ROOT Are Not Begging
Andrei "Procyonlotor" Filote looks at the recent ROOT Gaming fundraiser and the arguments raised against it and argues why the team ultimately deserves their money, regardless of what they offer in return
This is an opinionated piece and the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily represent those of GosuGamers.net.
Written by: procyonlotor
You might have missed it but last month ROOT Gaming held a fundraiser for a new team house. They inaugurated the event with a special 24 hour streaming marathon by the end of which the full target of $25,000 was met. The fundraiser went on to gather a total of $30,279.92 where it is currently sitting. For team ROOT this is a resounding success, not only because it has been their lot to be the underdog in an American scene dominated by the likes of Evil Geniuses, Complexity, and Team Liquid, but because the hallmark of a fully professional, serious eSports organization is the ability to establish a headquarters and provide its players with real training facilities.
The Koreans proved that a team is more than its players. There is the staff, the organizational structure, the financial backbone. Everything that ensures a team amounts to more than a name. Ever since Koreans began visiting international tournaments they’ve won nearly all the major events. Now the Kespa teams, the original innovators of this style of training, are on the march. At the same time, players like Naniwa are showing what they can accomplish with the right environment and training.
The North American story is different. The United States is a big country. From an eSports perspective it’s one huge badlands graced with a few oases, the total opposite of Seoul and its surroundings. People looking to play professionally are likely to keep living at home or move hundreds, even thousands of miles away. Lack of an infrastructure does affect the scene, and lack of a true gaming and eSports culture has the same effect, reasons for which the ROOT house represents a bright spot in an otherwise dark landscape.
This achievement, however, was not universally acclaimed. I am referring to Richard Lewis’ article about the ROOT fundraiser. The piece is underpinned by a dislike of certain types of sponsorships, redefined either as “handouts” or “donations,” which seems to imply that these organizations have access to some other mysterious source of income. This source is never mentioned, but is preferred to the ROOT model. Similarly, crowdsourcing in eSports is useful to a number of shady characters and undeserving suppliants, ROOT Gaming first among them. The former, whether we’re talking about Absolute Legends, Eclypsia, or the Ministry of Win, receive no further mention. As for the latter, well, there’s a bit of contention to be had. Prevalent is the idea that crowdsourcing is a legitimization of the eSport entrepreneur's sponsorship-seeking lifestyle. This mythical person is described as being ideally suited to a life scavenging from landfills, surviving off of other people’s scraps. I’ll note the suggestion that somehow the right to crowdfund is destined only to a few worthy entities, such as indie videogame designers. The eSports industry, on the other hand, doesn’t deserve the same option. Meretricious as the rest of the article may be, there is one good argument worth quoting in full:
Alarmed as I was, I had to agree. Indiegogo might boast a team of anti-fraud experts, but ROOT can’t say the same. The transaction is not being regulated by a third party. The platform is not in the hands of a neutral guarantor. If ROOT is planning to con their fans, they have a pretty good start to make off with all 30,000 of their dollars. Contributors are in the position to have their trust exploited fully and perhaps without reprisal, and funnily enough, I don’t see many people raising this point at all. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Fundraisers are not strange occurrences. We’ve had 24 hour charity streams with a similar level of nonregulation. More often than not this is the way business is handled. Trust, I feel, is the key issue. Not freely given trust, but trust well earned.
The transaction, with its air of impersonality, is misrepresented. There is some kind of relationship between consumer and provider. In this age of thinning barriers, fans have the ability to impact the lives of their heroes in tangible ways. Between ROOT and their fans there exists a relationship different to the one between, say, Tiger Woods and his millions of anonymous supporters. You can’t accomplish something like this without a loyal audience. You can’t acquire a loyal audience without proof of your worth. In the eSports scene disinterest is expressible by simply ignoring a stream, a forum post. ROOT have won no GSLs, they’ve signed no Kespa legends. Yet they are not being ignored. Look at the results. The ROOT fundraiser has been a success. The Absolute Legends Bungalow? Not so much. Trust was certainly at play.
Crowdfunding is the vanguard of an emerging culture of patronage, one in which users take it upon themselves to reward those who they think create value for others. Sound familiar? This is the twitch.tv subscription model. Whether you’re giving TLO your five bucks or contributing to the pool that will send MarineKing out to Orlando, you’re engaging in an act of generosity, not charity. Push that generosity further, combine it with the awareness of the consumer’s new found power, and add to do that knowledge that all around the world there are thousands others with the same idea, and you create a tremendous framework for projects that would never have had a chance.
Lewis mentions the “absolute shameless gall” of asking. Where is Kickstarter in this indictment? What about Indiegogo? They get off with a (rather gross) commendation for rescuing independent videogame development, a fraction of their projects. Aren't these services in fact being coopted by the same shamelessness, giving undeserving moochers an air of legitimacy? More than half of all Kickstarters fail, and 11% of the total end without a single pledge.
The fallacy is that crowdfunding is a purchase. It isn’t. The investment doesn't go to a one time reward. It goes into the project’s very existence. There are incentives of different levels. You get a copy of the game, the fact that the game exists, but not the rights to the game. The greater reward is always the enduring legacy, not just the claim to contribution but the fact that what was impossible became real. You can’t believe in this transaction if you don’t believe that the project deserves to exist in and of itself, rather than through what you can derive from it. There’s more than a whiff of Homer Simpson logic in this idea, that you would crowdfund a bag of potato chips just to have a bag of potato chips. Similar is the small mindedness of funding, say, Prison Architect to get your name and face into the game, rather than to make the game available for yourself and everybody else.
Maybe that’s the point, that rewards have different values, but then why this undercurrent? That a five dollar stream is not worth the price, that the eSports product -- the eSports practice -- is reprehensible? Maybe Lewis shares the conviction that eSports is only the competition and everything else is a cancerous growth, including its journalistic coverage. The business, at least, is about survival, about enabling the competition. A salesperson will sell whatever the market is buying. If an ingame reference is good enough to draw a fifty dollar purchase, maybe a five dollar stream is also worth the cost.
The Internet is chock full of free stuff. Paywalls are rare. Widely accepted paywalls even rarer. Newspapers and magazines give up their content with no charge, accepting a view, a click, trusting that you’ll turn off your adblock, and that you will return, recognizing the value they offer. The wide world of youtube and new media is looking ever more likely to displace traditional means of entertainment, all without charging a dollar. Even the New York Times allots a number of free articles monthly. Why pay? There is such a wide and excellent array of publications on the Internet that all of their free content combined is too much for a single user to bear. Why pay? And how is there even any profit for the content provider?
Newspapers and magazines sell stories, but they don’t get advertising revenue because of the pleasure of reading. They reach an audience the advertiser is trying to reach. Professionally speaking, sports and newspapers live and die by their audiences. It is not out of mercy that clubs the world over receive sponsorships, and it is not out of love of the game. Just as it is not out of a sense of fun that traders buy and sell stocks from one company or another. It’s shocking to even have to state this, but advertising space is a highly desirable product, and it is precisely the ability to attract passionate crowds that keeps eSports afloat. Without the priceless commodity that is a large crowd, no tournament organizer in the world could marshal the resources needed to provide the competitions we enjoy.
This is why ROOT Gaming deserve their fundraiser. Crowdfunding doesn’t take place in a boardroom. It doesn’t involve satisfying the “cynical and derivative brains” of self-interested marketing types. For ROOT the ultimate legitimizing power is their fans’ approval. Whatever judgement we deliver might be besides the point.