This is the third first post I’ve written for this new blog of mine, and while the 10,000-odd words I’ve written to this point will likely remain drafts forever, I’m glad that this is where I’m starting things off.
Splatoon 2 has had an eventful couple days. I don’t want to spend too much time going over the details. Frankly, they don’t matter now, and I’m sure plenty of other people have already covered it adequately.
We’ve now had our first truly major tournament. A prize pool of $25,000 (plus a further $3,000 or more raised for charity, and I believe some extra cash for players supporting the #FreeMelee cause), almost 10,000 viewers on Twitch, and a whole lot of public attention.
Now, of course, people are asking “where do we go from here?”
And that’s what I’m going to start this new blog off by answering.
Sustainability is the goal.
Sustainability is the idea that we can come up with whatever resources we need for our tournaments without outside assistance. Or, if there is outside assistance, that assistance must also be sustainable.
This means that things like prize pools, equipment, staff, tournament infrastructure, websites, player development, whatever we need, have to come from either us, or through fair business arrangements with other organisations.
As an example, in the earlier days of Splatoon 2, one player tried to host a series of major tournaments using a lump sum insurance payout. That’s not sustainable; he’s not getting that money back.
Organisations, including Nintendo, might come in and sponsor teams or events. If we can’t deal with them on even terms—that is, if we have no negotiating power and are effectively relying on their good will—that’s not sustainable.
If our tournament organisers have to spend their entire weekends organising tournaments, as well as paying out of pocket for equipment, venue costs, and so on, that’s not sustainable.
It’s all about the money.
Where the Money Comes From
I’m again going to skip over most of the details of how this all works; I’m just trying to give you guys a basic idea of how esports function.
There are two main sources of money in a grassroots scene: the community itself, and sponsors. In both cases, the event is providing a service to some other entity.
Sponsors (the brands with money and something they want to sell) will either deal directly with events or work through intermediary esports organisations (such as teams). They usually want the events to advertise them and their products to the people at the event and to the people watching the streams at home, and they’ll pay money to do so.
As you can imagine, the greater exposure you can provide to these sponsors, the more lucrative these deals can be, and more importantly, the greater negotiating power the event organisers have.
The Problem with Sponsors
You might also be able to imagine that an over-reliance on sponsors can leave event organisers in a tight spot. Not only does it mean that such a sponsor can basically demand whatever they want out of the event organisers, it also means those sponsors can just decide not to pay up, because it’s not like the event organiser can do anything to them in response.
This is basically what grassroots organising is all about. Tournament series that are fully dependent on, say, the developer, or a primary sponsor, are fully at the mercy of that entity’s whims. As an example, the Oceanic League of Legends circuit, the OPL, was shut down recently, with teams and players not really having much say in the matter.
By being grassroots, our goal is to be sustainable such that we avoid this problem. Grassroots scenes typically can’t grow as explosively—there aren’t millions of dollars being thrown at an unreleased game—but they can definitely be financially viable. The way we achieve this is with community input.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the community itself. The idea here is that people who have disposable income contribute money to the event. You can think of it like these community members paying the event organisers to put on a good show, and even paying the players to star in that show.
While these community members are paying out of pocket, the idea is that they’re just choosing to put money toward being able to watch some hype Splatoon matches instead of, say, buying a PS5.
Another way you could think of it is, a lot of these people would probably be up there organising these events themselves if they had the time and energy to do it. In fact, a lot of them still do. So they’re paying someone else to bring these events to fruition.
Why the Commmunity Matters
The community has a couple really important things going for it.
First, the bigger the community is, the bigger the events can be. And the bigger the events, the bigger the community gets. It gets more complicated when you factor in things like how much money these new community members bring to the event, but the basic idea is that all you need is people and the infrastructure in place for them to contribute in order to make things happen.
Second, the community is loyal to the game and what they’re building, because they enjoy it and they’re directly invested in it; being able to say “I built this :)” makes a big difference. Not only that, but if an organiser does something dumb that makes the scene angry, they’re only going to beef with the offending party; the community as a whole still functions just fine.
Third, the community owns what they build. Nintendo can C&D all the tournaments they like, but it’s not like they can pull money and equipment they never provided. The community will, as we’ve seen time and time again, always find a way to make things work.
Finally, a strong community is part of what gets us good deals with sponsors. We can ask for what we’re worth rather than having to take whatever scraps are thrown our way.
