Esports is now considered a legitimate industry, with large audiences, significant prize pools and substantial investments from well known figures outside of the respective scenes.
So, why is it that almost every organisation - now more than ever geared towards entertainment rather than legitimate competitively viable gameplay - is still accepting absolute rule of the developer and publisher when it comes to the gaming platform?
Well, the answer is obvious. These developers and publishers have grown to such a size that their rule over the game is unquestionable. The money is there, and let’s face it - who really cares about the game’s competitive viability. As long as people play it and watch it, and spend money on the digital air that is microtransaction cosmetics. We have trained casters that can hype up one roll of the dice and condemn the other. I’m only here for my stream drops.
Those that run the tournaments, and those organisations that participate in them, are all embedded with what is still quite a small industry. It is a captured scene, and everyone is fine to run along - it is after all - just business. Why would anyone dare speak up and risk damaging the relationship with the only business that allows access to the game we’ve invested all these years in.
Yet now, all of a sudden, all of this lightheartedness seems to have vanished from the scene because of a number of incidents.
We have joked about competitive gaming for years now. We - I mean those of us over 25 that have seen a glimpse of a different esports scene, one that grew organically from games that were worth the title of competitive game. I’m talking about the framework that allowed the developer - the divine entity that did not care enough to give us a second glance for decades - to suddenly swoop in and corperatize that which was in most cases a true grassroots movement. And usually destroy all the standards we had set as a foundation.
Our passionate consumers
Indeed, the oft quoted ‘passion’ that we had all those years, working for mere scraps so a small number of us could eke out a living - and those others simply relegating it to a laborious hobby.
That is what passion means to a large developer. ‘We appreciate the passion.’ - it means nothing more than free labour to be exploited, usually concerning a feature or function a developer could not care less about. A competitive scene has never been a metric in growth, it is a loud and yammering pustule that demands development of additional features that won’t result in growth - forget about retention. Too small a fraction of players even cares about playing in the competitive scene - look, they’d rather watch.
Development stops as soon as possible, placed into maintenance, and every action beyond peak growth is a loss. Do not think ‘passion’ affects that particular roadmap.
Ded gaem. Kill the servers. Here’s the sequel. Forget everything else.
No - I’m wrong of course. Look - esports has never been bigger, developers take the professional community’s issues seriously and support has never been better. The fact that these developers spend fractions upon fractions of their revenue to support the game and the tournament scene is proof. All these captured esports organisations keep perpetuating a pure ‘state sanctioned TV-like world of good news that is pure positivity - and the now and again tolerated moment where the local jester is allowed to run rampant now and again to point at the flaws of the king. We laugh, we wag our finger, and keep smiling.
Except we don’t, but that doesn’t matter. Already there are a new wave of teenagers that come into the scene without any knowledge of what came before. They are here and see the new normal, and anyone who says differently is toxic, until they get burned and the cycle continues. At what point do we start ‘thinking about the children’ here? At what point is the scene legitimate enough for us to demand the preservation of the past and allow for actual accountability by the developer? To show that the ‘normal’ we live in now is not an inevitable reality.
We are not yet all living in an authoritarian society and certainly not when the authority in question is a game developer!
The game is fun though, so maybe you should calm down? I’m sure it’ll be fine. It’s just a game.
No, now suddenly the reality of the unflinching amorality of the large corporation hits close to home. We’re no longer nerds playing our own reality with our own idols and superstars. Suddenly, the warm blanket of the gamer identity gets thrust into actual reality, and those of us with a moral center are suddenly swept up in the now standard form outrage culture, ready to embrace our impotence and let the rage bleed away over a few weeks when a new game gets announced by the same developer. Principle be damned, allow me to escape my own introspection.
It is now very clear how very much this isn’t ‘just a game’ anymore. This is about legitimate professionals losing their livelihood because of the absolute domination of the developer. There is no regulatory body, there is no international federation, there is no union. There is only the will of the developer, and the acceptance of all the captured organisations that cannot exist without the blessing of said developer.
Unless autonomy can be achieved, esports is a farce - and not just because of the competitive viability of the games (we are after all, talking about Hearthstone), but because of the integrity of those that call themselves the professional community.
So how do we even start? How about we create our own roadmap. Because all the raving and ranting isn’t going to achieve anything - I agree. But we have to anticipate some contrarianism.
Firstly - we are dealing with the perception of time of teenagers and those in their early 20ies; a neat trick that has allowed the games industry to be considered so jovial for so long. Sadly, us 30 year olds haven’t quite died off yet and we have been given the power of hindsight - finally after all these years! If only we had been saying this exact same thing for decades! Then we were loud mouthed kids who had no scope of reality, now we are old men wishing for the return of ‘the old days’ Oh my nostalgia! It is almost as if there is a narrative being subverted! Aie! No!
