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Sick of getting tread on? Part II: Killing the WSO
posted in News
August 3, 2012

[b]The single biggest thing holding gaming back is our addiction to and dependence on prize money.[/b]

We need and ultimately want a model that provides a reliable revenue stream that doesn't evaporate in a matter of a week (re: CGS). Yet we jump at every opportunity to make some fast cash, regardless where or who it comes from, and then wonder why nothing with any stability comes along.

To free gaming from this constant bubble cycle, and promote sustainable growth within the scene, we need to re-examine the very foundation of the scene. If the way competitive gaming works can be modified so that teams and players own their product and can build a predictable business model around it, the scene will no longer need to rely on the fickle kindness of strangers to grow.

Where we are: Jack Binion's Horseshoe Gaming League

For many of us in the States, CPL was our first 'professional' competitive venue. They tried to make the case that they were emulating professional sports leagues; in reality, CPL and every other LAN-based circuit since have looked more like the World Series of Poker than a professional team sport league.

The WSOP was started some 40 years ago by Jack Binion as a small invitational tournament. The present-day WSOP features scores of buy-in tournaments, and Harrah's now owns the circuit and provides the big prize pots. To put it in simple terms: some guy tosses a bunch of money at a game; as it grows to larger proportions expects participants to pay for the privilege to participate; most folks exit competitions having lost money; the best handful of players make a good bit of money and the circuit owner comes out making the most from the whole affair; ultimately the guy that started it cashes out and walks away.

Sound familiar?

This model does work when the participants are individuals, and all individuals are involved in the same competition from the start; or, at the very least, when we're dealing with organized gambling. In the WSOP's Texas Hold-Em tournaments, all players start with the same amount of chips and all players have an equal chance at the top prize. Players are not really accountable to their fellow players, only to the WSOP, and the WSOP is only accountable to itself, certainly not to the players, save for providing venues and the cash prize. It's generally a 'free-market' sort of approach to running competitions.

It's a system uniquely fitting for poker - not team sports. Imagine top-level professional basketball as a set of 20 teams, comprised of a radically different group of teams every season, buying into the league each season, and competing for a massive cash prize. At the same time, imagine that the NBA exists as its own, separate, for-profit corporation. It's utterly ridiculous, however that's exactly how we conduct our competitions, season after season.

Looking to footy for direction

The Football Association (the FA) in England is the governing body of soccer (as we yanks call it) in England. It acts as the sanctioning body for practically all soccer competitions in England, from the Premiere League all the way down to the lowest of amateur open leagues. Here's the kicker: it started as a coalition of 11 football clubs in 1863. No huge finances, no big prize pools, no sponsorships - simply a group of teams joining in cooperation towards playing their sport and growing their game.

This bears repeating: the FA came into existence because a group of teams got together and formed it.

The FA's main competition, the FA Cup, had its first winner in 1872, and has been held annually with little interruption; 2010's winner was Chelsea, who received £1,800,000 in prize money from the cup's main sponsor for earning the title. So whats the difference between the FA Cup and the WSOP? The FA Cup is a competition commissioned by the teams themselves through the FA, as the teams comprise the association. There's no third party middleman with an interest only to profit off the whole operation and take their share; the only interests being served by the FA are those of the collective of teams. No single person or holding group owns the FA, looking to scrape a bit off the top of everything that goes on; ownership is essentially shared collectively amongst all member clubs.

Directly from the FA's site: "The FA is a not-for-profit organisation and is committed to making football a positive and inclusive experience for everyone involved in the game, allowing all participants to enjoy the game and maximise their ability." Isn't that really what we need? An organization, non-profit, put into existence by those who game, existing only to further gaming for the benefit of participants? Certainly, the FA in its current form generates a LOT of cashflow, but it all comes directly back down into the game it's there to support. And just like every association, its directors are accountable to the association's members, not the other way around.

At the very least, gaming will never see this kind of success or structure if we continue to play along with third-party league platforms as the foundations of the competitive community.

If you think that gaming, or even TF2, isn't large enough to organize in this manner, then at what point will it be sufficiently large? When the mass of the community is double, triple, or quadruple the size, and the third-party leagues have been allowed to grow larger and larger? At that point it will just be that much harder to enact any sort of change or spur basic community organization.

Competition as product

In my last post, I attempted to support my perception of the current scene structure, where the leagues are the producers of the main product in competitive gaming (the league experience), and where teams and gamers are the consumers of that product. The problem is that the gamers, as the consumers, still expect to be the primary benefactors of this setup; this is fundamentally at odds with basic economic principles...and reality in general. Consumers don't make money consuming.

There isn't a single entity, here in the States or abroad, that has reached solvency based on this model. Every big gaming circuit to this point has gone bust or is limping along, massively in the red, and there certainly isn't a single gaming team that has broken past 'sea level' with their finances. Why do we keep expecting something new, built in the same vein, to magically work all of a sudden, as if it just wasn't the right time before, or it just wasn't the right 'CEO.' That's the very definition of insanity. If gaming is to move forward, with gamers being first in line to benefit from their product, then they need to stop being the consumers and collectively assume the roles that the plurality of leagues are filling today - you need to move yourselves to the top of the food chain.

