Stating that E-sports is “huge” has become a cliche in this day and age. Reputable and well-funded companies have caught on to the emergence of E-sports and have invested great amounts of time and money to buying teams and brands to enter into the industry. With more and more leagues introducing franchisement, the professional teams at the top levels of play are increasing in value each season of competition at the cost of new teams’ ability to enter the picture. Yet, despite all of this success, little of it has found its way into amateur leagues. As a result, there is little incentive in starting a new e-sports brand to compete in amateur leagues. Although e-sports is starting to look more and more like professional sports leagues such as the NBA or NFL, the similarities stop short when it comes to sub-leagues. So the question remains: will e-sports see amateur league development?
Let’s start with what we know. Gamers are some of the most passionate consumers across any industry. They put countless hours into games regardless if there is some monetary reward or competitive success to reward their efforts. The time that they dedicate often translates to being better at the game they are playing (although as many of us know, this isn’t always the case). Based on which games have been the most popular in the past 5 years, there is a good chance that a gamer will be playing a game that is considering an e-sport with a designated pro league. But for the vast majority of players, the opportunity to play for a pro team in a pro league is outside the scope of their ability. But just because they aren’t skilled enough doesn’t mean this aspect of the game should be unavailable to them.
For most competitive e-sports games, there exists no built-in tournament feature or challenger series to provide this competitive experience to players besides ranked play. Because game developers have not implemented this into their game, the task has been taken up by third parties. Whether these third-parties are individual tournament rosters creating a tournament on Battlefy or gaming communities creating amateur leagues for their members to compete in on a weekly-basis, they are providing an experience that the games by themselves are not. Being part of a team with a management structure that does research on other teams in your league through organizing “scrims” and analyzing their players stats is something that is incredibly appealing to the competitive minded player. And this experience is in higher demand than you may think.
Game developers are starting to catch onto this trend but are failing to capture the real value. For example, Rocket League recently implemented a tournament feature into their game and League of Legends recently introduced a “clash” event for teams to compete in a tournament style structure. But the tournaments in these features are only short-term and are not meant to act as a their own competitive leagues with dedicated teams and infrastructure. These tournaments have no longevity and therefore do not provide the experience many players want.
The on-demand style of tournaments means that teams are like freelance employees. They jump around from tournament to tournament and the only value generated is what they earn from tournament winnings. Because of this, there is no real need or reason for people to develop an e-sports brand as a sort of small business and spend money to sign rosters and players. The whole point of an e-sports brand is to build a fanbase and create value through sponsorships. But most fall short of ever achieving this. With this in mind, its fair to say amateur e-sports brands act more like passion projects than they do businesses.
But what if you could create value propositions in amateur e-sports leagues that would transform these passion projects into actual small businesses? E-sports could be a far bigger industry if it was more than just an industry that catered to the highest level of play. While it may not be as popular in viewership, that isn’t the point. Amateur leagues provide team owners, players, and smaller sponsors an opportunity to build value through their contributions to e-sports. Like the G-League is to the NBA, amateur leagues can help develop talent and brand recognition that will open up opportunities at every level of play.
So what needs to change? I believe that the change comes about through a common medium. As it stands, there isn’t one overarching organization that manages the leagues for every e-sport. And based on how professional e-leagues are managed currently, there never will be. To use the NBA analogy once more, take the G-league for instance. This amateur league is operated and managed by the NBA. At all non-college levels of play, the NBA has a monopoly on professional basketball. With this format being unable to translate to e-sports as there isn’t just one e-sport, the possibility for an overarching organization to manage all amateur e-sports won’t work. Therefore, rather than trying to legitimize one amateur league, there should be a platform that empowers multiple leagues. This platform would essentially act as a middle man between third party tournament/league hosters and teams/players. Furthermore, it would act as a ledger that records and legitimizes tournament and league wins by teams so that potential sponsors, players, and fans can view the accomplishments of a team. In this way, value can be built, managed, and stored all in one common place.
This is but one take on how amateur e-sports can be professionalized. Whether or not this is the correct way to go about it remains to be seen. What can be agreed upon is the simple fact that video games that are established e-sports are developed to foster competition. But unless you are one of the best at the game, there are competitive experiences that are blocked to you. Third parties have aimed to fill the gap through their own amateur leagues but have failed to be a legitimate solution to this inadequacy. Therefore, it can be agreed that there is an inadequacy that is currently not being fulfilled by third-party solutions. It can also be discerned that finding a solution to this issue will create value propositions that will lead more players and team owners to see e-sports as something that can be a career as opposed to simply a passion. With that incentive in place, amateur leagues can act as rungs on a ladder that help develop talent to reach the top levels of play. Brands and sponsors will benefit from the climb these players make on their way to the top. The next evolution of competitive e-sports won’t be a development in the professional scene but rather one that comes from other levels of competitive play.