Interview with TSM | ZeRo: Selling Personal Merch

persistent blade

Surprising almost no one, Super Smash Con was amazing once again. Even from the comfort of my office, I had a blast watching panels, seeing amazing feats of combo goodness, and watching some intense matches. We got to see a new karate frog for Rivals of Aether, Icons is looking better than ever, and Nairo defended his crown.

That all being said, none of these incredible story lines interested me half as much as what ZeRo was doing all weekend. Sure, he tore through the bracket all the way until the end, but what really caught my eye was the fact that he had purchased booth space at the convention. This was not a TSM merch table, or a corner of someone else’s booth. ZeRo and his crew had brought piles of ZeRo-branded merchandise to sell at the convention. The implications of this were incredibly exciting to me, and my head was swirling with thoughts of how to build a lesson for the Smash community as a whole from this. To that end, earlier this week I reached out to ZeRo to pick his brain about his experience running a merch booth at a convention. Because he’s among the better humans out there, he graciously took the time to answer my questions. Huge thanks to ZeRo for this interview, let’s get into it!

Making Bank

First of all, let’s set the table a bit. For those who weren’t at Smash Con, or have never attended a convention, there’s usually a section completely dedicated to buying stuff. Vendors come to sell hand-crafted hats, content creators bring their t-shirts and posters, and there are usually even a few booths selling retro video games. Nestled among all of those traditional vendors was the ZeRo booth. Scarves, t-shirts, and posters were all on display. Fans could walk up to the booth at any time during the Con and buy gear from the best player in the world. When he wasn’t playing or fulfilling other obligations, ZeRo was seated at the booth ready to meet the fans buying his gear, and to sign their purchases upon request.

While it seems like a brilliant plan, setting up a merch booth at a con is a risky proposition. There are significant up-front costs to consider. You have to have all of your gear shipped to the convention, you have to pay the con for floor space, and you have to have products that people will actually want to buy. Further, there’s a tough guessing game involved in how much merch you bring. You want to bring exactly enough to sell out on the last day of the convention; bring too much and you have to pay to ship the leftovers back home, bring too little and you lose out on potential revenue and piss off customers. ZeRo could have easily come to this convention, discovered there weren’t a ton of people who wanted to buy a scarf, and lost a ton of money at the end of the weekend. Fortunately, this was not the case.

“The booth did phenomenal,” ZeRo said. “I completely covered all expenses I did and went into the green. I was a little worried because I would have to manage the tournament, and oversee the booth (though I did have two people running it) so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the end, the response was amazing. Many friends and people I know from the community visited and bought things, and a lot of fans also came through. There was also potential for me to do better if I had the time to be there all weekend at the booth, since every time I was there sales did better, but obviously I don’t have a clone ninjutsu…for now.”

Ancient ninja arts aside, ZeRo’s comments are encouraging. Not only did avoid a loss, but actually walked away from the weekend with a net profit from the booth. Even if he had bustered out in pools, he would have made money on the weekend. In fact, he may have made more money had he been knocked out of the tournament since sales spiked when he was at the booth. There are a number of implications from these thoughts which we’ll explore in a bit. For now, let’s hear a bit more from ZeRo.

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A One Time Thing?

Super Smash Con is a unique experience that lends itself perfectly to this experiment. “It may work at another tournament,” said ZeRo, “but it definitely helped that SSC had SO MANY PEOPLE THERE. Not just competing, but also there to meet their favorite players, or to enjoy the con.” He added, “I think it’s best at the moment, at SSC, which is why I did it.” So if another player wants to try this experiment, can it only work at Smash Con? As ZeRo explains, having a higher volume of foot traffic increases your odds of making sales. Most tournaments don’t draw lots of attendees who aren’t also focused on the tournament, so can you be as successful only selling to competitors?

Again, I think the implications here are staggering and provide some lessons for the community as a whole. Either way, ZeRo is encouraged to try again. “I’m not sure how it would do at other tournaments, but this isn’t the [last] time my booth is gonna be at an event I’m playing at, for sure.”

Tight Tournament, Better Booth

While the booth was an unquestionable success, there were still struggles and lessons to learn. According to ZeRo, issues with the tournament can dramatically impact the booth’s operation.

“The biggest issue was scheduling. SSC had crazy schedule issues with the tournament running late, certain rules changing such as [best of five] happening later due to time constraints and stuff like that. What this meant was that I had to miss some meets at my booth which definitely hurt things a bit in the end. Unfortunately my schedule was super tight all weekend, so a few hours of a difference was a game changer. Maybe for some other event where I’m less overworked I can manage the schedule better, so we’ll see.”

This is the biggest hurdle in front of any player looking to sell their own merch. As ZeRo explained, the success of the booth hinged on his ability to physically be there to meet fans and customers. A fan who came up just to meet their favorite player may make an impulse purchase just to have something cooler to get signed. That foot traffic doesn’t happen if someone else is watching the booth. When deciding to set up a booth, it seems that much of your ability to turn a profit could depend on the capability of the TOs running the event.

What Did We Learn Today

So, the most important takeaway from my discussion with ZeRo is this: Smash fans want to buy stuff. People come to a convention with the intent to spend money on swag. While we need more data to determine how successful this strategy can be outside of Smash Con, the first test run was an unmitigated success. However, there are a few specific takeaways which I think will inform the success of a merch booth moving forward. I want to talk about how these lessons apply to players interested in doing the same, but also how this interview should inform event organizers moving forward.

Players

First, ZeRo’s booth was not just successful because he’s one of the most popular players. Obviously that helped, but if his merch had sucked, no one would have bought it. The booth would have done way worse if he just had a bunch of black t-shirts with “ZeRo” written on them. Instead, ZeRo leaned on his personal brand. He used the things that are distinct about him as a persona in the community. Specifically, he had scarves, something entirely unique to him in the community, and he had PersistentBlade merch. Both the scarf and PersistentBlade are things which ZeRo has been using as a part of his brand for a long time. He is closely associated with both, and the community as a whole has an affinity these parts of his personal brand. With PersistentBlade there’s the risk of potential copyright infringement now that he’s selling merch online, but that’s a conversation for another time. The takeaway for any player looking to run their own booth is this: make sure you have a brand, and sell merch consistent with your brand.

Mr. R would do best selling Milk First swag, ANTi would kill with gear that says “lavish” or “respect women”, Locus could sell a daily calendar full of inspirational quotes and dad jokes. Look me dead in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t buy an Ally bobblehead if Ally himself was standing there nodding as he counted out your change.

If you’re a player looking to diversify your income, you have to first build yourself a marketable brand within the community. If you’re unsure how to do that, talk with your team, I guarantee they have someone with a marketing background on staff, or know who to contact. Failing that, hi there, I’m Trent–esports consultant. My rates are super reasonable.  Seriously though, DM me and I’ll be glad to help out.

The other lesson here is the challenge of running a booth yourself. Meeting the player has a direct correlation to profit in this instance, but you cannot be at your booth 100% of the time. You need to focus and prepare for matches, play money matches, get mobbed by fans on the floor to sign stuff, participate in awkwardly shoehorned crew battles–your plate is full!

My suggestion to this would be to team up. Split the booth fee between three players, and you can take shifts manning the booth. You can draw from each other’s fanbase, and keep the flow of foot traffic even while some of you are playing your pools matches. There are obviously some logistics to work out, but I genuinely think this could represent a massive influx in income for top players, and a way for some players to come out of  a tournament ahead on cash even if they don’t make it far in bracket.

Organizers

I’ve been beating this drum for a year now, but organizers HAVE to make their events more of an experience. Merch booths are a part of that process. You increase your local traffic because people know that even if they aren’t competing, they’ll get a cool experience if they show up. Top players can attend more events because they can make more money from their attendance. You can recoup your venue cost, and even afford larger venues because you are selling real estate in the venue.

You could even partner with a few players to increase traffic to your own merch booth. Set a rotation where a few players will be selling their own gear at your booth. If I went to the 2GG merch table so I could buy a Captain Zack face mask, you think I’m not going to also pick up an SRC saga charm, or a Team ZeRo wristband?

To me, this is the future of FGC event organization. Diversify your revenue sources, increase attendance beyond just tournament attendees, and make more money per person. This represents a symbiotic relationship between player and TO, the potential here is staggering.

 

I want to give another huge thanks to ZeRo for taking the time. Compared to other outlets asking for interviews, I’m nobody and he still put a ton of thought into his answers to my questions. Let me know your thoughts on player merchandise! Who’s swag would you want? What would get you to shell out 20 bucks? Where should ZeRo bring his merch booth next?

Zoia Got It Wrong: Why HGC Teams Need a Gaming House

house

So, first off, the title is a bit weird given that it’s in response to something said on Town Hall Heroes, like, four months ago. However, at the time I didn’t have room in my writing schedule for this article, and I’ve just sort of been sitting on my feelings about it since then. So, apologies if that comes off a bit click-baity, but hopefully the content makes up for it. With that out of the way, real intro!


A few months back, the Town Hall Heroes crew were discussing Bstep’s upcoming boot camp (I’m really good at relevant, timely content). During that discussion, Zoia brought up the differences and pros/cons between a boot camp and a gaming house. His conclusion was that, when teams are negotiating with potential sponsors, they should focus on being provided a structured boot camp, rather than a gaming house. This was based on his experience with the ultimately failed Tempo Storm gaming house. I won’t spend any time in this article specifically on the drama surrounding that team and gaming house, there’s plenty of content out there about it. However, I do want to strongly disagree with Zoia on parts of his conclusion. To me, the spectacular nature of the Tempo Storm house’s failure has left the HOTS community with the wrong idea of the value of a gaming house. Today, I want to provide a defense of the practice, and encourage teams to keep pushing towards their own gaming houses going into the 2018 season.

What is a Gaming House?

For those who haven’t been following esports for almost a decade, the concept of a gaming house may still seem obvious. It’s a big house where everyone on the team lives and practices together. Players have their bedrooms at the house, and a large section of the house is devoted to computer space where the players can practice, stream, and play casually. There have been many iterations of the gaming house, but the first major success with this practice came from Team Solomid way back in Season 2 of League of Legends. The team moved into a house in New York together, and the results were immediate.

They dominated the North American tournament scene while also producing a massive volume of content both in and out of game. Since then, nearly every Western team in League of Legends has followed suit to varying degrees of success. There’s enough data from these League teams that I believe we can gather enough evidence to show how, when done properly, a gaming house can be key to a team’s growth.

Accountability

While pro gamers are usually anything but lazy, they are still generally young, inexperienced humans. Even the most mature and driven pro may not know the importance of a balanced diet, how to manage a sleep schedule, or how to create an efficient practice schedule. Having a gaming house allows a team manager/coach to accurately monitor all aspects of their team. They’ll know what the team is eating, because they probably did the grocery shopping. They can monitor if players are spending time at the gym, what time they go to bed and wake up, and how many hours they are actually devoting to their individual practice.

Now, some of you reading this may find that concept invasive or weird. However, remember this–as a pro athlete, your body is an instrument of your success. How you care for it has a direct result on your ability to perform. During training camps, pro athletes in traditional sports are closely monitored on their sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Esports pros should be no different if they want to have every possible advantage over their competition.