Excuse the momentary smugness, I’m sure it’ll subside.
The community server
Battle.net was a glorified IRC server providing a service. Communities were allowed to grow within its channels. For shooters there were community servers that allowed clans and other organisations to have their own island of authority and control over the way the game was to be played.
Activision made the first step when they killed community servers with Modern Warfare 2. And ‘the community’ was outraged.
For years the concept of a dedicated server, away from the control of the developer, was paramount to the development of the competitive scene. Growth of players within these curated spaces allowed for real relationships to grow and community figures to rise. The organisation of tournaments with their own ruleset and mod list - improving where the developer would not was one of the foundations of what made the framework of later esports possible.
Yet it was welcomed with articles such as these.
To quote: “"We're just prioritizing the player experience above the modders and the tuners," says West. He points toward the mounting feedback IW has received from PC fans of Modern Warfare who couldn't find a decent server to play on between all of the cheaters, the insular communities, and huge skill level disparities that the original game's community fractured into. "We thought maybe it would be cool if the fans could play the game," he laughs.”
So suddenly we have - for this game franchise at least - the death of an entire scene. A single decision by a single developer that changed the way of life (yes, let’s use that terminology) of a decade old community of players. Suddenly the influx of players changes completely and the old ways slowly die off. There is now matchmaking and queuing into anonymous groups of players.
The implications of that particular incident warrant its own pseudo factual rant I’m sure, but what is important here is that the Modern Warfare 2 community was powerless. All agency was removed, and these dedicated people this ‘community’ equivocated with cheaters and hackers, with toxic elements. They were laughed at by the developer. So much for the legitimacy of the esports world - back in 2009.
Because, let’s face it, we were nothing back then. Scattered among clan websites, small league forums and amateur LAN parties. The professional community existed, the foundations were there are there was the beginning of legitimacy, but it was still - for the mainstream - a thing to be ridiculed.
The new gamer that arrived now never knew about the freedom that the dedicated server provided. Instead they were happy to be given this reduced experience - just the game, without community interaction. And soon another dogma arrived, that of microtransactions and always on.
One was needed for the other, as now it has become a factual impossibility to have dedicated servers. No longer just required for legitimising DLC, but now also for the progression of the game. How else can we make sure your prestige level is real?
A new kind of gamer was cultivated. One that was embraced by the skinner box of arbitrary progression, rather than the slow development of skills within an organic server. ‘This guy is much better than me, he has prestige 4!’
Suddenly the things we had always seen as the baseline of a competitively functional game became impossible. First the community servers, then the mapping tools, then modding altogether. It became impossible, and the new wave of gamers never asked for them, as they didn’t understand this ‘lost technology’ the old nostalgic nerds were whining about.
After all ‘the community’ was nothing more than a collection of neckbeards. They are ‘the gamers’. A faceless mass of eternally ungrateful lemures that have no useful skills. It’s easy, isn’t it, to simply set aside your entire active audience, to block out anyone who doesn’t simply mouth ‘It’s just a game lol’.
Indeed, at this point in time, there are members of this amorphous ‘community’ that are quality professionals that realistically can have more experience in the systems used than some of the developers themselves - and have the luxury of going more in-depth on certain issues than the allowed time these developers get.
‘The technology isn’t there’ no longer works. As ‘we’ have been in the industry for all these years. We know the tricks. And to our horror, we might not have known the exact solution or jargon, but we were right - we were lied to.
The audience has been conditioned to consider the sale of differently coloured database entries to be an acceptable way of ‘rewarding’ the developer for allowing such a wonderful game to be released. The last vestige of the competitive spirit is that of begging the developer to wait a while before overpowered pay to win items get released into the game. At least until the streamers stop playing the game, so we can move on like locusts to the next.
The idea of staying with one game for more than a year is alien now. Many experienced it for their first time ever with PUBG or Fortnite. Many clans following the old concept forming from games like DayZ that saw community servers as a new concept for many players.
So here we are. The organisations are captured, the servers are captured. An entire scene can be wiped from existence by the decision of a single developer, a single board or CEO. And suddenly we are defending our right to free speech against a conglomerate that has never had to adhere to those rules in the first place, yet has never seen fit to exercise that power.
So what is the solution? We demand the platform to be disconnected from the developer.
Impossible - the very nature of the business model doesn’t allow it.
