Sports

​The Sporting Singularity: How Traditional Sports and Esports Are Dovetailing

Several developments in September pushed two disparate fields closer together than ever. What does that mean for the future of sports?

by B. David Zarley
Nov 9 2016, 3:35pm

Courtesy Lara Toscani

September was something like singularity for sport. Through a series of purchases, investments, and coalitions, traditional sport structures and proclivities finally merged irrevocably with esports.

First came the announcement of the Professional eSports Association (PEA), seven North American esports teams—Cloud9, Immortals, NRG eSports, compLexity Gaming, SoloMid, and Team Liquid—coalescing to form a franchise-and-player-focused league more in line with the structures of the Big Four sports leagues. Then, on back-to-back days late in the month, came the announcement of the Philadelphia 76ers' purchase of controlling stakes in Team Dignitas and Apex (since merged under the Dignitas name), becoming the first professional sports franchise to own an esports team, and the formation of aXiomatic, an ownership group partnering with Team Liquid and headed by Peter Guber—who is co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the forthcoming MLS expansion team Los Angeles FC—and Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the Washington Capitals, Wizards, Mystic, and Valor.

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While esports were thriving by just about any measure, those three events, taken together, may represent something of a sea change in the landscape of esports. The resulting question is one of balance: how to best incorporate what analog sports veterans—and an entire organization, in the Sixers' case—bring to the table without risking the millions of loyal fans who are already streaming, watching, playing, and loving their teams.

"For sure we want to do what we can to make the audience experience richer and authentic," aXiomatic CEO Bruce Stein says. "It can't be 'or.' As soon as you lose authenticity from a viewer or player experience, you lose this demographic."

The traditional sports influence should precipitate a number of changes, most notably in the area of infrastructure. Years of deal-making and established contacts could help to fast-track the business side of esports, from audience outreach to merchandising.

Perhaps the most daunting barrier to entry for aspiring esports fans—and undue burden on the players—is the sundry competitions, a dazzling array of ersatz contests and leagues going off, overlapping, and winking out like fireworks displays, owned and operated by independent third-party organizers lacking in the rigid structure imposed upon traditional sports.

"Sometimes the teams themselves don't know that a league is starting matches until 48 hours before the league starts," PEA commissioner Jason Katz says. This "jumbled pattern of availability," as Katz calls it, puts a unique stress on esports players and fans, as well as having a negative impact on media coverage and sponsorship deals.

"If you're a Bulls fan, you know where you can see the Bulls," he says. "It's in the NBA, and you know roughly when the NBA season starts and stops for the next thousand years, and you can get a schedule before the season starts—well before the season starts—that tells you what dates and times the Bulls are going to be playing for the whole season. There's no mystery to it whatsoever, and if you wanted to, you could plan your entire calendar around it. And nothing like that has existed in esports until the PEA."

Then again, one fan's barrier to entry is another's badge of pride. Although Katz says the overall reception for the PEA has received has been "very positive," any change this drastic runs the risk of system shock for longtime fans accustomed to a certain way of doing things.

"It has grown up organically through gamers and through the community that loves them, they love the spirit," says Sixers CEO Scott O'Neil. "If you try to tame that, or put that in a box, I think the opportunity or the market might go sideways."

Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O'Neil is leading the charge toward integrating analog and digital sports. Courtesy Lara Toscani

There seems to be a conscious effort on the part of the analog sports partners, not to fuck with the chemistry that has already proved so successful but rather to find ways to work within and expand upon an already popular pastime. This is about augmenting, not overhauling.

"They understand how to build something for an audience," Team Liquid co-owner, co-CEO, and Director (and former pro) Steve Arhancet says. "They can also bring partnerships that they have with sponsors and companies that are advertising ... in the space, and how those deals are constructed, execution on those deals, and more non-endemic companies that want to feature their products and services more to a millennial audience, and bridging the educational gap that is required to take esports content and have a sponsorship with a company like Nike."

Such revenue streams are especially important considering the pay structure of many leagues and tournaments. According to Katz, the current model allows third-party organizers to retain the majority of the sponsorship and broadcast revenue, and insufficient profit-sharing was one reason that the PEA was formed. "From a financial side, the teams and the players have been greatly disadvantaged," he says, so the PEA will share 50 percent of its profits with players*. That's only the start. It also aims to provide benefits like insurance and financial planning, allow players a voice via grievance and rules committees, and could eventually provide leverage for its teams via collective bargaining.

For esports players, the personnel side of analog sports, in combination with team-owned leagues like the PEA, could end up being the most important outcome of the dovetailing. Players spend countless hours honing their skills, and the competition—and subsequent psychological pressure—can be intense, on top of the adverse physical effects of computer operation that anyone with a desk job (or a writer) can attest to: the aching lumbar, the cement-mixer wrists, the flagging, exhausted eyes.

For decades, analog sports athletes were little more than grist for the mill. Before the rise of free agency, players had little to no control over which team they would play—and bleed and hazard bodily harm—for. Before the outcry over concussions suffused sports, hundreds of players had their brains beaten into jelly with little more than faded press clippings and souvenirs for severance. They had to organize and fight in the 1960s and 70s for salaries commensurate with both their sought-after skills and their sports' ballooning profits.

Traditional sports learned these lessons the hard way, in other words, and their involvement in esports may expedite the learning curve for their digital brethren. The well-being of players may very well become baked into esports structures from their earliest days, rather than needing to be shoehorned in generations after the fact—and hopefully mitigating some of the potential downsides of professionalization. Organizations like the PEA may serve as the beginning of player's associations and unions to protect esports athletes from being fleeced financially, as well as providing them with economic agency. Combine this with the analytic muscle and arms-race mentality of traditional sports, and a jump in skill and strategy could be forthcoming, as well.

"Already we're having conversations around what these guys do with their players, around nutrition, or what they do around sports psychology, what they do around ... sports physio, and even as far as advising young professionals and young athletes on financial matters, that kind of thing," says Dignitas CEO Jonathan Kemp. "That's not to say they haven't been going on in esports, but I think this will take it to another level, on the team and player well-being side.

"That ability to take those players and provide an environment for them which is a safe environment, which enables them to be able to operate at their maximum—that's what we need to be doing."

Now they will be, and more. The recent wave of partnerships will be the first of their kind, not the last; analog and esports are now permanently aligned. There's no telling what this singularity will bring in the future—aside from the fact that, whatever it is, it will be done together.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this piece said that 50 percent of the PEA's profits are shared with players and teams. It has been corrected to reflect that is shared only with the players.

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