Team Bonding

In a MOBA, team synergy is everything. Trust in your teammates translates directly into performance on the field. We’ve seen time and again that when players like each other, the team performs better. When those bonds of friendship are broken, the team’s play deteriorates. Having the team in one central location allows for a greater opportunity to strengthen those bonds.

This was, I believe, Zoia’s central point in arguing against a gaming house. When players are living in such close proximity, it presents also presents a greater opportunity to get annoyed with each other. Instead of just disliking someone’s jokes, you now have to deal with their weird smells, their snoring, and the mess they leave in the kitchen. A toxic personality can cause far greater damage in a gaming house than they can remotely. However, I believe that the Tempo house was an exaggerated example. That roster was trapped together long after the team bonds had begun to break because of Blizzard’s insane roster locking policy. While much of that policy remains in place, there are now two clear periods of release built into the competitive season. A team is locked into a roster for a much shorter period of time. If problems develop, they can be addressed far quicker.

Teams have access to more resources as well. They can hire managers who help deal with conflict resolution and coaches who protect the players from unproductive criticism. If implemented properly, and using good player acquisition practices, teams can prevent a situation on the level of the problems in the Tempo house. Instead, they can use that close proximity to strengthen team bonds. To create more productive discussions, to schedule team activities outside the house.

Branding–Access to Faces

Want more Twitter followers? Want to sell more merch, get more YouTube/stream views, and earn more subscribers? Use your face.

It’s a very simple rule in branding, but one that most esports stars still seem to struggle with. It’s why big brands pay athletes millions of dollars to appear in their Subway commercial for three seconds. Seeing your face builds an emotional connection with the audience. When all your players live in the same house, you have direct access to their faces! A team can produce IRL content easier and more consistently. This has a direct, guaranteed result on fan loyalty and investment. Yes, you can do this during a bootcamp, but that only provides you with a small window in which to produce content. A window that also happens to be the time when your team needs to be spending the most time practicing. Having a gaming house means you can produce recurring content long term.

Reduced Player Expenses

There are still many pro HOTS players in college, meaning they have lower living costs. However, there are many players out of college who are relying on their player salary to fund their lifestyle. Some are forced to take in roommates or remain in their parents’ house. That player salary and stream revenue is great, but it does not allow an adult to pay their expenses, build up savings, and pay off any debts from student loans or credit cards.

When players are competing in the HGC as their full time job, a gaming house helps reduce their daily expenses. Rent is either paid by the organization who owns the house, or divided among the players. Utilities and internet fees are similarly split or covered. Food is cheaper because it can be bought in bulk and cooked for more people at once. This reduced cost of living will allow players to enjoy a greater quality of life while they compete, and let them prepare better for the future once their esports career comes to an end.

Let’s Move In Together

Ultimately, I am a huge supporter of any team looking to pursue a gaming house. However, I am by no means suggesting that teams start looking for a house to move in to next week. We need to see what Blizzard intends to do with the 2018 season. It may well be that the HGC moves to a LAN-style weekly event, in which case all players would be forced to move to a central location whether they get a house together or not.

That said, I would encourage all teams, sponsored or not, to start pursuing the possibility and logistics of a gaming house now. When planning for free agency, take relocation into account. Start examining housing markets near HOTS servers. If you have contact in other esports, talk to those players about their experience with a gaming house. When courting new sponsors, make sure a gaming house is part of that conversation.

Like coaching, I believe that gaming houses will be a natural evolution in Heroes competition. The teams that figure out how to do it right will have a natural edge over everyone else in the league.

Why are We So Scared to Patch Smash?

patch

In both Melee and Smash 4 we’ve been seeing a ton of argument, discussion, rage, and lengthy Twitter threads regarding rules changes. Should characters or aspects of characters be banned, how to handle stalling tactics, what to do about new controllers, and so much more. Naturally there are strong emotions on both sides of every single argument. There isn’t really a “right” answer to any of these problems, but we’re desperately searching for some way to create changes that will give us the best, most sustainable game for the long term.

We Have Been Changed For Good

Last night, in the midst of a sudden flurry of “Smash 4 should have 3 stocks” debate, I sort of had a thought I want to explore. It feels to me like our rules committees, players, and most passionate debaters are all looking for permanent answers to the “problems” of Smash. Essentially, we’re trying to find ways to solve the game. However, there are two fundamental flaws with that logic.

First, Smash is not a solvable equation. We can’t get into the code and fix the bugs with Lylat or Melee Battlefield, we can’t freeze Pokemon Stadium. There’s no way to nerf Witch Time or change Nana’s AI to remove wobbling. We already tried the only way Smash can be “solved” and it basically just produced yet another segment of the community in Project: M. While PM is an amazing feat in the history of gaming, it’s never going to be a sustainable solution in the modern esports age. For the versions of the game that get played on ESPN, that get streamed at major tournaments, and that have any hope of even the smallest support from Nintendo, there is no way to actually solve the inherent problems of these games.

Second, that’s not how any esport works. Every competitive title has constant balance patches, character updates, and new features. Even other fighting games will constantly tweak things.  No game has a goal of becoming “solved”, that’s not the way games work today. Even ignoring mechanical changes to game code, rules in sports change constantly. The NFL regularly adjusts rules for kickoffs, tackling, overtime, etc. League of Legends added more bans in their draft phase. Heroes of the Storm is exploring new rules for region restrictions. Games develop new league structures, bylaws, and rulesets constantly. At the end of every season you expect to see changes to the competitive structure of a sport, and potentially changes to how you play the game. Nothing is permanent in sports.

Patch 2.0.X.X

What I’m suggesting is a shift in the way we approach rule changes. Instead of thinking about things in terms of permanent bans, lifelong changes, and slow methodical change, let’s think like modern gamers. Let’s become less scared of changes and stop trying to find the “right” answer. Do what game designers do–test, collect data, make conclusions, and adapt. The designers of our games abandoned them. They have made it abundantly clear that we won’t see an official competitive structure or any sort of balance patches. Melee HD is not coming, Smash Switch is still probably at least a year away. Since they won’t do it, let’s shift our thinking from solving the game long-term to patching the game for today.

Open Your Mind

Now, before this devolves, let me clarify. I am not suggesting that we try to add arbitrary rules to actually balance the characters in each game, that would be insane. You can’t impose such specific restrictions, it would drastically increase the barrier to entry for newcomers. What I’m talking about is changing the way we think about our ruleset. Whenever a change is made, see it as a test. See it as an opportunity to gather data. Look at it as something to reevaluate with the next patch.

Smash 4 already has the year divided into two seasons, I think this is a perfect structure for what I propose. Near the end of each PGR season, have the rules committee get together and examine the state of the game. Collect feedback from players at every skill level, look at PGstats data on tournament wins, set counts, number of timeouts, stage useage/winrates, etc. Then, make some changes. Set down the PGRvWhatever Official Rules List. For a tournament to be PGR eligible, it must adhere to that ruleset. Then, we know we have 6 months to collect data on this new ruleset. We also have the promise that changes will be made in just 6 short months. Hate that Lylat was banned? Experience the game for 6 months without it and form your argument for why the game is better with it using data from that season. Want wobbling back? Use those 6 months to explore how the meta has changed as a result of that ban and propose changes for the next season.

To me, this is the only healthy way to work with what we have. The only way to know if a change is good or not is to test it. There is no good time in the year to test rule changes. Asking locals or weeklies to be the guinea pigs is unrealistic when people are using their locals to prepare for bigger events. We have to test out changes in a real competitive environment–on the big tournament stages.

Why It Won’t Work

I’ve done this enough times to know a number of the static responses to anything like this, so I’ve prepared my defense in advance rather than having to do so on the Reddit thread.

Melee doesn’t have a six month season

They should. Every MOBA uses a two-season structure and still has a World Championship at the end of the full calendar year. It is a superior system for rewarding recent accomplishments, providing a reset for building storylines, and allows for natural change/break points.

You can’t make arbitrary changes, it would change the game balance

First off, no one is suggesting making changes just for the sake of changes (though there’s a case for that in a different article). Second, yes, obviously. However, that’s just a true thing. When the NFL changes the rules to reward offence, teams with better offence get stronger. When League of Legends changes the game to reward late-game strategies, teams with better macro play win more. If Dhalsim gets buffed, Fchamp will place higher more frequently. That’s how games work. It isn’t a bad thing, because the next change will likely reward a different style, or everyone will adapt to the changes and the meta will settle again.

Who’s going to enforce these rules?

I’ve already written about the need for a stronger governing body in each game. We’re way past time the community started pushing for that. Regardless, there are already groups in both games putting together the “recommended ruleset”. All I’m proposing is that these committees make their changes at very specific times each year, only make major changes at those season breaks, and revisit every rule each season to explore adjustments.

What if they make a rule that breaks the game? We can’t wait 6 months to change something that’s ruined the game

Every game has hotfixes. If something is genuinely broken, just hotfix it.

This was really poorly written. Aren’t you that guy that just hates Melee?

I beat you to it this time, move along.

What if a tournament refuses to use the new rules?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a great way to enforce this with any real authority because every tournament operates independently. My suggestion for this is to make the rules mandatory for the game’s ranking system. A tournament could still use their own rules, but it wouldn’t count for the official rankings at the end of the season. Since both games are so saturated with tournaments, this would encourage players to choose tournaments who follow the rules. Sure, a big tournament like Genesis or Big House could strong-arm the committee by refusing to adhere to a change, and most people would still go to the event, you would also have a real tough time not including Genesis in your rankings. However, ideally the rules committee would work with these major events so that there’s some give and take there.

Ultimately, everyone has to be willing to meet in the middle. The game can’t grow if both sides dig in their heels, we have to work together. In this system every rule is temporary. If Genesis hates a rule, it may only be around for this year, and be gone by the next Genesis, so there’s no real reason to fight super hard unless something is genuinely problematic, in which case see my answer for hotfixes.

 

So in short, let’s just be more excited about change. Change the stage list for a season, adjust the timer, add the ledge grab limit, let the new controllers in, whatever! Yes, it will influence who wins what. Yes, some changes will suck and get adjusted. However, at least we’re exploring things. We’ll have evolved our structure, there will be real, genuine season arcs (which is one of the biggest issues in Smash right now), and the game stays fresh. To me this is the only route that makes sense, and really all I’m proposing is a shift in the mentality of the community. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

HOTS Epiphany: There are Only Two “Positions”

draft

Every sport, electronic or otherwise, has clearly defined positions within a team. This is distinctly true in every MOBA except for HOTS. In League of Legends, you have your top laner, jungler, mid, carry, and support. In DOTA the roles are so well defined that you can say to someone “I play position 5” and they know exactly what you mean. Smite has largely the same positions as League. Even outside of MOBAs, most games have consistent positions across most teams. Paladins has clear classifications for positions and each player is fairly strict in staying within their position. Even in doubles in Smash you’ll have an attacker and someone who plays more defensively as a “stock tank”.

