Call of Duty esports community will likely continue on its decline until Activision decides to wake up.

Unfortunately, Call of Duty isn’t the only game struggling in the eyes of fans and players. Overwatch, Activision's second heavy hitter, has seen the game and its viewership decline since the Overwatch League began. That isn't to say the formation of the league was to blame for the game's downfall, but it certainly played a part. Streamers have since lost interest. With each lackluster event and update the game receives, the meta continues to be stale and far from what the community expects.  

And, what about the Path to Pro leagues? With most funding directly deposited into the main league, making it out of the minor league is tougher than it should be. If that wasn't bad enough as is, most of the path to pro leagues rarely get recognized or even have a formal stream. It relies solely on the players to build their own communities. 

When a publisher forces the formation of a league like the ones seen in Overwatch or Call of Duty, fans are left with a scene in shambles. Esports thrives on individual performances. It differs from traditional sports in that people want to support their favorite player or organization, not their hometown team -- which is the opposite of Activision Blizzard's approach. If they expect hundreds of thousands of fans to support a single team when roster mania occurs, they are mistaken. Esports narratives form from all-star players and teams, not cities. 

Esports also requires an excellent game to play. You can't expect a niche of people to support their competitive game when it's bad. Pair that terrible game with a league that receives zero acknowledgment from its publishers, and congratulations, you have now created a dying esport. People need continuous content, which is why platforms like Twitch are thriving. The platform allows users to bounce around different games and streamers whenever they want. Activision created the league, which means Activision needs to moderate the league. There needs to be more investment into their esports, especially if they want to gain traction. Content drives viewership. Good content comes from a good game. And, a good game comes from publishers who listen to their communities.

Activision continues to crank out mediocre games, forcing their personal agendas onto developers for the sake of profit, but they keep forgetting about those that paved the way to get their games up and running. Companies like Activision and Blizzard need an ongoing strategy to serve their competitive audiences, just like competitive audiences need an open line of communication with the company. Games are made for players, not the other way around. If a publisher is cranking out unwanted content for an already dying league, it is difficult to incentivize people to care.