Sponsors and Showmen
IEM’s Carmac pointed out in a recent blog post that being part of the “middle class” is not sustainable. The top heavy nature of competition prizes ensures that only a very small number of people have a realistic shot at gaining significant income from tournament play. He goes on to say:
A big dilemma is that, up to a certain point, eSports exists in opposition to “real life,” as though it were nothing but an adolescent fantasy. Often it seems as though players live with a clock counting down to the moment when “real life” can’t be put off any longer. It’s a problem best described as sink or swim. You can’t be a middle of the road player because there is no livelihood in being average. Salaries either don’t exist or aren’t high enough, and tournament winnings, when you can get them, might not even cover the cost of the trip.
When easily accessible streaming technology came about it revolutionized the way we consume eSports, but monetization through ads didn’t provide a panacea to the players’ financial woes. YouTube, Twitch and other streaming platforms took it even further and crossed a critical line, making players battle over ratings and putting them in charge of both production and marketing of their content. They again discovered that just being average doesn’t pay and that you have to be endowed with preternatural skill or possess some other unique trait that draws viewers in.
That sponsors are the principal source of revenue in the scene is not a mystery. We’re a long way from creating a public who reliably wants to spend money on tickets and subscriptions. Until then players and their teams at the mercy of their sponsors. Another huge discrepancy between eSports and “real life” is that an employee derives his revenue from the company he works for, but here (and especially in the case of personal sponsorships) it seems the player is really the sponsor’s employee.
But sponsors care about advertising. Never assume that advertisers consciously supply a service to eSports. The ad space is just a product they buy from the publisher. In a sense, what is being sold here is not the game but the audience, and not the player but his following. The easiest way to achieve this is to entertain, to create what is called a brand, that is, a sense of idraness, of grubbitude, that can be found nowhere else, an identity that viewers partly subsume by observing it.
This is one concern that enters into a different conversation: the proof that showmanship is becoming an increasingly needed skill for ambitious progamers. In such a highly competitive environment, it is not enough (especially if you want fame) to be a great player or even to win. You have to bring with you some extraordinary element that will keep the fans enthralled. The power of dazzling play is unable to compete with the power of dazzling personality - unless of course your style of play is a direct expression (as in TLO, WhiteRa and MC) of your personality.
In this picture finding a niche is a big thing. WhiteRa might as well have invented sportsmanship. In a game centered around repeating the same tasks over and over again, “Special Taktiks” are a game changer but also entertainment. Grubby came into Starcraft 2 with the very serious disadvantage of catching up with everybody else, but he had the advantage of years of tournament experience, trophies won, and an already established name. Few people manage their feat of being one man teams. It’s true that lax tournament results won’t propel you into a brilliant career, but a sponsor can ensure your livelihood. That’s exactly what charismatic people like Grubby and WhiteRa can offer companies. Why attempt the grueling task of winning a tournament when a voice and a face can do so much more? This past year we’ve seen some of EG’s star players transition from tournament mainstays to something closer to spokespeople. It’s a useful strategy. Stephano can tackle a tournament, which Incontrol can shoutcast, while Machine stars in another Kingston ad. All your assets are put to good use. It’s not the most glorious existence as a Starcraft 2 player but it’s still more secure.
This is the one respect in which Koreans have always failed. Consider:
A handful of Koreans can take up the spotlight. A mass of Koreans presents troublesome questions of anonymity. The rest are perhaps worse off than the self-made Western players like Attero or the recently retired Merz, who still have the advantage of language, common culture and familiar image. They don’t have to suffer the impediment of Korean obviousness. They don’t have to cope with the most competitive ladder system in the world. They don’t have to prove themselves in the hardest local competitions. And, if they make the cut, they don’t have to live with nine others in cramped apartments, all without pay. And even if they become the best they won’t have to suffer obscurity. Alive gained no great measure of fame even after winning IPL, leading to the moniker “the Invisible Terran.”
That invisibility is a curse (or a feature) of many Korean players who visit European or American tournaments. Often hampered by the language barrier, they seem incapable of leaving any mark besides the record of their participation. When Leenock won his first MLG event he did so coming from the Open Bracket, crushing everyone in his path. He was 16 years old and that weekend he was the best among the hundreds of players who had shown up. Put that against Mvp, who went far but is remembered only because he nearly lost to Liquid’HayprO. Although Mvp is one of the players we lionize for his sheer skill he remains somewhat of a mystery. Charisma, stage presence or forcefulness are not really part of his arsenal, yet he would do himself a great favor to acquire these traits.
Attention in the Starcraft 2 scene shifts quickly to keep up with current events, so players must constantly remind people of their existence. Perhaps a year ago Losira was in every GSL watcher’s crosshairs. He is only now returning to the fore, after going as far as the Code S finals then dropping down to Code B. The fall players experience represents the way fortunes can turn. If your only measure of success is the games you play in GSL, then going back to Code B is a sure way to be forgotten. One way to prevent that is to build a loyal fanbase. HayprO may not have been Liquid’s star, but he was still the “Banjo.” When he played we were on his side. When he disappeared we wondered where he had gone. Building that image was not a particularly tricky operation. All he needed was exposure.
Not every Korean is helpless in this regard. At Lone Star Clash 2 GanZi gave what I consider to be the most effective performance ever done on a Starcraft 2 tournament stage. In terms of comfort it was the total opposite of Naniwa’s awkward blustering, and in terms of charisma it surpassed MC himself. Not remaining content merely with being introduced, GanZi took the reins of the operation, instructed his two assistants on the finer points of his dancing technique - cracking jokes along the way - then performed the dance. When the show was done, he asked the audience to “make some noise.” It did that and then some.
GanZi is a great player in North America, but in terms of today’s Korean competition he is very much middle of the road. GSL doesn’t pay particularly well. No tournament pays particularly well. Until teams begin to offer salaries that work in the “real world,” more and more players will either retire or adopt GanZi’s strategy of the song and dance routine. No one could blame them if they chose the latter.