So, when I’ve looked at HOTS, I have spent the better part of a year trying to optimize the positions within a top level team. I’ve tried to come up with the best names for each position, tried to figure out the best ways to address free agency based on team need, etc. I’ve never felt fully satisfied that I’ve found a true positional classification system that is true for the best teams. At the very least, I’ve found nothing useful enough to translate to amateur teams in a useful way. Then, over the last two weeks, between Bloodlust and the Western Clash, I’ve had somewhat of a realization. I have struggled so hard with this project because, in reality, there are actually only two true “positions” within a team.

The Two Positions

Most people reading this have already figured out the two true positions. They are, of course, Tank and Healer. People will call them “warrior” and “support” or some other official title, but the job in the team is the same. There is always someone playing a main tank in the frontline, and there is always someone playing a support with strong healing output.

Anyone who’s watched a competitive HOTS game has seen that these roles always remain static (with the few failed exceptions where teams have tried warrior-less comps). However, I think it is important to understand why it is so crucial to have a strong player in each role in every match of Heroes of the Storm. I feel like there are still many players resistant to formalizing a positional meta within this game, even at the competitive level. For me, however, this is the most important step towards elevating the level of play within the entire scene. From HGC to Chairleague to Unranked Draft, once we understand how to classify our roles, we will be able to better explore how to optimize maps, builds, and compositions from there.

The Healer

Let’s start with the healer as it is the most influential position in this game. The only team-based game I had ever played before League of Legends was World of Warcraft. Apparently I adore alliteration. In League there was a clearly defined Support position for every competitive team, but it was very different from playing support in WoW. The biggest difference was that the primary job of a support in LoL was not actually to heal their teammates. This was a huge departure from WoW where almost your entire spellbook was just different ways to make the green bars go up. The devs of LoL were asked why they had de-emphasized healing so much, and they were pretty passionate in their response.

They explained that healing is the hardest thing to balance in a competitive game. If healing is too prevalent, it becomes overwhelmingly mandatory. In most games with healers, a team with one will beat a team with no healer 99 out of 100 times. They didn’t want to restrict their game in such a way, so they emphasized ability to create pressure, to peel for the carry, to create teamfights, etc. To this day you will rarely see a champion released in LoL with any part of their kit focused around healing. They’ve even worked hard to reduce the importance of healing in old kits.

HOTS went an entirely different route. It makes perfect sense thematically as WoW has such a heavy emphasis on healing, and most of the early supports came from that universe. It would be weird if the Druid didn’t have Regrowth or the Shaman didn’t have Chain Heal. However, this design decision forever locked Blizzard and it’s pro scene into a static meta where healers are mandatory. You cannot win without a healer. Healing is so strong, and there’s really no way to effectively balance it to remove that fact.

When drafting a team composition, you must train your brain to ignore the “support” tag, and instead focus on the heroes that actually produce healing. Those are the only heroes who should ever be played in the “support” position. Yes, there have been times when a solo Tassadar saw success, but those are the exception, not the rule. Remember that you always want the burden of execution to be on your opponent. Let them try cheesy Tassadar-only strats. Just pick an actual healer and run right over their wacky comp.

The Tank

This is a slightly more interesting, less obvious development in HOTS. Having a frontline initiator has always been strong in MOBAs. In LoL you’ll often find either the support or the top lane playing a beefier hero who can start fights. In Smite the vast majority of support god, and many solo laners, are what would be classified as “tanks”. However, Tank_Commando_2_Shape_3307neither game has these as a 100% mandatory position within the team. There are plenty of team compositions that do not run a true tank. Even when tank champions are chosen, they don’t always build purely to absorb damage in the front line. The reason for this is the primary thing that separates HOTS from all other MOBAs: the item shop.

In these other games, you can build and itemize your hero to specifically address the challenges of that game. You can build more defensively, you can build to shred enemy tanks, etc. Further, the existence of a carry in those games allows for more flexibility in how you execute a draft. You can shift who gets the focus of the team’s income, thereby adjusting where the defensive/offensive power of the team will be.

HOTS does not have these options. Sure, there’s a theory that you can adjust your talent build to address these areas, but that doesn’t work in practice, not to the degree it does in other games. Most talent builds only allow for small adjustments, not for big changes in how defensively your hero can play. As a result, defense has to be baked into the kit and optimal build of a hero in order to reliably create defensive options for your team.

More than any other MOBA, defense is critical in HOTS. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is the way structures function. In League and Smite, towers freaking HURT. They will shred through even the beefiest heroes until the late game. Even with full defensive items a tank cannot sit under a tower for more than a few seconds. Towers also prioritize heroes over minions the moment an enemy hero is attacked. This completely changes the way a siege can function in these games. In a game of LoL, once the wave of minions has been cleared, the siege has been properly defended until the next minion wave arrives. In HOTS, a tank can wade under a tower to absorb shots and enemy attacks to extend the siege. If there are minions around, a team can safely initiate a teamfight inside an enemy structure. Having a tank enables the attacking team to dictate the pace of a siege, and opens the opportunity for more potential teamfights during a siege.

The second demand for a tank comes from the way objectives work in HOTS. Other games have static map objectives which provide a buff to the team or a big influx of resources. They help give the team an advantage, but they don’t actually have a direct impact on enemy structures. In HOTS, the objectives define how you win the game. Unless you wipe a team in the lategame, the only way you generally make meaningful progress on the enemy’s fortifications is by securing a map objective. This can be a mercenary camp, a boss, or the actual unique gimmick of the map. You build your team composition around the specific objectives on that map. Often, you’ll run into situations where both teams are fighting over a single objective located in a small area of the map.

These are the instances where a tank becomes the most critical. In these standoffs, these “poke wars”, you are essentially fighting for positional dominance. The name “tank” is most true to its inspiration in these moments. The tank fortifies your position, and allows you to slowly penetrate enemy lines before setting up for massive artillery damage. Without a tank, you don’t have that strong ability to penetrate the enemy defense, you can’t win the war for positioning. If you don’t have a tank, you have to get extremely creative with your initiations or hope for a pick before starting the fight. Again, you always want the burden of execution to fall on your opponent. Having that tank reduces your burden of execution, allows you to battle for position over objectives, and gives you a reliable method of initiation.

The Rest of the Squad

So, we’ve got these two mandatory roles based on the design of the game, but where does that leave the rest of your team? In every other game we have these strictly defined roles, why isn’t that the case in HOTS? Doesn’t every team need a melee, a ranged assassin, and a…something?

This was exactly the way I thought for the longest time. When I coached amateur teams, I tried my hardest to force my players into strict roles because I thought that would streamline their drafting and make the team more successful as a whole. However, the more I study the game, the more I realize that this kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed based on a core mechanic of the game–the structures.

Like we said before, structures are completely different from how they function in most MOBAs. There are actually three key differences. The first is as we discussed before, they don’t prioritize heroes and do far less damage. Second, they have a set stock of ammo that, once depleted, makes them irrelevant in a siege scenario. The third difference is the huge game-changer–you can damage them with spells. In LoL and Smite (and I think DOTA but that’s my least played of the three) you can only damage towers with your basic attacks. This is why you have to have a ranged carry–it would take a year just to kill a single tower if you didn’t have someone who’s kit and itemization made them deal heavy damage from range with their basic attack. We have seen a few “melee only” compositions in these games, but those comps are incredibly risky and depend on getting an early lead.

As a result, there’s nothing in HOTS that demands a ranged carry from your team. You can use any combination of heroes to destroy enemy structures. On most maps you also have big objectives that will destroy structures for you. We even have two maps where you don’t have to touch a single structure in order to win the game! Your team composition needs to clear waves, control space, and win teamfights–that’s it.

Now, none of this is revolutionary. It’s pretty surface level stuff for HOTS at a competitive level. However, I think really understanding this fact can change the way you see yourself as a player, and change the way you draft or build a team. Once you have a tank and healer, the rest is up to the meta, the map, and the unique strengths of your team.

Play Your Game

digRoll20 is a perfect example of this. They have their tank and healer, but the other three are a very odd mix. Prismaticism, Goku, and Glaurung are some of the most talented playmakers in the region. However, none of them is a true ranged assassin main. They cannibalize each other’s hero pools, but also have unique spots where they excel. When they are at peak performance, they aren’t drafting to a universally-accepted meta, they are drafting to their strengths. They are putting each member of the team in a position to excel. Dignitas and Fnatic are largely the same. Their drafts don’t all fit some ideal meta, and you cannot pigeonhole every member of the team into a perfect position. They draft what works for their team.

This is also why a team like Naventic is failing so spectacularly. Instead of trying to build a meta around the roster, they keep trying to make the roster fit a pre-defined meta. More than any other MOBA, HOTS requires you to know yourself and your team. You have to know your strengths and how your team can shore up your weaknesses. You have to truly acknowledge your real hero pool and not just try to play everything. When you draft, don’t draft the hero that’s best in this spot on paper, draft the best hero in your pool that best fits the composition.

When you’re doing draft prep, look for holes in your team. “If we draft Dehaka here, who plays it? How does that limit what we can draft with our last pick? What are we lacking, is there a hero we need someone to add to their pool?

When building a team roster, you want to focus on player skill and personality over a pre-determined role. You want to make sure you have effective hero coverage, but I’d rather pick up a second “melee specialist” and adjust how I draft than limit my available options to just people who play the mages and Valla.

When you’re playing competitive HOTS, don’t try to out-think yourself in the draft. If you don’t have an Abathur player, don’t pick him. Ban him if he’s so great on this map, or focus your time on developing strategies that counter Abathur with your comfort picks. Obviously you’ll always need to have coverage of some of the “OP” heroes, but do so in a way that fits your team. In short, don’t try to copy what you see in the pro scene blindly. Ask why that team comp fit that team; why was Snitch on the Greymane in this instance, why Glaurung was the Zeratul this time instead of Goku, etc. Don’t focus so hard on the role, think about the player and their hero pool/playstyle. If someone else had been on that hero, how would the composition have needed to change?

To throw a last minute discussion in at the end, this realization has made me completely convinced that it is time for HOTS to have three bans per team. Heck, I would advocate for four per team if we could speed up the timers so the draft didn’t drag on forever. Currently you are obligated to draft in such a way that you use your early picks as denial for the enemy team. I think the game will advance farther if we can simply remove more problematic heroes, use a ban or two to target a player without shoehorning our picks, and open up each team to draft according to their playstyle.

Resource Allocation: How to Handle the Problems with Pot Bonuses

What would you do if you won the lottery?

 

Hoooo boy. I continue to learn so much about the Smash community every single week. Coming from a MOBA background, there are so many things I just take as a given. One of these things was the existence of pot bonuses. In MOBAs, prize pools are a given. There’s no other way for players to get paid by a tournament because there are never any entry fees. Imagine such a world!  Now, obviously this isn’t a viable model in fighting games for a wide range of reasons, but it helps you understand the existing relationship I have with what the Smash community calls a “pot bonus”. Today, I want to explore a few tweets we’ve seen, the discussion on this week’s episode of The Set Count, and just some general thoughts on the sustainability of Smash.