It’s Never That Simple
This isn’t to say that grassroots doesn’t come with its own issues. I’m not going to go into too much detail—I don’t run events myself, and I’ve only heard things from event organisers—but it’s not difficult to imagine some of the hang-ups.
A less-structured grassroots organisation still needs to be professional. People need to be paid, events need to function, and it’s a lot harder for that to come together when it’s a bunch of passionate but ill-equipped individuals doing the best they can, as compared to a giant game publisher putting an entire, trained division to work running their marketing scheme.
Also, as we’ve seen with Nintendo events, without official blessing from the IP owner, the threat of legal action is always going to loom over any community-driven event. And even if we can get Nintendo to the table, someone has to know how to negotiate with them.
Building the Community
If the goal is sustainability, and sustainability comes from community input, we need to grow the community.
Of course, we all know this. I’m just putting this all into perspective so we understand what “growing the community” actually accomplishes.
If anything, I’d say we need infrastructure now. Splatoon is a very popular game. Even the most scuffed of NA Opens draws hundreds of teams. Even people who quit still want to play the game, they just left because they’d stagnated and there wasn’t anything keeping them invested.
We need ways to get people invested, keep them invested, and give them something back.
I think one of the top reasons why people stop playing is because they feel like they hit a wall. Stagnation is one of the worst feelings in competitive games; whatever it is that you’re missing feels out of reach, and playing the game makes you feel like you’re going in circles. You’ve invested your time into playing this game, and now it all feels like a waste.
Player development is tricky; you need to teach players how to learn the game, rather than teaching them how to play the game. People want to learn certain things for themselves—being able to do so is part of what makes games satisfying—but they also appreciate being told certain other things, and finding that balance is something I’ve personally been trying to understand for the last few years.
I won’t go into too much detail here for the sake of publishing this blog at some point in the next decade, but what I will say is that this is not something that we can afford to do poorly.
While I always appreciate the effort people put into making things like beginners' guides and tutorials and so on, this is one thing where you cannot half-ass it. Good educational resources are absolutely paramount, and poor educational resources harm good ones by spreading disinformation.
Luckily for us, that’s one thing I have covered. I’ll have more to add on this topic another time. For now, let’s move on.
Content, as they say, is king.
But content isn’t just as simple as putting out a bunch of YouTube videos. What really helps is when we have people using their platforms to connect with others and build each other up.
Now, everyone needs to understand that the community is not entitled to people’s individual followings. In other words, don’t complain because DUDE’s subs only care about DUDE. After all, you can’t force someone to support the community. Like I said, you have to give them a reason to get invested.
Content that connects people is what builds communities.
The point of a talk show, for example, isn’t to put opinions out into the ether. Sure, some people want to hear that, and yes, you are making it for them too, but what you’re really doing is creating a platform to help boost people.
Talk shows are a really simple way of getting people who follow individual content creators to get to know other content creators.
Bring Mellana on as a guest, and Mellana’s followers watch the show. Bring on DUDE as a guest, and now DUDE’s followers are being introduced to Mellana, and Mellana’s are being introduced to DUDE. Hey, cool, now both of them are gonna walk away with more followers.
Alright, now let’s say we’ve got a regular show going and we see someone who’s making really good content but isn’t getting much attention. What happens if we get them on the show with Mellana and DUDE?
Individual creators make content that makes people want to watch them. Once that platform is established (and keeping in mind they have to maintain that platform with regular content as it is), they can offer that platform as a way to help boost other people in the community.
Not only that, but this same effect works with events, too.
If you’ve got a following, talk to people and see if there’s anything you could do together. If you can’t think of anything, no problem, you don’t need to connect with everyone. You don’t even have to do this all that often.
But let me say this: if you want new people following the competitive scene, you have to look outwards. Splatoon YouTubers have massive followings of people who don’t even know there’s a competitive scene. Talk to artists. Talk to casual players. Sure, some are gonna say no, and that’s fine. And again, you are not entitled to their followers. Help them make something cool and everyone wins.
Stop trying to solve all the community’s problems with god damn tournaments.
There’s nothing wrong with tournaments. But surely it shouldn’t be that hard to see that tournaments are the final product. They’re something we want to show off to people. The spectacle is what draws people in, and we need to build up the spectacle before it’s going to help us.
Right now, tournaments are something we have to keep coasting along until we can build them up. They’re what we’re feeding all this grassroots support into.
Look at Dota 2’s International. Back in 2010, Valve comes out and says “one million dollars”. Instant global attention. That’s what a spectacle is. We can’t do that.
