Esports is still searching for its identity

In 2013, I wrote how esports is not a sport but a competition with the make-up, values and even dedication of sports. My thesis was simple: “Overall, I feel that comparing eSports to professional mainstream sports can be a poor perspective that ultimately narrows potential and shapes it to be something it cannot feasibly become.

On the flipside, esports can be something more because it taps into two pools of consumers and markets: mainstream gaming consumerism and live sports spectating (which has sales ranging from merchandise, celebrity culture, brand activation, media rights sales and more).

What I am alluding to is the concern that we (as an industry) are using sports as an expectation to what we expect this crossing of two sectors to be. Instead, we should continue to use the ‘sports’ comparison as a selling tool to better summarize what esports envisions for non-endemic brands. This was as much of a concern back in 2013 as it is now.

We call competitive gaming “eSports” because it summarizes and eases outsiders into the idea of e-athletes. Even if someone had no idea what playing video-games at a competitive level was or what it entailed, these tournament events are gaming expositions that help show the appeal of watching someone do something better than you (better technique, strategy, approach, etc). The importance of the atmosphere mimicking that of Football stadiums or Hockey rinks is the ultimate goal and titling eSports as a sport helps push the idea further.

Once we can all agree and accept that esports can be like sports but is better suited to accommodate and tap into both consumer markets (stated above), the better it can be established as a viable market for investment without the disclaimer that investors may not see a return for the next 5 to 10 years. In addition, it can also provide more liberties for developers to be involved in esports without having to follow the current regiments and expectations esports companies, pundits and experts are pushing for. Some vocal pundits and experts are ready to dismiss certain forms of esports platforms, styles and approach because it does not fit an established tradition narrative that esports is

Esports does not return on investment

In general, esports does not return on investment. It is often a general public’s misinterpretation that large investments must mean the company is doing well and on-track to make a return but often times it is a doubling-down in hopes that these brands will become profitable and more importantly, an established brand for (if and) when the esports sector becomes an multi-billion dollar industry. That expectation stems from how esports is being sold to investors as a sports comparison as well as its heavy dependency on the gaming industry, which has been on the rise for the past decade and generating more revenue than most other entertainment industries (on par with the global box office)

NRG and other major brands have pulled in some great and amazing people to their brands for the hopeful future of a successful and established esports industry. Now everyone must manage their brands for the long-haul and continue to compete with other majorly-invested teams and organizations.

So in reality, nearly everyone agrees that esports has potential and that agreement is spreading to mainstream markets, members and brands. There is profit to be made but not enough to justify the massive amounts of investments being made. These investments are actually made to not only explore the reach and potential of esports for companies but also to help them expand into markets they would either be unable to reach within a reasonable time-frame. For instance, with ESL’s newly-found investment with MTG, they sought the value of media rights and sales while also creating events in regions they had only attempted once or twice before (Asia/Oceania). The results and profit margins have been mixed.

Esports can be just marketing & community engagement

Ultimately, my goal in this piece is to remind everyone the reality of the situation and to remove any sense of gate-keeping some pundits have in framing companies’ attempt at esports as being poor or unjustified when in reality, everyone is trying new things to justify their continued involvement in esports.

This goes for everyone, including game developers. Riot Games loses tens of millions of dollars running the LCS each year. In recent years, they have sought to cut down on a lot of extraneous costs to further justify running the circuit despite League of Legends, as a game, dipping in returns year-over-year. When the LCS was launched, it was just an exploratory idea no different than what Fortnite and Epic Games are attempting now and what Nintendo has in mind.

Nintendo always focuses more on its community and audience rather than setting the bar in terms of prize-money and thus, legitimacy of their scene. This is just one of the many ways developers are approaching competitions, penned as ‘esports’, as part of their marketing and community engagement.

All these developers are just exploring the value of esports to further emphasize, distinguish and invite traditional players to their product. A perfect example of this is the fact that a new Call of Duty is released each year despite these annual releases being a deterrent to the sustainability of their esports scene as a whole (instability). Another example is Fortnite and Nintendo hosting events that may not be the strictest form of esports by today’s expectations (items on in Super Smash or releasing a new weapon in Fortnite the same day as the tournament). Some of it is due to inexperience, other reasons also include that esports does not take precedence to the priority of mainstream gaming markets and consumers. Everyone knows this but we sometimes forget that esports is simply a subculture to mainstream gaming.