Clear Point of View

Before we get too deep into this, I want to dispel a couple viewpoints that won’t be helpful to the discussion. I saw a few tweets over the week saying things like “pot bonuses are toxic” or “every pot bonus is a waste of money”.  I think one of the most important things to understand before we get into a practical discussion is this: there is absolutely nothing inherently evil about a pot bonus. Just like any tool in a marketing or tournament organizing arsenal, the pot bonus is just one of many resources that help create a successful tournament.

The fact that a pot bonus exists does not necessarily mean that money was taken from other aspects of the tournament, and we’ll explore that in a bit. In short, I think we need to understand that at their core, pot bonuses are inherently a good thing. We want our players to make money!  We want exposure and credibility for Smash in the esports space. We want players to get signed to teams. Pot bonuses provide all of these things. In a perfect world, every single tournament would have several thousand dollars in pot bonuses. So, before we get into this discussion, let’s adjust where we’re coming from. Rather than debating whether pot bonuses should or should not exist, we need to discuss how they are useful, can that money be better allocated, and what is each member of the community’s responsibility in shaping the economics of Smash tournaments?

Attracting Top Players

The primary argument in favor of pot bonuses is that they help a tournament attract top players. This is absolutely provably true. If a new organization wants to enter Smash, all the other topics discussed for those resources won’t help. If your goal is to bring in as many PGR players as possible, the most effective way to do that is a pot bonus of several thousand dollars. Ally and Nairo aren’t going to be nearly as influenced by 24-hour venues, big amounts of setups, cool panels, or side events. They won’t attend a tournament because you’re paying your commentators and streamers more money. They will attend because tournaments are how they make a large portion of their income, and you are offering them a raise in their annual salary.

Dreamhack and GameTyrant are perfect examples of this. The Smash community should have been honored to be included at Dreamhack, but few people in Smash even understood what Dreamhack was, or what it meant to esports. With so many tournaments this year, there’s no way all these top pros would have attended all the Dreamhack events without the pot bonus. So, if your goal with your event is to attract top players, you absolutely must include a pot bonus to remain competitive (unless you’re a legacy prestige tournament like Evo or Genesis). Heck, just to get Armada to the US you’ve got to offer him something worthwhile.

When The Set Count discussed pot bonuses, I think the approach was flawed. They began the discussion based on a tweet from Pereden saying “pot bonuses are a myopic way to grow the community.” She’s 100% true. Pot bonuses really don’t help grow the community. Sure, a huge pot bonus will get some play on ESPN and attract some eyes to the stream, but she’s absolutely right that a pot bonus isn’t really going to convince a bunch of people to stop playing Counterstrike and start playing Melee. Suar and Sage were totally right that pot bonuses don’t provide a better experience to 95% of tournament attendees. If your goal is to grow the scene, there are way better uses of that money. However, that’s not the goal of most organizations that have a pot bonus.

game tyrantGameTyrant and Dreamhack don’t care about growing the Smash community. Nor should they. At the end of the day, these are businesses attempting to turn a profit. They have no existing credibility with the Smash community, there’s no way for them to penetrate an already crowded market by just offering yet another tournament. They have to buy that prestige. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to get a bunch of top players at their event. I think the main problem with the argument is that it’s short-sighted. GameTyrant and Dreamhack are not expecting to turn a profit this year from these events. They probably won’t even break even. They are using pot bonuses so that top players will attend the first version of their events. They will tweet about it, they’ll come, they’ll boost stream viewership. If the event is well run and everybody who comes has a good time, the event will grow next year. It will have established credibility. Attendance numbers will grow, they can attract better sponsors, and they can grow their influence within the community. There is no other way to use that money which can accomplish that goal. The problem we see with things like the 2GGC, UGC, and other events is that they are trying to fly out players and pay out pot bonuses to make a profit on their event next month. It just simply does not work that way. Pot bonuses are a long-term play, and can only be used effectively by companies with vision for the future and enough resources to cover the losses in their first few years of operation.

Stop Flying Out Frogs

Mr. R caught some heavy flack on Twitter yesterday for a series of tweets discussing the misuse of compendiums. Right now, the primary use of smashgg’s compendium system is to get players flown out to events. We’re especially seeing this with the 2GGC saga compendiums. They are burning through community resources to fly out weak players who play bad characters, and a lot of people (myself included) are getting fed up with it. To me, most compendiums have the exact same flaws that many people attach to pot bonuses. They don’t help grow the scene, they don’t provide a better tournament experience for attendees, and there are better uses of that money.

Now, compendiums are tricky because there are actually cases where they are really important. Without compendiums many talented players would never get the opportunity to get enough exposure to become pro players. We wouldn’t get to see Japanese competitors nearly as often. Players like Locus wouldn’t get to attend nearly as many events. You need to attend events to remain relevant and court a sponsor. Compendiums are crucial for that process. However, the 2GG compendiums are no longer being used for that purpose. Obviously, if people choose to spend their money flying out Texas’ best Ryu so he can buster out in pools, that’s their choice. However, Mr. R is completely right that there are better ways to use the community’s desire to support the scene monetarily.

However, I think there’s also a flaw in the argument for doing a compendium to improve the tournament. Most compendium funding is going to come from people who aren’t attending the event. If I want to see my region’s best Greninja compete against Dabuz, I can benefit from that compendium even if I don’t go to the tournament. If I’m not going, there’s no reason to fund a compendium for a 24-hour venue. There’s no reason to fund a compendium for more setups if I’m not going to the event.

So to Mr. R’s point, yes, compendiums can absolutely be used better. There is absolutely an argument for allocating those funds to pot bonuses, because pot bonuses do have value. However, I think the conversation about compendiums needs to first be how to use them better for their intended purpose, before we start discussing putting some of those funds to pot bonuses. To me, as it stands right now, that’s a separate discussion from the fundamental economics of Smash, and whether or not pot bonuses should exist. I’ll talk way more about compendiums another time. For now, I think the first step there is to just stop burning through community good will and resources on these ridiculous saga compendiums that really don’t help the scene, the players, or the tournament.

 

Pay People Better

So, while a pot bonus may help your tournament attract top players, there are many who argue that pot bonus money could be better allocated to the running of the tournament. This is a really tough subject, so I’m going to try my best to approach every point. For me, I sympathize heavily with every TO, streamer, commentator, and other event staff working a tournament. My primary work and source of income in esports comes from contracts for writing. There are still so many people willing to write for nothing more than “exposure” that many places still don’t pay their writers. Top organizations like Dignitas, major news outlets, they all either hire volunteer writers or pay writers a fraction of what they are worth. It hurt to see Dignitas put out a call for writers, only to find out the position was unpaid. I know what it’s like to do professional, high-quality work for little to no pay. I get it.

That said, I think there’s a fundamental flaw in this argument as it pertains to Smash. First, it’s problematic to say that money allocated for a pot bonus is money taken away from the compensation of talent and staff. The pot bonus usually comes from sponsors or investors, and comes out of the event’s marketing and prizing budget. It’s a whole separate line item. We’ll address the problems in how events budget and plan in a bit, but for now let’s talk specifically to and about staff.

Money was put into that pot bonus to accomplish very different tasks from the money used to pay staff. As we said before, that money is helping buy prestige, and attract top players. That money is being spent to make a tournament competitive in the market. Nothing about the event staff will do that, especially for a newer tournament. Hiring GIMR instead of a local streamer won’t boost attendance by top players if there’s no pot bonus. As long as your tournament is best of 5 after pools, ZeRo and Dabuz won’t care who’s running the pools, or how much they are being paid. To say that the money can be spent better depends entirely on the goal that money is trying to accomplish. If a tournament decided to not have a pot bonus, they would likely invest that money in marketing, or just put it back in their pocket.

I think it’s problematic any time you tell a business that they should pay people more. Businesses have a responsibility to turn a profit and reduce cost wherever possible. I have no interest in getting political here, so let’s avoid talking about minimum wage or anything like that. When it comes to event staff and talent, we’re talking about contract work. As a contractor, it is your responsibility to know your worth and negotiate accordingly. You have to decide the value of exposure, the satisfaction of getting to do your work, and how much your time and talent is worth.

We still have a grassroots mentality. There is always someone willing to do the position for cheaper, or even for free. That’s great for these tiny tournaments, but it becomes a problem when you never stop to consider your value and start to fight for what you’re worth. This is a shift I had to make in my own career. When I started writing for esports, I was nobody. I didn’t have a portfolio, there was no reason for someone to pay me. I did what everyone in Smash did to get their start–I got on the grind. I emailed websites asking them to let me write content for free, begging for exposure. Whenever I enter a new esport, I tend to start that process over again. I work for free to prove my talent. However, as soon as I have a portfolio, that free work stops. If a website or company isn’t willing to pay, they no longer get my content. For some, that is totally fine and we part ways. For others, that’s when the negotiation begins. I have to decide the value of my time, the value of the opportunity, and try to convince this organization to pay me what I think I’m worth. If they won’t pay me that rate, I have to choose whether to accept a cheaper rate, or walk away. There have been countless opportunities and jobs that I’ve turned down because the rate wasn’t high enough. If I choose to accept a low rate, that is 100% on me. It’s not that company’s responsibility to pay me better “because they should.” If I didn’t sell my value and negotiate well, I didn’t do my job properly, and don’t deserve a higher rate. At that point, I have to walk away to preserve my value.

The same is true of any staff or talent freelancing for events. If you’re an up-and-coming commentator, you need exposure. You should be jumping on the mic anywhere, and driving countless hours just to get another shot. However, once you have a following and some proven value as talent, you have to stop working for free. You have to stop accepting crappy rates and breaking even on events. You have to prove to tournament organizers that you are worth more money, or you have to walk away. Right now, there’s a set budget for streamers, TOs, staff, and commentary. That budget will never change until talented, valuable people start refusing jobs. You have to be able to prove that an event will suffer without you, and that paying you will yield a greater return. If you can’t do that, then you have to get back on that grind and build your value.

I guess the whole point of this section is just that we have to stop thinking of pot bonuses as taking money away from event staff. They are two completely separate issues. Staff have to start fighting for better pay, start proving their value, and start being willing to walk away. I’ve already spent too much time in this article on the subject, but there are lots of ways that you can do this, I’m living proof of it. I’ve created jobs for myself all over the place.  Many articles you see online with my name attached came as a result of me convincing a company that a piece of writing would benefit them, and convincing them to pay me for that work rather than bring on a volunteer. I don’t care what your role in the community is, you can do the same. That said, in the short term, there’s still a fundamental problem with expecting money from Smash.

Not Enough Money

I spent a lot of the last paragraph arguing that staff pay and pot bonuses should be considered separate. To completely contradict that, we have to look at the practical state of Smash right this moment. I love you all, but you guys have really created a mess for yourselves. You’ve been grinding and building this community for over 15 years, but you never stopped to future-proof your esport. Of course, most of that is not your fault, it’s Nintendo’s. We all look at the production value for other esports and wonder why Smash can’t get there. The fact is, every other esport has a ton of money flowing in from the marketing department of that game’s developer. Games like League of Legends, Counterstrike, and DOTA are all using esports to advertise their game. They are spending their marketing dollars on paying event staff, offering pot bonuses, and increasing production value. Smash does not have any of that money coming from Nintendo, because they aren’t trying to sell a product. They can’t make money from Melee or Smash 4. Regardless of that, Nintendo just straight up does not understand internet culture. They don’t even understand how to design a modern online experience for their games.

