Not all that many activities that begin with an e turn out brilliantly for everyone involved, and so it goes for eSports. While 2015 has seen the competitive gaming scene channel more money through its globe-encircling veins than ever before, with prize pots running into the many millions, and audience figures skyrocket, it's also had its fair share of controversies.
The summer just gone saw governing bodies in the field declare their intent to drug-test participants for performance-enhancing substances; a Philippines-based league had intended to limit gay and transgender players before u-turning on the decision after the entirely expected protests; and then at the end of November an eSports journalist came to blows with a Dota pro at DreamHack Winter.
But here's something more positive: this sort of shit is on the slide, and 2016 is set to be another significant year for eSports, with its arenas filling and online viewers multiplying. At least that's the opinion of veteran eSports journo and broadcaster Rod "Slasher" Breslau, formerly the co-founding editor of GameSpot eSports and ex-senior writer at theScore eSports. VICE's Motherboard channel spoke to Rod earlier in 2015 about that whole Adderall thing, and since he's a man who knows a few things about headshotting the opposition for cool cash, I wanted to ask him for his thoughts on the eSports scene to come.
VICE: eSports has quite obviously grown in 2015, in terms of viewers, live attendances and prize money. Some of the statistics make for impressive reading, but what sort of a ceiling is there for this?
Rod: I have tried to stay cautious during the enormous growth and success of competitive gaming in the last five to six years, trying to keep that optimism in check to lower the expectation rate for not just the industry, fans, and myself. But every year following, gamers and the industry has not only matched but surpassed the predicted trajectory for the sport.
More stadiums, theatres, and event halls were full of eSports fans than ever before this year, and the League of Legends World Championships in Berlin had its largest ever audience, even with an unfavourable finals match-up. So while 2015 may have been another big jump up from 2014, I see no reason based on past examples that 2016 won't be on another level. People watching other people play video games professionally has no ceiling in sight.
The eSports scene up until now has done a great job of self-sustaining itself with limited support from developers themselves, but they are arguably the most important piece of the puzzle for continuing success. So now with folks like EA, Microsoft and Activision finally stepping up their worldwide efforts to support competitive gaming, and heavyweights like Riot, Valve, Blizzard and HiRez continuing to raise their game, things look good for 2016.
Do you think that other disciplines need to compete, financially, with Dota 2's The International and its multi-million prize pool, in order for the "mainstream media" to pay attention?
The beast that is The International and its $18 million dollar prize pool has made it difficult for other games to match, but the plateau hasn't been hit yet. More important than the prize purse or even fluctuating viewership is that things as a whole are more stable and consistent for leagues, teams, players and the sponsors involved. The money will not only continue to come in but will likely be here faster than ever in 2016.
But I don't think money is paramount in attracting the mainstream media, and Riot's League Championship Series is a perfect example. The prize money for winning the LoL World Championship is "small" compared to the prize pool at TI and other Dota events combined, but LCS and their World Championship has gained the most amount of "mainstream media" attention in eSports. CS:GO has had a "Major" event system supported by Valve with only $250,000 in prize money, but the events still had more than a million people watching at once. In 2016, CS:GO will be on mainstream US TV more because of the fandom than the prize money.
The money and viewership are still turning heads, yes. But there's also a large influx of venture capital and traditional sports moguls investing into the space. Some of the new ideas won't be hits, but eSports has been given a certain vote of confidence by new investors such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former NBA commissioner David Stern.
More than anything though, it's the incredibly compelling games that are played at the highest level between the best in the world, and the vocal community that has been created around them, that will continue to engage new viewers.
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In terms of the games themselves, do you think we'll see one or two really reach a new level of prominence in 2016? We've seen Rocket League do incredibly well critically in 2015 – is that the eSport in waiting for 2016, or could something else be waiting in the wings to be a competitive game that we all click with, both to play and watch?
2016 will be the year of the FPS. CS:GO had a great 2015, but next year will be pinnacle of all the success the game and community has gone through over several years. Competitive Call of Duty's return to Twitch has been a big boom for their community, and the large-scale circuits for both CoD and Halo have energized the console FPS crowd going into next year.
There's a multitude of first- and third-person "Hero" or "MOBA" shooters coming next year, and into 2017, that have similarities to Team Fortress 2, such as Overwatch, Paladins, Paragon, Law Breakers, Battleborn and Battlecry. As Valve never really took care of the competitive TF2 community, and deathmatch giants of old such as Quake and Unreal Tournament have not been able to recover, there's a large swathe of gamers out there who would rather play an arcade-y FPS game than a realistic shooter.