Conclusion: the goal should be justified sustainability

Esports’ identity is in flux because its viability and potential for all companies involved (tournament organizers, sponsors, investors, game developers, players and more) has not been definitively explored to its fullest potential. As esports goes through its growing pains to eventually settle on its marketplace, it’s important to avoid criticizing brands who take a risk and rather seek to better understand how to make that approach the most viable and most importantly, sustainable for the long-term. Esports may become this professionally-driven and international industry or it may become a localized affair of friendly competitions with part-time pro-gamers who are also finishing their degree. Esports may be a blend of both of those and I think it’s important to be realistic about its eventual path.

Lessons from Esports Start-ups: Part 2

During my nine years in esports, I’ve worked for over 13 esports startups across six titles and alongside nine national work cultures. I’ve experienced a lot of personal successes, professional failures and lessons. Although the products and services we have put out had a varied probability of success, I often found that there were lingering issues or concerns that ended up deeply plaguing the company and the members involved.

Within this two-part series, I will draw upon my experiences to highlight common mis-steps startups approach esports, their businesses and some common pitfalls in their operations that ultimately lead to their downfall. This article will be more anecdotal and qualitative than quantitative. It goes without saying that what I may say is true for the businesses I worked with but may not be applicable to all current, past or future businesses. It’s recommended you take the lessons and advice listed here and critically think about how they apply (or not) to your work and experiences.

In Part 1, I drew upon three example companies I’ve worked with to highlight controlling investor expectations, key communication lines with your investor to manage expectations and sensible budgeting to ensure short and long-term viability within this volatile industry.

In part 2, I will talk about internal factors that can hurt a brand more so than how it projects itself, and its successes, to be.

Company Atmosphere & Infrastructure

Beyond the circumstances and communication you have with your investors, some common struggles I’ve experienced with start-ups range from creating a good company atmosphere to an understandable staff infrastructure. From 10 employees to more than 400, it is very common to see company communication lines dissolved or remain poorly enforced over time as leaders get focused too hard on their goals and not so much on maintaining the mood of their offices.

Company atmosphere is important, that goes without saying. In esports where salaries may be lower (depending on your region) and your staffing is much more tight-knit, that company atmosphere can help distinguish your company and compensate the difference in benefits or salary ranges that other companies are offering. However, company atmosphere doesn’t just mean group-activities or pizza lunches every month but rather more towards having leadership with the appropriate experience that managers and coordinators can learn a lot from.

I often ask in my interviews with companies on what a person working with them could learn from working in this company, with their leadership. Their first answer is experience but in reality, that experience is only valued if it has lessons the person can draw from, techniques or systems that can be introduced to the staff or contacts/relationships that a staff member would normally not be able to get. Simply put, your leaders must be able to grow their staff to become specialized individuals. I feel that in esports, people often highlight their experience as justification for their role when, in reality, that experience implies what mentoring, connections and education you can provide to newer members in the field. Leaders with appropriate experience and attitudes heavily affect the type of employees that surround them and ultimately compose your company’s environment. Here are some leader examples I have personally experienced:

  1. Executive staff were often not present in their own company offices. For example, the CEO did not live in the same country as the residing company or staff but was often flown in regularly.
  2. COO fired volunteer staff because some members’ other volunteer projects competed with a potential brand partnership.
  3. Executive leadership was not able to communicate with the majority of their staff due to a language barrier. They relied on translators to speak on their behalf. Connecting with the executive leadership was difficult, leading to many staff members have little faith in his words during harsh times.
  4. Multiple overlapping leaders gave conflicting orders and reasons, leading to staff members feeling deflated and unequipped. This created a frustrated atmosphere that disassembled the brand.
  5. Leader was not permitted a decent budget to hire expert staff members, relying on assistants to help on projects that were beyond their depth and ability. The leader often used a lot of their time to assist these assistant instead of fulfilling his intended hired responsibilities.

For leaders, having a staff team that can provide more than just ‘bodies’ to a task can mean reducing the amount of time for your product/service to come into fruition, ultimately lowering your operations cost and meeting client or internal expectations of delivery.

On the flip-side, having too many leaders with not enough specialized team members can lead to a lot of discussion and little action or little ability to fulfill actions without confrontation between involved leaders. An ideal infrastructure scales in accordance with the brand’s services or platform but also relies on specialized employees to help deliver an end-result.Too little expert infrastructure

For many esports brands that are receiving large rounds of investment and scale without appropriately looking at how to optimize their current staff may often find redundancies in their workmanship that can slow a task rather than hasten its completion.

