This is a question I’ve been asked on a variety of platforms. Most recently, Team Zealot’s warrior player, Mopsio, asked me to follow up on why there are still so many unsigned teams in the HGC. It seems odd–HOTS has a pretty solid player base, the HGC is a well-structured league that provides consistent, reliable content, and the broadcasts regularly reach over 20,000 views. Why do orgs seem so resistant to jump into Heroes of the Storm? Today, we’re going to dig deeper into that question to find out what the problems are today, and how we as a community, and Blizzard as the developer, can help change this.
Before we get into it, I should note that much of what we’ll be talking about today is going to be informed speculation on my part. I have had a few conversations with teams and organizations in the past couple months, but this blog is not a journalistic entity. I didn’t have the time or resources to conduct interviews with the CEOs of orgs like TSM or CLG to confirm my suspicions. That said, I have been involved in esports long enough to know what things are attractive to esports orgs, and to see what games they gravitate towards. We’re going to be making mostly educated guesses at the root issues, so feel free to challenge me on those in the Reddit thread, and we’ll discuss from there. With that said, onto the stuff!
How Esports Orgs Make Money
To understand why an org might sign a team in a particular game, we have to examine how those organizations actually generate revenue. Their primary revenue stream comes from two things: advertising, and venture capital. Esports orgs sell space on jerseys, player streams, websites, and social media to any brand that wants that space. Look at an esports jersey and note how many different brand names are on it. To sell that ad space, they need eyeballs on all of their advertising platforms.
The other way that many esports orgs are staying afloat now is through investment from venture capital. Organizations with stockpiles of cash are looking at how quickly esports is growing as an industry. They are buying up esports teams now because they predict that those organizations will be worth millions of dollars within the next 10 years. They are willing to pay salaries and overhead costs now because they expect to recoup their investment and then some in the future. For an org to attract venture capital, they have to prove that they are stable, and that they can build a strong brand across a wide range of games.
Esports organizations also diversify their revenue through specific brand deals, merchandizing, content creation, and tournament prize money. However, their primary interests are how to sell more ad space, and how to gain interest from a venture capital firm.
Game Popularity Isn’t Everything
Often, when people engage me in this discussion, the first thing they bring up is the game’s popularity. Blizzard is a huge developer, the game gets tons of cross-promotion with other Blizzard titles, and it’s usually in the top 15-20 games on Twitch.
What we have to understand is that game popularity and stream viewership are not the only things that matter to an esports organization. That popularity means nothing if there’s no way for an organization to sell ad space. This is one area where HOTS really struggles. Though the game is relatively popular, the opportunities for advertising are surprisingly limited. The HGC is an online league. There are no cameras on the players themselves to show the brands on their jerseys. The only time one of your players is even visible is if they win and get the player interview. Then, the interview is on whatever webcam your player has at home, showing mostly their face, not the jersey with the sponsors on it. The only time an org would get their jerseys seen is at one of the international events. Those are highly restricted to the top teams, so if you sponsor a 5th place team, you’re essentially never going to get any visibility through the HGC stream on your sponsors.
Further, the popularity of the game and the HGC have not translated to other advertising opportunities. There are still many HGC pros who do not stream regularly. Even when they do, pro player streams do not get the view numbers they should. Community streamers like Grubby and chu8 consistently out-perform any pro player stream. Why sign a team if half the players don’t stream, and those that do won’t provide you with any decent metrics to sell to advertisers?
Social media is the same way. Here are a couple Twitter numbers to consider
These numbers are terrible for a game and esport as popular as Heroes of the Storm. ESAM, Smash 4 player for Panda Global, isn’t even in the top 10 and he has over 43 thousand followers. Srey can’t go to Renegades and tell them he’s worth a $20,000 per year salary based on his stream numbers or Twitter following. Neither is marketable. Pair that with the lack of opportunities to market sponsors to the 20k viewers of the HGC, and you have an esport that is unattractive to sponsors.
Lack of Stability
The top 3-4 teams in both NA and EU are signed by reasonably strong organizations. Even if Team Solomid wanted to come into Heroes, it would cost them a major investment to buy GFE’s or Team Freedom’s roster. They would have to buy out every player’s contract in addition to their standard costs of media, gear, and paying the remainder of the salaries owed to the players under those contracts. So, if they can’t buy a team that’s in contention for first, they have to get a mid-tier team.
This is a huge risk in the HGC right now. Let’s say four teams are locked up or cost-prohibitive, so you only have access to teams 5-8. Two of those teams are going to be guaranteed to face relegation every six months. Success is so fluid in a moba due to the frequency of patches. Your team could be firmly in fifth place, and then suddenly find themselves in a meta where their roster can’t find success, and six months later they are out of the league.
Your team could also just implode due to a lack of success. If the team disbands, the organization loses its spot in the HGC and an open division team is brought up. As an org, you have no guarantee that that open division team will sign with you, or if they are even worth signing. You could secure a firm fifth place team with potential to climb into the top four, and then suddenly lose your spot in the HGC because three of your players decide to retire, or get signed by other organizations during free agency. With the way the HGC is structured, there is no way for an organization to protect their investment if they sign a team in the bottom four.
You Can’t Buy Wins
Before you start typing your reply, let me say that I’m not actually entirely against this. Blizzard’s strict rules on roster changes restrict teams ability to disband a roster and buy themselves a competitive crew. We’ve seen this happen a number of times in League of Legends. A team qualifies through the relegation process, and the team and league spot are purchased by an organization.
The org then immediately blows up the roster and uses their resources to bring in top talent from around the world to form a super team. It definitely sucks for the players who fought through the promotion series only to have their dream taken away, but it is a way for an organization to get into the league on the cheap and then immediately protect their investment. In the HGC, orgs are completely at the mercy of their roster’s strength and stability.
