The recent decimation of professional Overwatch teams is a dramatic example of what can happen when esports' expansion goes wrong. Failure is not even necessary; the mere potential for problems can be enough to send players out the door. Ironically, it is the forthcoming, publisher-designed league for Overwatch which seems to be causing the culling.
Franchise fees for Overwatch publisher Blizzard's professional league have been rumored to be as much as $20 million. While that figure is potentially variable and unsubstantiated by Blizzard, the high cost has been high enough to cause squads to shutter before the publisher's league even gets off the ground. Compete's Nathan Grayson reports that that pro Overwatch events have yet to be much of a draw on spectator platforms like Twitch, raising concerns among esports teams that the Blizzard league may not be able to pull in the large live audiences that allow teams to make additional money.
Esports teams function more like European sports clubs than franchises in the major North American leagues. Just as Paris Saint-Germain fields men's and women's soccer teams and a men's handball team, all under the PSG name, a single esports team competes in multiple games. Team Liquid, for example, competes in Counter Strike:Global Offensive, League of Legends, Hearthstone, StarCraft, Dota 2, Halo, Overwatch, Street Fighter, Smash Bros., and Heroes, all requiring different skill sets and strategies and encompassing a wide range of game types, from shooters to multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) to fighting games.
However, the challenges and opportunities facing an esports team looking to expand are unique. In traditional sports, it typically takes a long time for an activity to rise to the level of soccer or handball; honing the game, stocking the talent pool, and building a fanbase can require decades.
In esports, there are a vast number of games that teams can choose to compete in—and new games arise all the time. Streaming platforms like Twitch have put games in front of millions of eyes faster than ever before. Technology and tastes move quickly in the video game world, and if a team is too late entering the fray on the Next Big Game, it can find itself competitively disadvantaged, as well as missing out on funds and fans. When a team passes on something like Blizzard's Overwatch league, it isn't just calculating that it can't afford to make a move—it's betting that it can afford not to.
So how do esports teams handle expansion in a chaotic sporting environment which practically requires it? The answer is complicated.
"When Team Liquid thinks about getting involved with a particular game, there's a number of different factors, and it's kind of adding those factors together to come to some sort of conclusion about our involvement within a game," Team Liquid owner and co-CEO Steve Arhancet told VICE Sports.
Team Liquid's first factor is evaluating the game's competitiveness as a professional sport. Not all games are suitable for esports; aside from the obvious outliers like single-player games, all games with multiplayer components are not destined for professional play. To start with, Arhancet and Liquid look for games which not only have an already-thriving competitive community, and which are as enjoyable to watch as it is to play.
"In order for those things to happen, the game has to be balanced; it has to have some sort of spectator quality to it," Arhancet said. "The type of thing where, when you're watching, you're on the edge of your seat, or you see a certain play and you kind of scream and shout because of how awesome it was."
The size of the game is crucial; if Team Liquid wants to be taken seriously, it needs to be involved in the most popular games. Games like Dota and Counter-Strike are the "heavy-hitters," as Arhancet called them, and Liquid "absolutely want to be the esports organization that's represented across every major competitive video game."
Liquid also evaluates itself with regard to the game: what can Team Liquid add to the game and the community of players and fans supporting it?
"We don't want to just be there for the sake of sponsoring and supporting players, while that's a good reason in and of itself; we want to do more." Arhancet said. Take Team Liquid's approach to StarCraft, the game on which Liquid cut their teeth. According to Arhancet, Team Liquid founder, owner, co-CEO, and StarCraft player Victor Goossens knew that the game's players and fans needed a place where they could gather and talk shop. So Liquid built TL Forum, which became, as Arhancet characterized it, "the go-to destination" for talking about the game and professional scene.
"And so we delivered on a value-add for the StarCraft community, in addition to sponsoring and supporting athletes within the team," he said.
The same approach is being taken to Team Liquid's move into Civilization, which mainly took place because of the lack of support for competitive Civ. What the game needed were a few mods and some regular events, infrastructure which Team Liquid stepped in to provide. In the right circumstances, expansion can not only boost a team's prominence but an entire game's, with all of esports reaping the benefits.
Adding a new game to a team means adding new players. That means considering the same kind of playing style and chemistry issues NBA general managers and soccer coaches take into account. Immortals co-founder and CEO Noah Whinston's is currently looking into adding a Dota 2 team. Given that the game is already one of the most prominent esports in the world, the question facing him and Immortals is whether or not they can find the right players to make that expansion work in-line with the rest of Immortals' roster.
"This is a little different from earlier on in our history," Whinston said. "The first few teams we picked up, we more targeted scenes based on the games we wanted, rather than allowing compelling players or compelling teams to lead us into games. But at this point, with our Dota 2 investigation, it is more about, 'is there an opportunity in Dota 2 that really reflects our philosophy and our values?' And if there is, then we feel like the game, and that ecosystem, is ripe for expansion."
