At the core of every brand lies the message that it wants to carry forward while celebrating its victories in the past: while there’s probably many ways of describing it, I like to refer to it as their legacy.
In sports, legacy is applied in a romantic sense because it helps to create the myth around this thing that people are connected to. Tom Brady will always have the legacy of (at least) seven Super Bowl wins. Michael Jordan will always have the legacy of two back-to-back-to-back NBA titles. OG Esports will always have the legacy of winning The International back-to-back, when no one had ever won it twice at all before.
All of these accolades have been earned through results, which is where things get a bit shaky in esports. Because of the short-term nature of players’ careers and how long they’re attached to brands, it’s up to companies to both build communities around the celebrity of their players, yet also separate those players just enough so that their fandom don’t leave when the contracts expire.
The differences between traditional sports and esports also applies to the general audience, since they might not have always grown up with the passion of cheering for a team as a part of their household. Being able to communicate that legacies take time to build is not always easy, and their desire for results can seem loud and constant. It also doesn’t help that esports is a very young industry, and the opportunities for teams to build in a stable place (like a franchised league, where they can't be relegated) is still relatively new.
For instance, Team Liquid have one of the oldest surviving brands in esports, and also have earned a reputation as a top-tier competitor in pretty much everything they choose to compete in.
If they cannot train competitors, they are wealthy enough to lure away good players from smaller teams, because their resources means that players likely have more to gain by joining them. They have training facilities, content teams, merchandise designers, and all the connections that lead a creator, staff or player to come out better, whether the goal is to win, have a cool workplace, or have the opportunity to put your passion into your work.
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Something from… not as much
With esports’ corporate evolution over the last five-plus years (yes, I know corporate interests have always been involved with the industry, but the inflow of VC money and mainstream appeal have very much exploded), Liquid still maintains that “cool” factor without feeling like it’s cast off where they’ve come from.
There’s no scientific way to quantify this “cool” aura, which is partially why I like talking about branding so much. The feel of a company and the energy they put into things like their graphics, content or merchandise, supplement or take away from what their players do, and it all needs to come together for it to work.
Taking stock of teams from when I came into the industry in 2012, there’s no end to the amount of brands that have either died, or remain as a bloated, rotting corpse. They might sponsor a roster and pop up when you least expect them, making you think “oh yeah, I recognize that name”, right before their talent gets poached by someone bigger.
What I’ve noticed (and respected) about Liquid is that they still maintain TeamLiquid.net, their StarCraft hub, and still participate in esports that many people would consider “dead”, like StarCraft and Quake Live. They have probably the most functional esports wiki in Liquipedia, which I use daily — I routinely appreciate it, because then I don’t have to use the garbage fire that is Fandom’s wiki system more than I have to.
Also, (and while I’m not about to call people out), there’s some performers on their roster that you look at and think “Okay, why are they still part of this team? How much can they really be doing?”
The thing is, Liquid see things in those people, games, and communities they take part in. I’m not sure whether it’s a case of “we have money, let’s burn some of it, who cares?” or not, but I’d like to think that it’s more “It isn’t about the profit differential, it’s about what interests us, and about the soul of esports.”
Maybe those are the same thing, just worded a bit more kinder.
That soul concept is a bit of a touchy subject with me as I grow more jaded about corporate esports, but I’d like to believe there’s still some possibility for the romantic notion of the hobby — a place for gamers to find connection, ahead of everything else.
Regardless of whether Liquid like to burn money, or whether they are soulless corporate esports on the inside, their actions have earned them a legacy that has contains a lot of goodwill. I have friends who still attach themselves to Liquid based on the experiences they had “back in the Brood War days” on the forums, in match threads, and in fan clubs.
To them, Liquid was the venue to connect with people they care about, and share moments with. That connection is not easily earned, just like winning a World Championship.
Too often, I think teams forget about the necessities of building both sides, because the competitive results are much more visible and immediately beneficial; I can tell you that a PR person loves writing a press release that says "hey, we won a ton of money this weekend."
But by building strong brand and protecting it by having people on staff who understand that ongoing mission, you're likely going to be much more effective at making your company stand the test of time.
With those bloated zombie teams I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t necessarily matter that they won a tournament early in the game’s competitive life. Once their stars leave for greener and better-salaried pastures, there’s no legacy left over — the team didn’t build beyond something that is ultimately fragile and fleeting.
So maybe consider this your homework for the next couple weeks until our next issue: think about what connects you to a team, and if you've let a company into your heart for a long period of time, figure out what they did to earn it. If someone's overstayed their welcome, you're always free to let them go — but I think that's another issue entirely.
I wrote something new on my blog this week for the first time since July, and I'm pretty proud of that; I recently finished Metal Gear Solid V, and wanted to consider it as a precursor to Death Stranding mechanically. I don't have a huge amount of bandwidth for multiplayer games at the moment, and something about MGSV's online features just irked me. Give it a read.
I appreciate the support for the newsletter and my Patreon since PlusHeart has launched; again, contributors (whether you're being a patron or subscribing through Substack) get an audio version of the newsletter to listen to.
Things on my reading docket:
DSM-5-TikTok by The Frontier Psychiatrists and Carlene MacMillan, MD
Apophenia by Edward Snowden
This is Not a T-shirt by Bobby Hundreds