As a result of this, we just flat out don’t have enough money flowing into our community. There’s not enough money to fund pot bonuses, pay staff, get great venues, and buy tons of extra setups. Something has to give. As it stands right now, I don’t fault any event for offering a pot bonus. The players have used their influence for their personal gain, which is absolutely what they should be doing! There are too many events, and top players have to choose what to attend. If you want top players at your event and you aren’t a legacy event (or one in Mexico where you can get ANTi for free) you have to put up a pot bonus. There’s always someone willing to run a pool, run a stream, and commentate either for free or super cheap, so there’s no incentive for an event to allocate those resources there. If they did, they’d have to find more money, because they cannot sacrifice the pot bonus entirely and remain competitive to top players.

As a community, we have to stop talking about where the existing money should go, and start talking about how to get more money in to begin with! We have to get aggressive and reach out to advertisers to sponsor events. We have to market outside of the existing community and grow the market. We must find ways to grow viewership, and turn that into a value proposition for more sponsors and advertisements. We’ve gotta become NASCAR. The days of grassroots are over. The world has changed, and we are behind, plain and simple. It’s time for every TO, commentator, attendee, streamer, and top player to start looking at Smash for what it is–a business. Stop using attendance as your only source of revenue. Don’t only market by tweeting out to existing smashers about your event. Announce your event more than three weeks in advance. Figure out how to make your event more attractive than everything else happening that month. Be a professional. Work for the career you want, not the volunteer position you have right now. In general–grow up, be better, and don’t just work harder: work smarter.

Stay In Your Lane: The Role-Swapping Woes of Team Naventic

naventic

From an esports perspective, Bloodlust 2017 was a fascinating event. Obviously, the tournament was a ton of fun, Jake and crew were super entertaining, and there were lots of hype matches. However, when your job is to react and analyze data collected over a tournament weekend, this sort of event is tricky. How do you evaluate GFE or Tempo when they’re obviously hiding drafts for the Western Clash? Roll20’s win proves me right to some extent regarding the Goku signing, but you can’t really make a statement about their overall power level when they beat two teams who were holding back.

That said, I think I’ve found the key takeaway from this weekend. What’s more, I believe the lessons we’ll explore today can translate directly to any team or group of players looking to improve. So, let’s get into it and examine what we learned from Team Naventic.

When We Last Left Our Heroes

Some quick background–at the start of HGC Phase 2, Naventic moved Kenma to a coaching role, and brought in iDream to be their melee flex. They then moved Bigempct to support. After a poor showing in the first week, BigE and Tomster swapped roles, with BigE moving to ranged flex, and Tomster going to support. They progressed in this way for a few weeks, struggling every week. This weekend, we saw Zuna committed to main tank, Bkid at melee, and iDream floating around doing all sorts of stuff. There are a number of issues I have with the team’s decision-making on roster changes. We’ll address each one in turn and then extrapolate what you can apply to your own team.

However, before everything we must go into this discussion identifying a MASSIVE caveat. Every bit of analysis we’re about to do falls apart the moment Naventic has determined they actually need to make a change to their 5-man roster. Because of Blizzard’s intense roster restrictions, Naventic is locked into this roster until the end of the season, including their inevitable crucible match. I have lots of issues with this rule, but with it in place, the only thing Naventic can do if they see an unsolveable problem is to shuffle the players around to different roles. I still disagree with much of how they’ve done this process, but that point has to be acknowledged before we get into it. Now, let’s get into it.

BigE to Support….Then Not

The first massive red flag came after week one. Naventic had two available roster moves during the break. They removed their support player in favor of a Melee, but at that point still had a hole at the support position. Rather than pick up and groom an amateur support, the team chose to move BigE to that role. I was hugely in favor of the decision. BigE has great mechanics, and with time likely could have been a great support. However, after one defeat he immediately abandoned the role, either because he disliked it, or because the team decided to make a reactionary change.

First, you have to acknowledge that role changes take time. This is something HOTS players could really learn from the Fighting Game Community. Your role in this game is just like your main character in Street Fighter. You have put the most work into it. You know the ins and outs, the limitations and strengths. There are aspects of the role ingrained in your muscle memory from hundreds of hours of play. For a pro player, your main role is where all of your competitive time has been invested.

There is no possible way for you to quickly transition to a new role and expect to play at the same level. I don’t care how mechanically skilled you are or how many games of Hero League Malfurion you’ve played. It just flat out takes time to transition to a new competitive role. When a top pro in Street Fighter picks up a new character, they spend hundreds of hours practicing before you ever see that character in a big tournament. They have to master all the unique mechanics, learn the matchups, and get the techniques ingrained in their muscle memory before ever hoping to compete with that new character.

Whether by his own decision or the team’s choice, BigE was never given enough time to transition into the role. For the team to make the change that quickly makes me think that there were problems with BigE in the support role all throughout scrims leading up to that first week.

This brings me to the other point here–don’t role swap just to keep your roster. This is a hard lesson to learn, and one I’ve screwed up as a coach many times. 95% of all players in any sport are “system players”. They need to be in the right role, in the right system, or they cannot be truly successful. This doesn’t mean that they are bad or limited players, it’s just the reality of high level competition. If Bigempct is a Ranged Assassin, then he should play Ranged Assassin. This is a core problem that’s plagued Naventic for almost a year now. Zuna and BigE are at their best in literally the same exact role on a team. As long as both players are on the team, Naventic is always going to struggle with solidifying their roles (more on that later).

The same is true for your casual friend group, Chairleague crew, or Open Division roster. If you’re at your best in a specific role, it’s the role you love playing, and it’s where you want to play  DO NOT SWAP. You may think you’re helping the team, but really you’re just covering up a true problem and reducing the quality of the team’s play across the board.

#FreeTGod

Quick rant, but as long as I live I’ll never forgive the people that ruined Tomster’s professional career. On King of Blades, Tomster was the fastest-rising star in the game. His Thrall was unparalleled. He was the unquestioned carry of that roster. Then some enterprising manager scooped him up, put him on Sylvanas, and wondered why the team couldn’t win games. YOU TOOK THE BEST MELEE PROSPECT IN NORTH AMERICA AND PUT HIM ON SYLVANAS. The same thing occurred on Naventic. My prayer when I heard about the signing was that we’d see the return of the melee T-God, but nope. Flexy Sylvanas for all time!

If you are literally carrying a team on your back because of your outstanding play in a role, do—not—change—your—role. Trust yourself, get a team built around you, and earn your right to remain in your carry position. Who knows if Tomster even still has those melee skills left in him after so much wasted Sylvanas time, but my genuine hope is that he is removed from Naventic in the offseason and put on a team who wants to take the time to return him to his former glory.

Anyway, when BigE moved off the role, Tomster got stuck there. It was really the only option and he’s been doing fine. However, if rosters weren’t locked, I would be screaming from the mountaintops for Naventic to release Tomster and sign an Open Division support.

Zuna To…Tank?

Strap in kids, this is going to get real. We might actually have to use Subheading 3 for, like, the first time ever on this blog. I want to discuss the insanity of this move, the inevitability of the move, and dispel one of the worst myths in HOTS all at the same time. You know what, yea.  It’s time for Subheading 3.

No Faith in Bkid

I was shot down in the offseason by a number of people, so let me crow a bit. I called that Bkid was not an elite warrior anymore. I think he is going to be a great situational player for teams that need to fill a hole at the position, but Naventic’s decision to move him to Melee proves their lack of faith in his Warrior play. Think about it. They took iDream out of the role they signed him for, and replaced him with one of the longest-tenured Warrior players in North America. If iDream’s melee play was the core problem, they’d have put Zuna in that role, not swapped him to warrior (ignoring the myth we’ll get into later for a moment). To me, this move says that the team had lost faith in Bkid as a warrior. They moved Zuna there because that’s what the team keeps doing when they struggle ever since Erho left. It was inevitable that the team throw Zuna back there, but it still doesn’t make much sense.

Same Song and Dance

So, this move is completely insane on three fronts. In two different ways, we already know that it is doomed to fail. First, we’ve seen Zuna on warrior before. We know how poorly that goes. His hero pool is limited, he gets caught on a regular basis, and the team just does not succeed with any consistency when Zuna is in this role. They tried it for a really long time last year, we know for a fact it does not work. Further, we’ve also seen iDream play as a Flex. We’ve seen the struggles of his Sylvanas and Kael’thas. Sure his hero pool is a bit weird with stuff like Rexxar, but we’ve never seen him reach that level of dominance when hanging out in the backline. We know that Zuna doesn’t work as a warrior, and we know iDream doesn’t work as a Flex.

Finally, Bkid has only ever been a warrior. He’s one of the longest-standing warrior mains in the region. As we discussed earlier, it takes a long time to transition to a new role. You can’t for a moment expect Bkid to suddenly show up and carry games on Malthael or Genji. Heck, you can’t even expect him to play exceptionally well on Sonya or Thrall–he’s pretty much only ever played tanks at the competitive level. With this roster move, the team put three players on weak positions where we already know they can’t succeed. The only reason this move makes sense is if Naventic wanted to get Zuna into the Warrior position so that he could be in the best role to shotcall.

The Biggest Lie in HOTS

Put simply, I am fed up with this myth. I’ve seen it cripple amateur teams, pro level teams, and everything in between. There is no optimal role for shotcalling, it is a flat out lie. “But Trent,” you type frantically before reading my ensuing argument, “the Warrior player is the one initiating fights! They’re in the best position to call when the team should initiate, so that’s the best place for a shotcaller!”

Let me get a bit condescending for a minute. I apologize in advance, but this lie is ruining teams at every level and it needs to die. So, first, hush for a bit and listen. No, hey! Stop typing. Stop it. Listen, or I guess in this case, read some more before typing. Have you competed at an international event in a MOBA game with your warrior as the shotcaller? If not, then you’re not in a position to refute me on this. I have studied shotcalling across multiple MOBAs. I’ve interviewed the best coaches, analysts, and shotcallers to ever play these games. This myth also cropped up in League of Legends when the tank meta was super prevalent, and we squashed it there too.

Sure, tanks are usually the ones that initiate fights. Based on science, it is always faster for them to call a teamfight initiation because they’ll be able to react to the right opening faster than they would if they had to first hear a command from someone else. Absolutely, your warrior should call out when they are initiating a fight. However, that is one of the smallest aspects of shotcalling. A true shotcaller has to determine whether your team even wants to look for a fight in this situation. They decide when the team retreats, or when they push forward in the fight. They call out focus targets, determine rotations, coordinate objective timings, and so much more.

Being a true shotcaller is incredibly difficult. It is impossible to really understand just how hard it is unless you’ve tried to do it at a high level. You’re basically having to play chess against an opponent of equal skill while also playing Heroes of the Storm at the exact same time. Shotcalling is a talent, not everyone can do it. As a result, it is incredibly rare that you’ll find someone who has the talent to be a true shotcaller and also feels most comfortable in the Warrior role. Shotcalling takes so much mental energy, you cannot be thinking about your in-game execution to the same degree as other players. If you have someone with the capacity to shotcall, that person needs to be on their best role, whatever that is. They need to be playing the game by muscle memory so that their mind can focus on making calls.