I played Blizzard's Overwatch on a high competitive level throughout its closed beta period, and I think the game and the genre in general has quite a lot of potential to be the next big eSports game, or game-mode. Several prominent Europe-based organisations have already picked up teams, and community run tournaments have taken place. Overwatch still needs a lot of work done to make it viable to play competitively, let alone easy to spectate, but the potential is there. With so many similar games coming, my hope is that the competition will drive the different teams to take each other's good ideas and trim the fat more swiftly. I believe the Hero FPS will be the next big eSport.
I expect Street Fighter V to usher in a new era for the fighting game community as Street Fighter IV did in 2009, and for Hearthstone to have another big year. With EA and Peter Moore launching a "Competitive Gaming" division, the biggest leap may actually come from the sports game side of things. FIFA, Madden, NHL and NBA all have large, active, vibrant player bases that also have some experience in eSports, especially FIFA. Given the right support both in the games and for the community, they can have such massive appeal with traditional sports fans and gamers alike. Just like many did and have done with fighting games: don't sleep on it.
I've had several conversations with people about what eSports "needs" in the personality department, and it always comes back to that breakout star who transcends the scene – someone like David Beckham, or Kobe Bryant. Any clues as to who that could be, going forward?
With StarCraft's Lee "Flash" Young Ho now retired, I would say that there's a good argument to be made for Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok to be the current star. He's now won his second League of Legends world championship, has been voted MVP and player of the year, and re-signed to SK Telecom for an unknown sum but likely in the high six-figures, making him one of the highest paid eSports players in the world – and that's before revenue from endorsements, sponsorships and streams.
On the Western front it's trickier as there simply aren't enough winners amongst all the games, no matter how much personality there may be to go around. The Evil Geniuses Dota team is a shining beacon of hope for North American eSports. In the last two years it has earned more top international titles than all other North American eSports League of Legends, CS:GO, StarCraft 2 and Street Fighter IV players and teams combined. EG midlaner Sumail Hassan – who's made almost $2 million in prize money at only 16 – and teammate Artour "Arteezy" Babaev are the two to look out for here.
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Will we see less burnout amongst players in the coming years? I feel that we have to ease the pressure on some of these guys, if eSports is going to stay healthy. What else needs to change in the "culture" of eSports, for it to be a welcoming place for newcomers?
I believe so, and hope so for the players' sake. There's a lot of players quitting, retiring at young ages, in their mid-20s, right now. Much of that has been due to not being able to make a sizable amount of money from playing professionally. As the industry continues to bring in outside sponsorship and the leagues and teams become more stable, I expect free agency to raise player salaries. This combined with an increase in prize money and endorsement potential alongside streaming and YouTube should make playing games professionally a longer career than what we see today. I think it's not so far-fetched to see many compete into their 30s, if they can hold up.
And what about getting more women into eSports? It's a massively male-dominated scene, at the top level.
Nearly all competitive games within eSports have a heavily skewed male to female player base, so when you have a trickledown affect to the .000001 percent of people who will become professional players, there's a very slim chance that there will be many women. Even when a highly skilled women's player moves up the ranks, she can face obstacles such as male players not being confident in her skills simply because she's a woman, or the griefing that all competitive gamers get online, but that women receive especially harshly and usually with sexual undertones. These issues can be overcome, but the fact that there simply aren't enough women proportionally playing eSports games compared to men makes it tough.
Above all, game developers need to do what they can to increase the overall female player base of eSports games. That's a tall order and I don't offer any solutions there. But while I've had doubts in the past, I do believe women-only tournaments will benefit everyone involved. ESWC, while no longer one of the premier eSports events, still runs a yearly women's Counter-Strike tournament. That one event plus a few others have kept a stable and active women's CS scene afloat, and those events have been used to develop new talent. None of the women's CS players have gone on to compete in a professional team alongside men, and the all women's teams have placed poorly at the main open events. But that doesn't mean it won't happen, and developing that talent initially in women's leagues has been shown to work.
Top women's teams and players will of course need to compete in the main tournaments in their respective games to be considered the best in the world. I don't think that creating women-only leagues or tournaments should or would take away from prizing that would go towards open events. While traditional sports are different, and much of the reason for an argument to not have segregated leagues in eSports is because of the lack of physical activity, there are countless examples of women-only leagues and tournaments benefiting the sport as a whole. You don't have to look much further than Ronda Rousey and what she's done for not just women fighters but for all of UFC and its brand in the last year. Women's events create champions and new stars, and luckily in our sport they can go on to compete with the men.
What other trends do you foresee coming into eSports, in 2016 or beyond?
We're probably a few years away but by late 2016 or 2017/2018, I'd like to see what VR developers can do in creating an in-game stadium-like viewing experience. Oculus' John Carmack has already spoken about it this year. Or a Microsoft HoloLens match viewer experience. Boy, would I love to be in a virtual arena, watching these games. Make it happen, folks.
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