Well, firstly - fuck the business model. If the last week has been any indication we need to have the freedom to tell the developer to go fuck itself and carry on with the industry as it stands. We are not here to be beholden to the developer. If esports is to ever be more than a simple marketing ploy to get the kids to spend real money on virtual bullshit that can disappear at the whim of the dev then let’s just forget it.
At what point did the developer of football tell all the kids that they can only play in their specially sanctioned stadiums? That you can only play with the balls you unlock, otherwise you’re all hackers and cheaters and not playing the game the way it was intended? A stretch to use such an analogy? Sure, but this is what we’re going for though right? The global acceptance of esports and games as a legitimate platform of competition? Then why would this be odd.
It is the developer’s privilege to earn money from the initial sale and the support that follows. There is no obligation for them to become a billion dollar monster off of the back of a carefully cultivated audience of hapless kids. This is not how it has to be. This too, is your precious capitalism. There can be a developer that allows for the control of the community and still exist, and still be involved in the competitive scene.
Not every game needs to have a competitive scene, but if a tournament is created, then it is the professional gaming community that needs to legitimise it, not the developer. And it needs to be in that professional scene’s purview to deny a developer a legitimisation if the game or their actions are below standard.
The right to continue
Then there is the disgusting disposable nature of games in general. CoD comes to mind again, and in recent years some developers have taken the continued support of a single game more to heart. But there is something to be said for allowing the continuation of the game - and the release of assets if the developer has abandoned the game - and I will stretch my pipedream to the point where a game no longer in active development, placed into maintenance, would fall under that category.
Having dedicated servers, and the tools to at least create maps or environments and alter parameters in the game would also allow the developer to stop running costs on the game altogether - and still allow for the sale of the game.
This is where the professional community - trusted organisations - would potentially be allowed by the developer to continue the connection to the DLC and microtransaction servers. Legally, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch. Any breach in security or trust can easily be sanctioned.
This doesn’t solve the problem of governments dictating what is allowed. And what is to say that corruption once more sets in. Yes, well anticipated. But at least then the community would have the tools to cut out the corruption and begin anew, and not be forced to endure the situation while it contemplates sunken cost and the validity of their profession.
Yes, developers are seen as the enemy in this article. I’m applying what I am reprimanding in generalising with a single term. It’s easier to write this way. I’m only shooting for the big fish, and those that try to emulate them.
Because, let’s put things into perspective for a moment. We are convoluting quite a few things here.
A business is a business, it will want to make money. How will they ever allow for what you’ve discussed here? Well, in the current climate of amorality and unregulated greed it won’t.
But what are we discussing here? The chains that bind a burgeoning industry. That’s all I’m going for here. One simple element. The realisation that perhaps we need to separate the esports world from the traditional corporate one - and search for a way of autonomy.
The ‘real world’ isn’t a great example. ‘Real’ sports federations are rife with corruption and greed, and political meddling.
So what value do we place on our once virtual culture? What is the worth of the communities we’ve built over all these years, can we unironically call it a way of life? Can we defend the world we built and consider these things a matter of principle? Or are we still to be ridiculed and be good little consumers. Roll our eyes as mom calls us an esports athlete? Or are we finally past that, and actually start acting like adults past 30?
There is a reason we still talk about Quake and Brood War. Even if the player bases are laughable by today's standards. It’s because of the tools we had, and the fact that many of us are still around.
Also, these games no longer grow not because of their age, but because the current generation of player is no longer compatible with the kind of community that is required.
Both Quake Champions and Starcraft Remastered have shown that there is no will and no knowledge in the current developer to even try and translate that which existed then. Instead, raising spirits for a moment, only to monetise the passion and then point out, laughing, the toxicity of these suddenly offended denizens of their self-created abyss.
The disgust, here, is that for decades now these communities existed without the help of said developers. Yet then suddenly they once more descend upon their game and claim ownership once more; not a moment’s recognition for what work was done for so many years - such passion.
And as the graph of growth once more turns red, the developer leaves. Lamenting the tragedy, having exploited the fools that lit up in excitement at their very presence.
And here we are, once more chained to this dev that had not cared for us in a decade. We really should be appreciative. After all, your game was dead. Why are you still asking more? Ingrates.
We do have a culture, one of exploitation. And it is time we find out where our power lies beyond shouting in forums.
I am not in a position of power in the world of esports. I accepted what I had was but a hobby and not a profession. But I’m still sitting in front of my computer and participate in this way of life. As sad as it might be to some.
Those of you that are professionals. Consider, if the current climate continues, how sure your future is, and what demands are worth the continuation of your career.