Blizzard is Scary and Unpredictable
Again I have no confirmation, but I think the Overwatch League is scaring a lot of esports organizations. Blizzard makes moves in their esports structure that are difficult to predict. It is tough to gauge where they are going next with any of their games. At this point, we don’t even know for certain that the 2018 HGC will look anything like this year. Hearthstone is such a popular game on Twitch that the competitive structure doesn’t actually matter that much to organizations because they’ll earn all their investment back through a player’s content. Heck, many organizations sign Hearthstone players that don’t even attend tournaments.
The same is not true for the HGC. Streams and content are not popular enough to carry anyone, everything hinges on having a spot near the top of the HGC. An organization’s ability to market their team depends entirely on how Blizzard structures the HGC. Every year so far the Heroes esports scene has been shaken up in major ways. There’s no consistency yet, making it difficult for an organization to know how to value their long-term investment in Heroes.
Players Aren’t People
One of my biggest complaints with the HGC is the lack of focus on creating human storylines for the players. To me, this is the number one thing holding back Heroes as an esport, and preventing organizations from taking an interest in the HGC.
Watch this video quickly. This is the announcement and hype trailer for the first season of the League of Legends Championship Series.
So, your first instinct is probably to talk about how dumb it is to have a bunch of esports pros running through a warehouse to advertise a gaming league. We made all those jokes back in 2013, so move past it. What’s important here, is that everything in this video is about the players. There is no gameplay, no highlights, no crowds, no caster commentary piped in. It’s just the players as humans. The running represents how these people are going to be battling against one another to achieve their goals. It tells you that when you tune into the LCS, you aren’t just coming to watch high level League of Legends. You’re coming to watch Reginald and Hotshot, to support Snoopeh and Saintvicious. I have such a deep emotional connection to these players that I still get chills watching this video, even with how ridiculous it is. Whatever Ocelote is running towards, I want him and his dumb scarf to get there first!
Now look at the announcement trailer for the HGC.
In this trailer, you see the faces of players, but notice the drastic differences between the two. The HGC trailer has faster cuts. It shows faces, but quickly. It then cuts to crowd shots, or to the caster desk. The only time you can really emotionally connect with a human face in the trailer is when Zuna is shotcalling for two seconds. This tells us that the HGC isn’t about people, it’s about a spectacle. You should tune in to be entertained and watch something big and exciting, not because you care about the people involved.
The HGC did a lot of things right in its first year, and learned from many of the early mistakes of the LCS, but this is one area where they completely dropped the ball. Even if your team isn’t winning, you can still market the players if people have an emotional connection to them. The HGC has done virtually nothing to build an emotional connection with any player.
So How Do I Fix It?
As fans, I’ve talked a number of times about how you can help the HGC grow and generate more interest from organizations. Follow players, watch their streams, tweet about the HGC, discuss on Reddit. The HOTS playerbase as a whole shows very little interest in our esport. Keep working on that above all else. Today, I want to focus on any player who’s reading this wondering how they can influence the problems we’ve addressed above. Here are a few simple things you can do to become more attractive to an organization.
- Do Twitter better—Not to pick on Srey, but his last tweet was on August 12th. He hasn’t even replied to a tweet or retweeted something since the 14th. His bio just says “I do things”. There’s no link to his YouTube content anywhere, nothing about his profile tells you that he is a professional player for Superstars. You have to grow your following on social media, so post often, and provide content that is worth sharing.
- Have a face–if you stream, always have a webcam and microphone. At least once a week post a video or selfie that includes your face on social media. It is really easy on the internet to separate what we see from the human behind it. You have to force people to think about you as a person. When I think about Fury, I shouldn’t see ETC landing a mosh pit, I should see a smiling, curly-haired dude with some degree of facial hair, probably underneath a tweet about how he thinks his girlfriend is real cool.
- Stream–you have no idea how important this is. Even if you only get five viewers, you are infinitely more valuable to an organization if you stream. I can get into the specifics about this with you privately, but this is one thing that I have 100% confirmation on from multiple organizations. You matter so much more if you stream. If there’s a member of your team that doesn’t stream regularly, you’ve got to work to fix that sooner rather than later.
- Be vulnerable–share your emotions with your fans. When you win, post a video of how excited you are. When you are frustrated, share that frustration or disappointment with your followers.
- Know your value–if you don’t stream and don’t have followers, and you’re near the bottom of the league, understand that right now you just don’t offer a ton to an organization. Either fix that, or be willing to get into a 6-month deal with a smaller org who can help set you up with better gear, some marketing help for your personal brand, and be a next step towards a better org.
- Share information–every player should know the deals of every other player. Don’t break contracts if there’s some sort of non-disclosure thing, but there really shouldn’t be. In this industry, knowledge is power. When a new team signs with an org, find out the details. Share the details if your team gets signed. Disclose your salary and benefits to your peers so everyone understands their value when entering into a negotiation. Right now, the orgs hold 100% of the power. This is a way you can bring some of that power back to the unsigned players. Then, when you enter into a negotiation, ask “why” alot. Why do you think this is a fair salary offer for us, why do you want to sign our team, why should our prize money be split with you 60-40 instead of 70-30? Even if you don’t sign with that organization, you’ll understand more about how they value your team.
I remain hopeful for the 2018 season of the HGC. The cheer program, the consistent growth and balancing of the game, these all point towards a game that is on the rise. I suspect we will see several new strong organizations enter Heroes over the next year, but to get our players what they really deserve, we have to keep working to make HOTS more attractive to the things that esports organizations desire.