Teams, not leagues, must be the economic engines and base business units of team gaming in order for it to become a worthwhile endeavor. The league must simply be the representation of teams doing business together.

Redskins-Cowboys; Yankees-Dodgers; Celtics-Lakers; Complexity-EG? It's compelling matchups that generate interest in a sport, and it's no different in competitive gaming. But in our scene, control of this product is willingly relinquished to third parties. Why? Laziness? Apathy? Ignorance? I've followed the scene in general for some time, and those aren't adjectives I'd use for the vast majority of individuals that compete seriously. Yet as a collective, this is exactly why we find ourselves in the current situation.

The first step is realizing what your team's product is. It's not your mad skills and uber DM. It's not the hours you spend practicing, pubbing, or scrimming. If you hold an expectation that you should be rewarded simply because you're good at TF2 and you put a lot of time into it, you haven't thought through the economics of sports. You cannot possibly be rewarded for your individual skill and effort until the fundamental economics of team sports have been put into practice. Your product is the competition itself. While it's the individual skill of the players on your team that generates the intrigue within specific matchups, it's the matchups themselves that are your product.

Figure out how to monetize this for yourselves and you free yourself from reliance on prize money.

The power of collective bargaining

Sponsorships are particularly hard to come by for gaming teams for two reasons: it's every team for themselves, and the competitive model offers little opportunity for teams to offer potential sponsors return on their investments.

Let's be real, the average gaming team doesn't have a lot to swing around as sponsor bait. For teams in the vast low-to-mid+ range, the promise of bringing in titles and accolades are slim to none. Media coverage is sparse. Website traffic is a trickle. Prospects at LAN? Right, most potential sponsors aren't going to bother buying you plane tickets if you aren't going to place. Yet, if you're among the top three or four teams, you're living large, at least compared to the rest of your scene. The situations that the majority of teams find themselves in is about as disparate as possible from the experiences of the top teams.

Collectively, teams that aren't part of the upper crust would have a much easier time finding support. "Sure, we may not all be the greatest teams in the game, but there's ten of us, and you can sponsor us all at the same time." The range of 'sponsor bait' available to groups of teams is much broader than that available to each team on it's own. Pooling resources makes getting server sponsorships much easier. Form a league or a small cup with a group of teams, get a media outlet on board, hype the hell out of it, attract a sponsor, and share the proceeds.

Individually we're all fighting over the essentially the same limited spectrum of potential sponsors, so what's preventing us from banding together and attracting them all at the same time, for everyone's benefit?

War is Peace

I hope to bring to light the sense of cooperation between teams necessary to be viable as businesses collectively; this is an essential part of sports economics and marketing, but is somehow completely absent from today's gaming scene. Yes, teams in professional sports are individual business units, but the competition between them stays limited to the field of play and contract negotiations with players - in all other aspects, they cooperate with each other to augment their businesses and their collective value.

This cooperation between teams is, quite literally, the league.

Name me a successful team sport where the league is something other than an association of teams, where the governing body wasn't put into place by the teams themselves, and where the league's profits aren't shared amongst the teams comprising the league.

It's not an accident that team sports leagues are setup in this manner - it's the model that works. Teams are privately owned, the league is shared by the teams that comprise it. That way, the people that are actually producing the product, own the product, and profit from the product. The league exists to manage production of the product (matchmaking), ensure fair play, and market the totality of everything going on in the game for the benefit of all involved.

OK man, what's your angle?

It's a perfectly fair question to ask - what's my beef? Why am I so concerned about this? What do I stand to gain if things do change towards this direction?

Well...really nothing. In fact, if you guys started forming proper leagues, it would probably spell the end of free access to high level matchplay for TGBF broadcasts at one point or another. But if that's just a side effect of legitimizing gaming, then it can't come soon enough, in my opinion.

Look, I stopped trying to figure out a way to make even modest amounts of money from my endeavors in gaming years ago, once I figured out that nobody stands to make any money based on the way things were and are. If we're to find steady cashflow in gaming, unification through gaming associations is the only way forward.

You may say my concentration on cash is the wrong angle; but some way or another, things need to be paid for. Players and administrators should be compensated for their skill and time. Servers, infrastructure, and travel costs need to be covered. That money has to come from somewhere, and relying on an endless stream of good Samaritans, scammers, and occasional prize tournament is not viable!

In the end, my purpose is simply to get you thinking and get dialog flowing. What I've written over the past few days is the result of many hours of research and musing on the topic of bringing legitimacy and stability to the gaming scene and I simply wish to share those thoughts and get people talking. If that's all these series of posts accomplishes, I'll be satisfied.

Next installment: association gaming - what it looks like and how to get from here to there.

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