Awareness versus Actual Success

Something I see a lot with recent brands, especially during the live-streaming competing brands and fantasy betting platforms is the PR cycles with actual very little results to display. You often see these sites tout around their CEOs, making large or redundant opinions without much news cycles regarding the actual success of their brand.

Despite numerous press releases and appearances by the CEO of Azubu. The actual performance, revenue generated or value of the live-streaming platform and brand was declining quickly. This is not a unique situation that many company will encounter.

Gathering a lot of awareness for a brand to compensate for its actual successes often has a reverse effect within some gossiping business circles. They can often perceive the projection you’re setting and if not, your staff members may undermine you by speaking honestly (yet with frustration) to colleagues within the industry about the decline of their brand.

Seeking PR Exposure for your brand without being able to actually deliver a desirable product is something so basic and yet so many brands try to continue marching on in their business cycles without actually executing their main goals and services.Critical of the current competitors to dismiss their success before you’ve even launched

Lastly, before launch of your company or brand, it’s heavily recommended not to talk down about the current company. Nor is it wise to use the failings of another company as a justification to start a competitor, especially if you are unable to match or mirror the qualities and value that the leading competitor has. I often found myself among circles of people criticizing other established brands before they, themselves, have launched. Be wary of the tone you are setting up internally and the perspective you are spreading within your team, you will find yourself often obsessive about how much better you are than another company, when in reality, they have achieved so much more than you can in the first few years after launch.

Dota 2 Hero Builds Project ends after six years, 364 Million subscriptions

Summary

After six years, the Dota 2 Hero Builds Project is ending. The reason is that I have achieved everything I wanted with the guides and I no longer feel motivated continuing this free project.

The choice was to either start asking for financial support to continue my responsibilities or to move onto new ideas I want to do. I’ve chosen the latter.

Volunteering My Life

I’ve been volunteering my time for the past 10 years simultaneously with my education and career:

1. Before esports, I volunteered at a Jewish retirement center between my classes
2. I rewrote TeamLiquid.net’s original FAQ
3. I created StarCraft/esports university clubs around my city (Montreal): UQAM, Concordia, McGill
4. I hosted local community viewing events called Barcrafts Montreal (4x)
5. I worked on StarCraft events for our local LAN: LAN ETS, NASL Toronto Finals and Blizzard’s WCS Canada.
6. I acted as a player-manager for teams: Root Gaming, Infinity Seven, Team Dynamic, VT Gaming, Quantic Gaming
7. I wrote for many esports websites: Team Liquid, D-Esports, ESFI World
8. I published in-game Dota Hero Builds

Had a lot of fun creating many BarCraft Montreal events during StarCraft II and MLG’s heyday.

For the guides, I’ve learned everything there is to learn and the project itself was no longer being done for my enjoyment. I’ll only volunteer to do something if I can learn from the experience or I genuinely enjoy the work. Simply put, I just want to do things and it stems from a personal insecurity to prove myself:

In my PCGamesN interview, the writer only published a portion of my answers, here is the full quote. I’ve mentioned similar aspects about me on other podcasts and interviews as well.

Overall, I’m a pretty unremarkable person. I’m not inherently personable, talented in games, in general knowledge or any actual abilities. All I got going for me is my desire to be proactive and contribute and I feel its important to pursue that sole quality that distinguishes myself.

Negativity

The project has hit a ceiling of success and the amount of discrediting (‘you’ve had X item on this hero for six years’), misinformation (‘he’s only 3k MMR’) and personal attacks (‘he’s just trying to be famous’) are stronger than the appreciation I receive nowadays. Since I am not enjoying this negative tone on something I want to do, I will just go do something else. There is a lot to say about handling criticism and negativity and I am not sure I want to dedicate a whole block to this subject but I do know I am sensitive to it but not obliged to accept it. This is contrary to YouTubers, Streamers and casters who have to tolerate a lot of mean stuff from their communities because it’s part of their work and life. That said, It does especially hurt when people who are acquainted with me publicly tell me my guides suck but never reached out to help me improve them. Even pro-players have given me more feedback over the years than the critics who watch or cast their play.

Next Steps

In terms of next steps, I will be trying out new ideas and seeing how I feel about them. Most of the things I’ve done no one has really heard of, even less for my actual jobs. But for me, they have all been enjoyable and hard-working experiences that made me a better person.

For instance, now I want to work on being a more outward person and comfortable on camera. I’ve only had four camera appearances in my life and I have never watched them because I get horrible anxiety/discomfort. To rectify this, I’ve been live-streaming or appearing on people’s live-streams to be more comfortable in front of or talking to an audience.