We had a spitting match with Nintendo, and that spectacle is what made The Squid House what it is. If you’re asking how we turn that into something sustainable, you’re asking how we can create spectacles of our own.
After all, slapping Nintendo in the face every time we want a tournament with more than a hundred viewers is hardly a viable long-term strategy. Even if it is entertaining.
So we need to build up to those impressive numbers. Bring in the content creators. All this emotional investment is what makes people care about our tournaments. Once we build our infrastructure, we use it to create this spectacle.
Look at what the Age of Empires 2 community did with Hidden Cup—sure, they ended up getting Red Bull involved, but it came about through community efforts. That’s something closer to what we can accomplish.
I’m saying “tournaments”, but I subtitled this section “events”. That’s the trick.
You don’t have to have a tournament to give people something fun to do with the game. Speed Ladder, for example, is technically a tournament, but the whole reason it’s so successful is because we specifically made the format less competitive to create something that we believed people would enjoy.
(Incidentally, I’ve written a post about the ladder format and why TOs shouldn’t use it for qualifiers. When it’s no longer tone-deaf to do so, I’ll give it a re-write and put it up.)
If we’re making headway on content, events of all kinds—not just tournaments—are the next logical step. We need to keep tournaments going as best we can, and gradually introduce people to them.
And when we run these events, we need to be very thorough in understanding who we’re trying to reach and what they want in an event. Like with Speed Ladder, we don’t run a tournament with a popular format just because it’s popular. We understand what it is that people like about it and tailor our events accordingly.
Likewise, we need to remember that it’s completely fine for people not to care that much about tournaments. Tournaments are just one small part of the community, after all.
I’m sick of hearing about entry fees.
Look, I get it, they’re a simple and obvious thing we can start doing now to help keep TOs afloat while we’re getting everything else going.
Entry fees, though, are a barrier. We’re trying to get people off the fence and into our community. Entry fees might help TOs in the short term, but they’re just going to alienate people.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see why people think they’re a good idea. At a local LAN, you put $10 in a plastic container and you get a wristband or a lanyard or whatever in return. A big event will have online booking, sure, but it’s a big, exciting thing that you’re looking forward to for months.
An online tournament, meanwhile, expects you to fuck around with PayPal or borrow your dad’s credit card or whatever just to pay a $5 entry fee, all for the privilege of going 0-2. Hey, yeah, cool, you’re contributing to the prize pool. Of $100.
A question for those of you who donated to The Squid House. What would you prefer to do, donate $50 to a $25,000 prize pool, or pay a $5 entry fee into a $100 prize pool?
If $5 doesn’t mean anything to you, does that mean you’re happy to pay it or does it mean your attention is now simply directed toward whether or not you want to bother with it? After all, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, why would it mean anything to the TOs?
My suggestion for entry fees is to make them optional and pay-what-you-want. I can’t speak to whether it’d cover costs or make for a decent prize pool, but it’s a hell of a lot better than expecting everyone to go through the hassle—and it is a hassle—of a typical entry fee.
This all remains the case on a broader scale, too. Donations, fundraisers, and so on are the way to go for the most part. Most of us aren’t too keen on begging for money, but remember that as organisers and content creators, we’re providing a service to people and letting them pay what they like for it. It’s vital that we keep it that way, and don’t alienate people who can’t or won’t contribute.
I’ll leave the explanation there for now, both so that I can give my hands a break and to see what kind of discussion this generates. I apologise for the lack of sources/links/examples; I’ll see if I can add some in over the next couple days, but for now I think getting this published takes priority.
The above is all stuff that I’ve picked up from watching esports of all kinds develop since the early 2000s, as well as my own research and study. I’ve tried my best to understand the nuances in each situation, and I believe this is the way forward, but I’m not about to pretend I haven’t overlooked anything.
I’m sure other people will have things to contribute. But I’ve taken the liberty here of putting up a relatively complete overview of what needs to happen so that we don’t spend the next three months wringing our hands and expecting more of the same to somehow work now when it hasn’t before.
To that end, I believe we should start with the connecting content I mentioned before. We already do this and it’s very successful, but we need to get out of our own circles in order to really kick things into gear. Respect each other as professional content creators and I’m sure we can figure something out.
As for me, I’m going to work on educational content. Given that this is what I’ve spent the last four years doing in my spare time, I think I’ve got a good handle on what needs to happen. Once I’m ready, I’ll share more details.