 

So what’s the answer for Naventic? How could they make smarter role swaps in order to save their season? Truthfully, I don’t think there’s a right answer with this roster. The team does not have a support player, they’ve lost faith in their warrior, and they have two ranged assasin players with no true flex. You could have maybe move iDream to warrior with Bkid at melee, but that still doesn’t solve much.

In reality, this is just not a competitive Heroes of the Storm roster. I genuinely believe that every member of this team would be an upgrade for another team in the league. If my theory about Tomster is true, this is a team with 2 ranged, 2 melee, a weak tank, and no support. They need to make three roster changes at minimum, but unless the rules change they can only make two. If I were Naventic, I would release this team the moment their contracts are up (or pay a penalty to release their contracts now) and sign Khroen’s Open Division team. Then, regardless of whether or not they survive the cruicible, I would blow up this roster and scatter the players to the four corners of the NA HGC. Every player would be better for it, and the quality of every team would increase.

People are having a field day crapping on Naventic for their bad play, but every player on this team is an elite talent (with the possible exception of Bkid, we’ll see what he does on a new team). I don’t write any of this to attack the players as individuals, merely to point out the fragile nature of a HOTS roster, and the importance of sticking to your role, or really committing to the time it takes to role swap. HOTS fans love to complain about teams making roster changes to solve problems, but this is a situation where no other option exists. All that’s left is for Naventic to keep shuffling around trying desperately to find wins, until the roster can inevitably disband after they fail to qualify for Blizzcon.

 

That, or randomly they all show up after the Western Clash break as the most dominant team ever, and I just wasted two hours of my life writing this article. Either way works.

Will Esports for Bits–Why Blizzard Chose This Weird Crowdfunding Model

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Earlier this week, Blizzard and Twitch announced a unique partnership that would allow HGC fans to support their favorite teams and earn in-game rewards by cheering for teams with Twitch’s bits system. The announcement was met with mixed responses. Many were excited to have any chance to support their favorite teams. Others were disappointed that their support had to come through a system surrounding something many people dislike or ignore entirely–Twitch chat.

We had a pretty good discussion about this process when I guested on Trollin HGC this week, but there wasn’t really time to go super in depth about why I think Blizzard went this route, and why many suggestions to “fix” this model have unexpected problems. Let’s dive a bit deeper into crowd-supported esports models today!

Why Not Boost the Prize Pool?

One of the most common reactions I saw to the announcement was this exact question. This is the exact process used for DOTA’s The International and they get insane money put into their prize pool. Why can’t we just buy an “HGC skin” that puts a percentage of the cost into the prize pool for clashes, the mid-season brawl, or Blizzcon?

The issue here depends entirely on your goal with crowdfunded support. Big prize pools look really cool. They get the interest of news outlets, make for a clear “interest draw” for casual observers, and make the victory at the end of a tough tournament feel that much more significant. If your goal is to just boost viewership and interest in your biggest tournaments, this is absolutely the best way to do it.

Everyone points to The International as this pillar of how to do crowdfunding right. It really has worked, but only for The International. Feeding money into the biggest tournament in DOTA has increased viewership and awareness of this one specific tournament, but it’s also really the only tournament anyone cares about. Taking a quick look at major news outlets, you’ll rarely see DOTA news unless it directly relates to The International. If a team fails to qualify for The International, there’s very little opportunity for them to build any sort of fanbase or sustainability in the DOTA scene with casual fans.

This is the same problem you’ll find if we used this model in Heroes. Only the very best teams qualify for international events in HOTS. In most cases, these are also the teams that already have sponsors, salaries, stream followers, etc. If all of our crowdfunding went to feed the Blizzcon prize pool, we’d only really be supporting the successful teams. You wouldn’t even see much extra support for the wildcard teams because the payouts for last place are so much lower (oh snap!). A scrappy little team like Naventic or Zealots would probably never see a cent from the community’s support.

Now, you could absolutely argue that Blizzard could do their current weird bit-thingy and then also release a “championship skin” that feeds the prize pool for big events. That way we’re supporting the scrappy underdogs while also getting that big boost from a huge prize pool. The issue here is that esports aren’t actually a charity run by gaming companies. In most cases, like Heroes, they’re a marketing tool that helps keep top players and influencers playing and talking about the game. Blizzard is already shelling out big bucks for their prize pools and providing every player with a salary. At a certain point they have to be able to get a return on this huge investment.

It’s simple economics. Your players only have so much capital available to spend on in-game cosmetics. If they spend all of that capital on cosmetics that give a portion of the profit away to esports teams, you as a company earn less revenue overall. It just doesn’t make great business sense to provide a bunch of ways for your player base to give you less of their money when the return in retention/marketing won’t be that much greater. A 2 million dollar prize pool doesn’t give you that much more news coverage than a million dollar prize pool.

Why Through Twitch?

So, prize pool support is cool but it doesn’t make your league more sustainable. Doing prize pool support alongside other methods would be cool, but doesn’t make much economic sense. Even so, Blizzard could still just put some Fnatic skins in the game and let me buy them directly through the game! This is absolutely a path Blizzard could choose to go, and I genuinely believe they will in the future.

However, right now there’s a key problem that make this plan less than ideal. The HGC is still insanely volatile. Teams disband, change brands, or get relegated every season. At any moment Superstars could be sponsored by Burrito Esports, and all of their in-game assets immediately become obsolete. Now Blizzard has to make a bunch of Burrito-branded assets, when suddenly Erho and Srey have a big fight about which episode of Dragonball Super is the best and the team disbands. Because of the way the HGC roster rules work, Burrito Esports loses their spot to Crappy Open Division Team and now all those Burrito assets are worthless. Before you ask, yes–Burrito Esports is a thing.

Now, this is already a problem that can and will happen with the current Twitch-integrated system. However, there is a key difference–it won’t clunk up the in-game store. Blizzard cares deeply about streamlining their presentation to newer players. It’s one of the reasons they don’t want to add more buttons to Hearthstone (that and the fact that the game’s engine is made from two guinea pigs duct-taped to a toaster oven). This constant overhaul of in-game assets would mean having to constantly tweak the store. Because people are making purchases directly from Blizzard in this case, you’d also likely see people demanding that their Superstars merch be transformed into Burrito swag. I know I would, have you seen the Burrito logo? It’s dope as heck. Ultimately, using Twitch’s system allows Blizzard to keep their in-game store clean while the HGC teams figure out all their many branding and stability issues. They also get to pass off much of the headache of data collection and management onto Twitch’s system.

Games Make Spending Fun!

Go back and read the official Blizzard announcement for this program. Notice all the words used like “unlock”, “goal”, and “progress”. Blizzard isn’t just providing a way to support HGC teams, they’re turning it into a game. Gamification is a huge trend in marketing today. To many people it’s frustrating, needlessly complex, and a complete turn-off. To others, it makes spending fun, makes the purchase feel more valuable, and encourages customers to remain loyal, frequent spenders. It’s really a fascinating marketing experiment. They’re attempting to encourage both spending and Twitch viewership by letting you play a unique buying game while you watch.

In summary, like we said on Wednesday’s show, this program is not ideal for everyone. I find bits and other pseudo-currencies needlessly complex, and I can’t stand Twitch chat. For people like me, this is a clunky, unappealing method of supporting my favorite teams. However, I understand why Blizzard chose to experiment with this program. At the end of the day, any way to support the HGC is a good thing. Hopefully, this is just the first step. As we see the HGC start to settle, as more teams are picked up by relevant organizations, I fully expect that we will see new and varied ways of supporting our favorite HGC teams. Until then, I remain optimistic, and choose to look at this program for what I hope it is–an interesting first step.

The Definitive Discussion–What To Do About Bayonetta

 

bayo.jpgYesterday was a fascinating day for studying the Smash 4 community. We witnessed some of our best and worst moments all at once. In the wake of an intense match we saw raw emotion come out, fans desperately searching for answers, for something to blame. In the end, that all fell back on the recurring problem of our game: Bayonetta.

For those unaware, let me set the stage for yesterday’s events. Grand finals of Dreamhack Atlanta saw CLG VoiD on the winner’s side facing MVG’s Salem. Salem was coming hot off of his EVO victory the week before, and VoiD was in position to finally win his first S-tier event. VoiD quickly went up 2-0 in the first set before Salem came all the way back with a reverse 3-0 to reset the bracket. The second set was a hard fought battle, but ultimately Salem grabbed the win with a low-percent combo off the top. Immediately folks took to Twitter on all sides. Some proclaiming the time was long past due to eliminate the scourge of Bayonetta from our game, some demanding credit for Salem’s victory, others lamenting our incessant need to react to everything with calls for a ban. As is always the case in these situations, there were interesting points and silly tweets on all sides, but no resolution. Today, I want to take a calm, systematic approach to discussing the problem without emotion or reactionary evidence. Let’s actually figure out what to do about The Bayonetta Problem.

Smash 4 Broke

First, we need to understand a fundamental truth when discussing any issues in Smash 4–the game is broken. From a competitive standpoint this is the most broken game currently played as an active esport. Let me explain what I mean:

First, the game was not designed with competition in mind. There are really only four stages (Smashville, FD, Battlefield, Town and City) without significant gimmicks or mechanical problems. Even then there are glitches and the problems with stretcher platforms. Many characters have broken hitboxes or have moves that do not function properly. There are three characters that don’t even have access to their full moveset in most tournaments. Most importantly, the game is not actively supported or balanced around competition and never will be.

So, whenever you discuss a problem with Smash 4, you must first acknowledge that the game as a whole is a problem. This should not be an esport, it frankly has no business being a competitive game. However, there’s enough love and passion in the community, and no other games that offer a suitable replacement, so players try to make it work the best they can. There is no way to “fix” competitive Smash 4 because it is broken on a fundamental level. If you want to play a well-structured competitive game, you need to play something that is not Smash 4.

Feels vs Data

So, we understand that the game is fundamentally broken. We’ll never see another balance patch for Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo Wii U. Once we accept this fact, we can start to approach real solutions to the problems with our game. However, there’s still a massive problem–we are run by our hearts.

There is no dev team studying this game. No one is collecting data from For Glory on win percentages. There’s nobody to address bug reports. We cannot properly gather the volume of data needed to properly balance a video game. As a result, most changes to the game start as emotional reactions and don’t go any further. We call for a ledge-grab limit after one popular player gets frustratingly defeated by a camping playstyle. We demand bans on stages based on a few clips of bugs on Twitter. We radically change our opinion on characters based on how the best players in the world perform with those characters. We think like spectators rather than a competition committee.

When approaching a problem with our game, we have to change the way we think. We need to look at the raw numbers. If you want Lylat banned, collect data. How many tournament matches have been affected by its glitches? Are these glitches reproduce-able? Are they exploitable? How do they function? If you want Lylat to stay, you need to argue your case with the exact same data. We have to stop reacting to how we feel, and start really studying our game with the intent of optimizing its competitive structure.