Whinston characterizes an Immortals team as aggressive and dynamic; think gunslingers and riverboat gamblers, not clock managers, no matter what the game. Finding the right players—in this case, ANTi and Shroomed—was the reason why Immortals went into Super Smash Bros. 4 and Melee, respectively, and a similar fit must be found for a Dota 2 team to come into the fold.
Player-and team-driven expansion is possible in part because Immortals is smaller than some of its competitors, but mainly because of Whinston and the team's organizational philosophy: have fans deeply identify with Immortals because the team engages with their game, rather than just seeing them compete all over the place.
"In general, I think any esports organization that views adding a team as 'growth' is maybe not looking at it in the right way," Whinston said. "We don't think of ourselves as an esports organization that wants to expand horizontally, into multiple titles. We look at [expansion like] an organization that wants to expand vertically, by deepening our connection with the fans and players in the titles that we already have."
Any expansion team needs events to compete in, and expansion at the event and organizer level is perhaps what has the greatest impact on the esports landscape. A game will only pass Arhancet and Team Liquid's first test—a thriving scene which is as fun to watch as it is to play—with some sort of competitive framework in place. Whinston cannot find teams and players which fit Immortals' style without places/events to see those players play; in fact, his interest in competing in Dota 2 came from the unparalleled experience of watching The International last year in Seattle.
When determining what games to support, the ESL's criteria changes depending on the level of competition it's looking to field. An ESL event can run the gamut from a small, one-day-only online event under the ESL Play umbrella to a massive, arena-filling spectacle like the Intel Extreme Masters. This tiered system means that any game which is competitive, fair, multiplayer, and skill-based has a chance at finding an online platform, said ESL managing director of pro gaming Ulrich Schulze.
"We do lots of different games, even the smaller ones, on the platform," Schulze said. "If we're going to the bigger ones, then it typically has a few other elements. When we decide to go to an arena with a certain title, we need to be reasonably comfortable that that title can then draw enough audience into that specific arena. So, those are typically only the really biggest ones in the world. A couple million active players every month, lots of people watching streams online; those are the games that then can potentially fill an arena, and those are also the ones that we will then look at to, say, host a league in or create more regular tournaments in."
ESL Play's team is constantly looking for new titles, and the dragnet only widens considering that many of ESL's employees are gamers themselves.
"Naturally, everyone [at ESL] plays all kinds of games, so whatever new game that could potentially be interesting pops up, someone in the company will have played it," Schulze said.
New titles by established publishers and games with regular iterations, like FIFA, are shoe-ins, said Schulze. Other titles, like Rocket League, sell well and build enough of a following to earn their way onto the platform. The ESL also talks with publishers to find out what games are coming, and some independent publishers, Sculze said, are building games with esports in mind as their business and marketing strategy.
Larger tournaments and events with physical locations have more difficult hurdles to clear. They must be easy to spectate and follow, even for first-time watchers, and should have a base of interesting players and teams.
"It's not just the game that makes people go to an arena or stadium, but most of the time it is the personalities and the organizations," Schulze said, adding that most games large enough to be considered for this level of competition usually meet this personality factor organically.
Geography plays a key role in determining what games to play where. According to Schulze, ESL considers their physical events more like music festivals than sporting contests; their research shows that people not only travel, but stay for multiple days. They do not only consider the player base of a game within miles of the arena, but within hundreds of miles; in Germany, they tend to draw spectators from all over Europe. If the ESL wants a good turnout, they must tailor their offerings to where they are.
Any contest in the Philippines, for example, is going to feature Dota 2, which is the country's dominant MOBA; in Poland, they prefer League. This geographic information cuts both ways, though: Schulze said that the Middle East is tough to hold major events in—despite fan interest—because the player base is relatively small.
While they are faced with a dizzying and daunting array of options, esports teams also have an enviable advantage over their traditional peers: the risk factor is considerably lower. Any expansion which requires physical infrastructure is most dangerous, with the ESL's arena events are a prime example.
"When you decide to put a game in a bigger environment and you expect people to show up for it, that's something that you can't 100 percent predict, and that's also where a lot of the costs come in," Schulze said. "So taking a title from being relevant and good on the online platform to then being something that can drive people to attend an arena event, that's when it becomes a little more risky."
Adding titles to ESL Play, meanwhile, is fairly simple and costs relatively nothing; games can be added or dropped without much time or effort on the ESL's part, and there is no chance of finding themselves in the red after putting on a spectacle with a million-dollar budget. For teams like Team Liquid or Immortals, ill-fated expansion may not be spectacularly punitive from a financial standpoint, but can be damaging in different ways.
"Most of the damage of being involved in a game that is difficult to support is time: distraction from other areas of the company that we could be focusing our energy and investment into," Arhancet told VICE Sports. "The amount of damage would vary dramatically based on the cost to get into said game, too. For Team Liquid, we are already in nearly every esport, however for a team that perhaps invests into League of Legends, but then does not manage to produce consistent results, they could see significant financial losses."
Still, in the rapidly red-shifting universe of esports, expansion is not only an opportunity, but also a requirement.