Placeholder video to help break up text and reading exhaustion. People still talk to me about this video though

Second, I will be trying my hand at hosting a small online Dota show. I’ve produced a lot of types of content but never hosted. I’m hoping it yields community interest and spur support for other content ideas like event coverage or interviews: Patreon.com/TorteDeLini (campaign is paused until I have something to show). I will make a proper announcement of this next week closer to the intended date but its based around improving my actual ability to play Dota 2 as my fundamentals and understanding of the game are average.

Thirdly, I have started writing some personal opinion pieces about the esports industry as a whole. I enjoy giving my expert thoughts on the industry and having a nice display of my knowledge across articles.

Lastly, I’ve just finished my previous esports start-up and considering new projects/options. You can review my career background on LinkedIn: LinkedIn.com/in/MichaelCohenP

Conclusion

After six years, the hero builds project is coming to an end. The achievements of this project are far more reaching than anything said on Reddit, stream or to me in-person and I’ve always been surprised that so many people have enjoyed something I was so passionate about. I do not think I will ever succeed in anything as great as this project but I am very excited to explore what else I can do.

My final message, thank you for the kind comments on my profile. I’ve read (and sometime re-read) every single one across these many years.

Thank you for being my friends and giving me a purpose. You’ve made this relatively ordinary person achieve something pretty extraordinary.

PS: You can always talk to me directly on Discord or catch me live-streaming every week on Twitch.tv/TorteDeLini.



FAQ

Why did you wipe the guides? I mentioned my hiatus as far back as December but I was still getting many messages, on a daily basis, either telling me to update the guides or that they suck/are wrong. In the past I highlighted a concern that users were not converting away from outdated guides, this is to ensure that everyone moves on.

Will you ever bring back the guides?
As mentioned, I’ve achieved everything I want with the project. If there is demand and financial support to bring them back, I’d be happy to retake the position. It will never be something I will personally come back to.

How come you didn’t try to make any money from the project?
It was never my motivation. It was purely an alternative for people who did not want to give direct feedback on how to improve the project. I have tested a few sponsors but quickly realized that the engagement rate was small (0.0003%). Additionally, the guides don’t provide any information (location, daily use, etc.) that can entice sponsors. I’m too average of a player to consider alternative work (e.g: ‘coaching’) and it would conflict with my actual work and responsibilities (and it does not interest me). Lastly, I opened a Patreon but the persistent shaming and backlash made me feel incredibly anxious, so I removed all public mention of it (2016-2018).

Did Dota Plus or other guide-makers influence your decision?
No. Regarding Dota Plus, I wrote in my five-year summary that Dota Plus did not affect my MoM subscription growth (~5.5 Million). Additionally, my guide penetration was 83% of all daily matches whereas Dota Plus has a 56% expiry rate. In terms of other guide-makers, I’ve been providing advice, promotion or help so they can grow because I have always been publicly voicing for more ‘competition’.

What is your MMR? I’ve played ranked for three different seasons and have reached 5K mmr, 4.5K mmr, 4K mmr. I play mostly unranked so I can play whatever hero I want without the extra consequences or pressure. My unranked is definitely lower as I had tested a lot of hero builds with heroes I am not comfortable with.

How come you never waited until the meta settles before updating the guides? The meta is constantly changing, it can take weeks for it to have any sort of settled approach (which can change again). Additionally, for everyone who thinks I should wait, there are about 10x people asking me if I am updating the guides, when can I update the guides, demanding it. Lastly, there were guide-makers who were not following the same thought-process, they would update their builds immediately then abandon them, causing subscribers to be misinformed for months.

Do you ever go back and update the builds after initial guide updates?
Yes, in fact, I regularly do revisions, retractions, adjustments and changes. This sometimes ends up being larger than the initial changes made from the start. Towards the end, my schedule was about 100-400 updates every two weeks depending how off my initial applications were.


I’ll update this FAQ with any other community-related questions.

UPDATE – 10:06cest Feb. 8, 2019 — Did you quit because of the community negativity?
To say yes is to give too much credit to the naysayers and not enough value to those who appreciate the project. The main reason I quit is exactly what I am saying: the project hit a success ceiling and did not garner any more personal value to me. I was not comfortable conditioning the continuation of the guides based on financial support after making it clear that I was doing it for free for so long. Once you hit a certain level of success to something, all there is really left to do is to maintain it and permit criticism to fester and grow. I was not happy doing that and decided to be honest with myself and everyone.