The True Bayonetta Problem

Right now, we do not have the data to even remotely discuss a character ban. Regardless of what side of that argument you fall on, there simply is not enough data yet to make a ruling. Even so, I can already settle the matter once and for all, referring back to the last section. Here’s the core issue: Bayonetta just feels bad.

Smash 4 is a weird, broken game. It is the slowest-moving fighting game played actively today. In general the game is settled by amassing enough rage to catch your opponent with your best aerial normal for a kill. many characters have low-percent combos and interesting kill setups, but at the core the game is about trading single hits back and forth. In her core design, Bayonetta doesn’t fit how Smash 4 is played. At any level of rage, her kills mostly come from extended, multi-hit combos. To anyone who finds Smash 4 boring, Bayo is an exciting change of pace. However, to people who love the game, to spectators who follow the game extensively, she just feels wrong to watch. Sure Meta Knight and Zero Suit Samus have ladder combos, sure DK and Bowser have grab setups that kill off the top, but all of those characters work within the established norms of the game. They have to setup their kills in ways that any experienced spectator can understand. When someone dies from Boost Kick or Ding Dong, you understand why. You generally know what the opponent could have done to avoid the situation. Watching a top level Bayonetta, it often just feels wrong. She doesn’t appear to have specific rage windows, or need a specific platform layout. It seems like she can just start a combo from anything, and at any moment the stock could end.

Now, all the Bayonetta players reading this are frantically typing their rebuttals. It takes a ton of excecutional skill to play this way. You have to read DI to get those combos to come out. Let me be clear–I am not discounting the intense practice and skill required to execute Bayo play at a high level. I’m not even arguing that she is too powerful at this point. What I’m attempting to do is help the community realize that, most often, they are reacting based on what they see and feel rather than the actual data of the sport.

Feeling Changes

The National Football League recently found itself making a seeing, feeling change. As the problem with concussions continued to grow, the league felt it needed to change something. As a reactionary move to the mounting complaints about the safety of their game, they banned hard hits. It really wasn’t more clear than that. There was some jargon about what constituted a hard hit, but in reality the calls were left to the referee’s discretion, and anything that looked “bad” got called.

However, this ruling actually did nothing to address the real problem. Often the hits that are the most dangerous to a player’s brain are the rudimentary, “safe” tackles you see on every routine play. By eliminating “hard” hits, the league officials had made the game look better to concerned parties, but had done absolutely nothing to change the rate at which players were getting concussions. They hadn’t really stopped to look at the data and make a rule change that actually addressed a problem with their game in the best way possible.

A ban on Bayonetta represents much of the same issues. As I said before, we flat out do NOT have enough data to determine that the character is actually a degenerative problem on par with Brawl’s Meta Knight. You cannot at this time present data that supports that claim. You may be able to begin to collect it and build a case, but you don’t have those results today to present before a Smash governing body (which doesn’t exist but really probably should at this point).

Further, a Bayonetta ban represents a number of problematic unintended consequences. A hasty character ban would effectively remove a large number of players from competition for a period of time. Players like Lima, Captain Zack, and Salem have dedicated themselves to mastering this character. Most Bayo players don’t have a secondary prepared (not that they need one) that can compete on the same level. For players like Zack and Salem you would be putting their professional contracts in jeopardy. We could see a number of players leave the game forever because their character was completely removed.

Further, bans aren’t really a thing in most games. Obviously other games get balance patches to fix problems, but even when a character is legitimately overpowered, players still have to learn to deal with that meta. They have to react, find counter strategies, and adapt their way of playing the game. If Mario simply cannot beat Bayonetta, that doesn’t automatically mean she should be banned, but it may mean that Ally has to develop a Bayo-specific counterpick. We already see this constantly in Melee. Every top player has developed a Fox to deal with Hungrybox, but no one is (seriously) calling for a ban on Jigglypuff.

If we ban Bayonetta, we also dramatically hurt the game’s spectator appeal to casual observers. Most of the reaction from people tuning into EVO was about how cool Bayonetta looked. People liked her combos, the danger of her kill threat. It took DC constantly discussing our hatred of the character for the rest of the panel on the Jumpoff to react negatively to her. Bayonetta brings so many unique things to competitive Smash, the entertainment product would be objectively worse without her (to people outside the community who don’t already hate her).

So, ultimately, right now we need to calm down and begin exploring the problem from an objective standpoint. Are character-specific secondaries a problem for the game? Does Bayonetta create a degenerative metagame, using Brawl Meta Knight as a known standard? Are view numbers negatively affected by Bayonetta in the grand finals? Does Bayonetta have an overly irregular win percentage in For Glory, or in bracket? These are the questions that have to be definitively answered before a ban could ever be realistically discussed.

 

Closing Thought

Hopefully we all acknowledge that there will be no more patches to Smash 4. No developer is ever going to nerf Bayonetta. However, I’ve been thinking for a few weeks based on my own observances that Bayonetta is indeed a bit overpowered. But only just a bit.

She simply has, like, one too many tools. When explaining it to my wife I said it this way: if all the top tier characters in Smash 4 have 8 tools, she has 9. No balance designer would ever remove the character, but they would tweak her. What if, after collecting the proper data, we nerfed Bayonetta? What if instead of banning the character, we banned Bat Within? Or we banned the stupid guns attached to her aerials? Instead of trying to remove one of the ways that a lot of people enjoy this game, what if we just toned it down at the competitive level? Is that a viable solution? I don’t know, but I think it’s another avenue that isn’t being properly explored yet.

Let’s Learn About Public Relations: The Unintended Consequences of Salem Stealing Online Tournaments

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Before we get into today’s topic I want to muse on something. It is utterly fascinating to me how powerful ANTi’s social media presence has become. He is a brilliant model of success if you want to study self-branding through social media. Every tweet he makes about the Smash ecosystem demands a response from top leaders in the community. He could bottom out and drop even lower on the next PGR, and still likely keep gaining followers and retain his Immortals contract. If any players reading this are curious about how to get signed to a good team, study what ANTi does. Shoot me a message and I’ll help you identify exactly what makes it work so well, and how you can adapt those strategies to your own brand.

Get On With It

Right then, on to last night’s drama. As mentioned above, this is actually pretty old drama but ANTi’s commentary demanded responses from MVG higher-ups which created a perfect opportunity for learning.  Yay learning! For those unaware, here’s the scenario:

Salem is ranked #11 on the PGR. With a slightly better start to his season, he’d easily be top 10. He is sponsored by Most Valuable Gaming, an esports company with Melee god M2K as its spearhead. They are a solid company and a great force in the smash world, but by no means a top tier sponsor in the grand scheme of esports. Over the last few months, Salem has entered a number of online tournaments where the prize was a paid trip to a major event. He won the Naifu Wars that awarded a trip to EVO, and ANTi’s recent tweet was in reference to Salem’s registration for the Nairo sub tournament awarding a trip to Shine.

There are two “problems” that some people have with Salem participating in these events. First, many feel that it is unfair for Salem to be allowed to enter. He is obviously at a far higher skill level than the majority of entrants. Second, he already has team that should be funding his trip to big tournaments. Since he does not strictly “need” the prize, he should not be depriving other players the opportunity to attend these events. First, I want to clear up a couple facts of the situation, and then explore the optics and public relations consequences of those facts.

The Facts

Fact the first–these tournaments are run by Nairo. He is the tournament organizer. You can only enter these tournaments by subscribing to his Twitch channel. Nairo has the right to decide the parameters of his tournament, if he chooses to allow Salem to enter, that is entirely his decision. Salem also had to pay the entry fee like every other entrant. He received no special treatment. Remember, every single smash tournament ever is a simple open bracket. We don’t block top players from attending locals, monthlies, regionals, etc. In fact, there are many who want top players to attend more minor offline events. Salem being allowed to enter Nairo’s sub tournaments actually represents consistency across all smash events–you pay your entry, you get your shot.

Fact the second–MVG has gone on record stating that they are more than happy to pay for Salem to attend these events. His decision to enter the sub tournaments, according to MVG representatives, has nothing to do with their inability to pay for plane tickets. According to them and Salem himself, Salem would rather earn his trip to big events and get some good practice along the way through these online events. We’ll get to the opinions and optics on this, but these are the facts as they have been relayed by the parties involved.

Fact the last–Salem is not evil. If you’d seen any content or talked to any player, you would know that Salem is a genuinely good person who loves the community and is grateful for his opportunities. His entry into these events does not represent some malicious act to deprive Cosmos or Icymist of their chance to attend a big tournament. I am willing to believe that Salem’s reasons for entering these events are pure regardless of the optics. That said, it looks really really bad.

The Optics

If you follow me on Twitter, this is a phrase you’ll hear me use a lot. When we talk about “optics” we’re referring to a public relations/marketing idea. Essentially, the optics represent the way a situation is perceived by people who do not have all the behind-the-scenes facts. For example, let’s say you come home to find some dude stabbing your wife repeatedly in the chest. As soon as he sees you, he drops the knife and starts to run towards an open window. In your rage and surprise, you grab the dropped knife and chase after him. He escapes out the window and you can’t follow. You run back over to your wife and attempt to stop the bleeding by pressing on the wound with your hands. Suddenly, the police burst in and they see you hovering over your dying, super stabbed wife with blood all over you, a knife with your fingerprints all over it, and no sign that anyone else was in the house. The reality of the situation is that you didn’t kill your wife, but the optics make it look like you are super duper going to jail.

You may have heard the phrase “perception is reality”. It’s an old cliche but it remains relevant. In public relations, we go one step further and say that “perception creates reality”. Optics are everything in my business. The matter more than reality because most people build their opinions and make their decisions based on optics rather than truth. Truth should always matter more, but it’s the responsibility of the public relations team to make the optics match the truth.

So, let’s look at the optics of this situation. Again, this is not 100% reality, but it is how the situation looks to people without 100% of the information. You have the 11th-best player in the world, now an EVO champion, entering amateur subscriber tournaments in order to win a trip to Shine 2017. When he wins (and he’ll probably win) it means we will not get to see a popular unique player like Cosmos or Icymist attend that tournament. Now those players won’t get the chance to improve their PGR stock. Clearly MVG must be a fake sponsor since they couldn’t even shell out the money to get their player to the most prestigious tournament in the world, and now they also can’t pay for Shine? What do they even do for Salem? Is this just another weird org that doesn’t actually do anything to help their players? Salem better ditch these guys soon and get a real sponsor, MVG clearly doesn’t value him if they can’t pay for the travel of the EVO-freaking champion!

Stay With Me

Now, as we said above, that is very clearly not the full reality of the situation. However, it is a reasonable conclusion to make based on the available data. The general public did not know that Salem declined MVG’s offer to pay for his EVO trip. They don’t know that he considers these tournaments to be a great practice opportunity. All they see is the EVO champion having to fight a bunch of unsponsored, promising players for the right to attend a tournament. It is the cross-section of Salem’s skill and his team that make the situation a PR problem. Were Salem still in the 20s on the PGR, no one would really care that he was in these tournaments. Were he still a free agent, more people would likely support his decision to try and get his trip covered.

What lead to me writing this article was this tweet from M2K. Because he has all the facts, he sees ANTi as intentionally spreading misinformation. However, ANTi and I drew the exact same conclusion based on the information we had at the time. I saw no press release from MVG stating that they’d offered Salem a plane ticket and he declined. Nothing from their side of the story came out until enough shade had been thrown their way to demand a response. What I want to make clear in this article is this: the general public are not responsible for the optics of a situation. That is the responsibility of the player or organization. If you are in a situation with bad optics, you didn’t do the work necessary to protect yourselves.

This is true in every area of life: you cannot blame people for reacting based on the available information. If you have only given me some of the data, I can only draw a conclusion based on what I know. It is unreasonable to expect someone to say “hey Salem, it’s sort of weird that you are still entering these sub tournaments. Did MVG offer to pay for your flight, but you refused because you want to earn it yourself?” Because Salem is entering a tournament who’s prize is a trip, it is reasonable to assume that Salem could not get that trip another way. You cannot attack ANTi for spreading “misinformation” when you did not give us the correct information to begin with.

Smash isn’t grassroots anymore. We were on the freaking worldwide leader of sports! Even minor organizations within the community have to level up in terms of their marketing, public relations, and professionalism. You have to consider the optics of every decision. It is the job of the organization to protect their players from PR scandals, and to also protect their image. Salem said that he entered these tournaments because he loves his sponsor and doesn’t want them to have to pay if he can go another way. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many he may have done more harm to MVG by attending these tournaments. It is the job of a marketing or PR representative at a company like MVG to consider these unintended consequences and develop strategies to prevent them.

Let’s Chill Out

Now, all of this being said, I still have not stated that Salem did anything wrong by entering a sub tournament and winning a trip. The tournament rules allowed him to attend, he is well within his rights to compete. He did not commit some sort of crime, he just played in a Smash Bros tournament. That being said, every player in this scene is now more in the public eye than ever. When you have a public profession, you don’t get to avoid optics. It is your responsibility to think about how a situation my be perceived. Then, you can decide whether or not to continue with your chosen course of action.

Further, MVG is a fantastic smash organization. They put on solid events, they provide awesome content with both Salem and M2K, and they’ve enabled Vayseth to keep pushing for the inclusion of Japanese competitors at US events. We should absolutely support them. The fact that Salem has not already dropped them to try and court bigger teams should tell you just how much they support their players. The reality of the situation is very clear–MVG and Salem have a wonderful working relationship, and any fre agent player should be excited to get an offer from this team. Unfortunately, they didn’t do a great job of protecting themselves from the optics of this one weird situation.

Salem is completely within his rights to attend a sub tournament. The public are also completely within their rights to view this as a problem. Anyone who’s actually attacking Salem and saying anything overly rude or hurtful is a stupid jerk and should stop. However, discussing whether or not top players should be allowed in these events, being disappointed that free agents can’t go, even wishing that top players wouldn’t participate–these are all completely reasonable things for the public to do.

The world of Smash is changing. Players and organizations are going to have to change along with it, and that means putting more time and resources into considering optics, and adjusting for them.

My Icons Wishlist

icons

If you’ve been on the shiny new Icons subreddit this week, you’ve seen me over there. A lot. In, like, every thread. Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while may remember other posts about my high hopes and excitement for this game. I have (and will do so again) talked about my expectations for how the game will reshape esports in the genre. Today, I want to go a bit more specifically into my specific desires out of this game, both in-game features as well as the structure of their esports ecosystem.

For those unaware (or having clicked the link praying for more HOTS content, sorry that’s on the way but it’s EVO season so fighting games get all my brain space) “Icons” is the newly revealed name for Wavedash Games upcoming platform fighter. The game promises all the technically rewarding gameplay of Super Smash Bros Melee with, you know, a developer that actually supports their competitive community. The game will be free to play on Steam with a beta set for sometime in the Fall. Go check it out, it’s gonna be sweet. Now, onto what I want!

Features

First let’s talk about features. These are things I want to see directly in the game, or related to the experience of playing the game itself. In no particular order:

Not Loot Boxes

Free-to-play models are tricky. You need a system that encourages your whales to spend lots and lots of money, but also keeps your free-play player base engaged and grinding for in-game rewards. Loot boxes are cropping up in a ton of games, largely because of their success in Overwatch. For me, loot boxes are a huge turn-off. If I like a costume or a character, I want to be able to just buy it. I don’t mind the RNG in collectible games like Hearthstone, but if I have to crack a bunch of “space crates” or whatever to get the one skin I want for Kidd, I’ll be kind of bummed.

My hope is that the team get creative with their in-game purchases. Obviously fill the game with cosmetics, but let’s go deeper. Let me buy a new challenge pack of single player content once or twice a year. Stuff like Break the Targets from Smash. Let me pay to enter a tournament that rewards some sort of exclusive in game portrait or something. Give me the ability to purchase stuff for other players directly from the in-game store. This is something people want in every game, and when it finally game to League it worked out pretty well. Games like this are lifestyle games. When you play frequently, your fellow players become your core friends, your family. Buying them that costume they want, or the new announcer pack featuring their favorite commentator would be a great gift, and a great way to support their favorite game.

Biggest part of this–let me support esports through the game. Give me a Mango-inspired costume for Kidd when he wins Genesis in Icons. When there are sponsored players, let me buy in-game portraits to show my support with some of the revenue going to support that player/team. Make exclusives that directly support the pot bonus of an upcoming tournament. If this community becomes anything like the Rivals scene or Smash as a whole, people will want ways to not only support the game, but to support the people pushing it to its highest competitive level.

Deep Training Mode

This is likely too ambitious for launch, but I want a top notch training mode. I want a training mode so deep you can watch ESAM spend 12 hours in it on stream and never be bored. Let me pick every stage, every character, set exact percents for both characters, adjust how the computer DIs attacks, etc.

Most of all, I want to be able to record inputs for the training dummy. Let me practice edgeguarding by setting the computer to respond to hits the same way over and over again, from the same position on the stage. Give me the option to set their out of shield options so I can practice punishes, or set how they edgeguard so I can practice recoveries. The more features in the training mode, the better.

Tutorial

At this point, any game that doesn’t learn from the Rivals of Aether tutorial mode is just not worth playing. This game will be free to play on Steam, you’ll get a ton of people checking it out who have never seriously played a platform fighter. Educate them intimately on the basics, but also provide character-specific tutorials. At the very least, have something in-game that links directly to YouTube videos that show the basics for your character.

Daily Quests/Achievements

I love daily quests. Between my work schedule and obsessive need to absorb esports content, I don’t get a lot of time to play games. When I do, I want to feel like I’m accomplishing something. Daily quests and achievements give that to me. Daily quests are great in a game like this because they can encourage players to branch out to other characters or try out new game modes.

What I really want, though, are achievements. This is something the Might and Magic card game, Duels of Champions, nailed perfectly. I love card games, and I logged in every day for my daily log-in bonus. However, because I couldn’t play that often and was poor as heck, I couldn’t afford enough cards to really feel like I was progressing fast enough in the ranked mode. Fortunately, the game had over a hundred achievements I could focus on, each one rewarding in-game currency or booster packs. There could be achievements for winning ranked games with each character a set number of times, winning without taking damage, getting kills with a specific special move a number of times, and so much more! Achievements would give a player like me, who finds the game super fun but will never be able to climb the ranked ladder like they want to, an alternate success condition to chase.

Story

I want to know the lore of this world. I love the wacky lore in fighting games, and even more so I adore the people who know it intimately. My hope is that Icons will reward those players who want a rich backstory for their character. Whether through single-player content or just through teases in the voice lines, make me feel that there’s a larger, cohesive world out there.

Adding to this, I pray that there is supplemental content. No one is expecting the digital shorts of Overwatch, but even in the early days League of Legends had a small written short story for each character release. Something that gave their motivations and fleshed out the world a little bit. We know the names of all the big cities on Runeterra, we know the relationships between all the characters in League. They had enough story in a game with no single player content to have an actual lore-based show-match that affected the course of the world. I want that!  If Raymer and Kidd are rivals in the story, have Leffen and ANTi settle the score for them in a best of 7. Make the result of that match have real affects on the story of the world, and make some sort of in game collectible that reflects it.

Good Patch Notes

It is baffling how many games still have awful patch notes. Document every single change in a patch, and provide developer commentary on the goal of that change. Let the players know the reasoning for changes and the goals in your design philosophy so that they can properly test changes, and provide useful feedback.

Esports

It’s in my name, obviously it’s what I care about. I will likely invest in the esports of this game more than I actually play it, so here’s what I want to see:

Weekly Online Events

Whether through ESL’s weekly series or something unique to the game, there should be an official weekly tournament with an open bracket. These events allow online warriors to get a taste of the competitive experience, and are a great spot for amateur commentators to practice their craft. I think the ESL’s Go4 series is a perfect fit for this game.

No Developer Commentary

This was tough in the early days of Infinite Crisis. The dev team did all the commentary for every tournament. They choked the amateur commentary scene, and were not entertaining in the least. Events in early beta don’t need Scar and Toph on the mic, but there will be community members with good audio setups who are willing and able. Get them involved as early as possible.

A True Circuit

This is what will truly set this game above Smash in the coming years. Nintendo is a decade behind when it comes to esports, and there is no sign in the community of banding together to create a true governing body for the competitive scene. By 2019 there should be an official global circuit for the game. I’ll probably outline a proposal for such a thing in another post once I’ve gotten my hands on the game, but for now I just want the team working towards a true circuit.

This should be something with a universal set of rules, a clear understanding of how to qualify and what events throughout the year will award points, and a big world championship finale. My hope is that the finale of the circuit also not take place at a shared event. The finals should be special for this community, not sharing the stage at Genesis or EVO with another game. Ultimately, the main purpose of this circuit should be to provide the community with a central structure, and a clear arc to a season of competition.

More Than Smash

I don’t want Icons to just be a part of the “platform fighter community”, only showing up at Smash events. I want this game to be the infection vector for gamers in every genre. Hold major tournaments at anime conventions, do an invitational sponsored by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, take the gaps in the FGC calendar that Smash avoids. We see a pitiful Smash competition at Combo Breaker, make that a key pillar of the Icons season. If Icons is going to be more than just a smash clone, that has to be reflected in the esports structure.

Official Esports Twitter

No one comes close to Riot Games on this front, but there’s so much benefit for doing it right. There needs to be an official Twitter account that provides updates during tournaments. Following tournaments on Twitter is so fun in Smash, but we have to rely on PGStats to tell us when upsets happen, and we rarely get other details outside of a bunch of vague tweets of “did that just happen?!?!”

If I want to keep up to date with a tournament stream until I get home from work, there should be one Twitter account I have to follow for those updates. It should be tweeting out set counts, upsets, clippable moments, and constant links to both the stream and the bracket.

In-Client Support

If you are playing Icons, you should know about the tournament scene. There should be a button on the homepage that let’s you watch the stream of this weekend’s circuit event from within the game. Every week the in-game landing page should be announcing tournaments, linking to registration pages, and giving you updates on how the season has progressed. If your only connection to Icons is the game itself, you should still have resources to actively follow the competitive scene.

 

 

What sort of features are you looking for in Icons? Are there any dealbreaker features for you that absolutely must be included? What is your ideal esports structure for the game?