PlusHeart Issue #13: Is the current esports athlete enough?
Is the "sports" in "esports" at risk for a spiritual exorcism?
A couple weeks ago, I got laid off from my job. In the process of finding a new one, I’ve interviewed for a couple esports positions, despite saying that I’d retired from the industry last year after a particularly bad case of burnout. Part of starting PlusHeart was to see if I could still participate in a way that felt good.
Through these job interviews, I’ve gotten a closer look as to how the esports industry is changing, and how it’s followed video games in general towards mass-market appeal. What’s been a bit disheartening is that I’ve been having trouble figuring out where I’ve fit into all that; the vibe feels different. Things don’t feel as fun. I know that’s likely a symptom of burnout and growing up — that’s for me to deal with.
Where this comes into this week’s issue is that I wanted to explore the role of the sportsperson in esports, and whether they can survive that transition to mass-market.
An esports team is about selling space. The bigger the audience, the more space they can sell to an advertiser.
The team doesn’t usually make much money (if any) from winning competition.
However, winning competition usually grows a fandom, and a bigger fandom means more audience to sell space to.
However, with mass-market appeal comes the idea that a company needs to expand the facets that they involve themselves with in their fans’ lives. The idea of becoming a “lifestyle brand” is something that most (if not all) teams are considering right now; you want to be the lens that a person is viewing their entire lives through.
I guess my question boils down to whether the esports player can satisfy the goals of the esports industry at the moment, and my gut is telling me “no.” As the needs of a brand expands, there’s going to have to be a change (or well, an eventual change, as player generations advance) as to what’s asked of them, and where their priorities are suggested to be.
At the moment, an esports player’s goals are at least some of the following:
Win. By winning, they generate prestige.
Win. By winning, they generate income.
Survive. Gain enough income to secure housing, and a future for themselves.
Survive. Gain enough prestige to up their stock as a player, meaning more security and “benefit of the doubt” in case they don’t win.
Manage their time. This means doing the things that their team requires of them outside of competition.
Manage their time. This means not doing as many things that their team requires of them as possible, if they view it conflicting with 1 or 2.
Depending on the personality of the player and whether they value prestige (or the chase of the competition) vs income, the actions of the player are fluid.
I guess what I’m trying to bring up is the conflict in the spirituality of those goals compared to the teams that've hired them. For an esports brand, their goals feel much more narrow:
Gain income with the intent to attract investment.
Gain income with the intent on satisfying investors.
Gain prestige through winning, with the goal of gaining more audience.
Use audience to generate income.
Since audience = income, and income = prestige that attracts greater income, the nature of the competition becomes a means to an end, and that conflicts with the rankings of priorities of the players. While there are band-aid solutions to this lack of alignment, I’m wondering what’s going to happen when something permanent is needed.
For instance, many teams will hire streamers that don’t compete at all, since their daily inventory of space won’t fluctuate as much. They’re also more geared towards being entertaining and available for “playing ball” first, rather than prioritizing winning above all else.
But at the end of the day, they still aren’t "actual players", and a streamer that pulls in 1000-2000 viewers (which, I mean, let’s be real, is getting to be a harder benchmark to reach as streaming becomes more saturated) still isn’t the “big fish” that these brands want.
In an ideal world, the player who’s on a broadcast to millions of people would have the same level of participation and presence as a streamer who’s only concerned with the community-building/entertainment. And in that ideal world, the latter wouldn't come at the expense of performance during the former.
Traditional sports have this issue, and it’s clear that athletes that participate more than others stand to benefit: Shaq’s ability to generate revenue from endorsements is legendary, and stars who “become part of the [city] community” tend to have more leverage when it comes to the negotiating table.
However, you still have the players that shun media participation — even if it's in their contracts — and it tends to be fine, as long as those teams are winning championships.
I feel the difference might come down to the vibe (or well, perceived vibe) of the team’s ownership group. Teams that are perceived to be “just about the money” are viewed to be bad, and teams that still maintain the magic of “chasing that championship” are seen to be more authentic.
Obviously every company is going to be about that profit, but I guess it’s a matter of how well they’re hiding the negatives, or by some miracle, they actually care about both. It seems to be a more demanding thing in general: the site or service or space that is created with the best of intentions gets warped when it actually needs to self-sustain, or has created expectations for its continued survival.
I might be so cynical/jaded at this point that I’m not sure that actually exists at a high level in esports; I’m willing to admit that my biases are a little high in this area.
I was legitimately surprised by the swift killing of the soccer “European Super League” in 2021, mostly because the argument was that it “kills the spirit of football being accessible to anyone.” This seemed like a purely emotional and sentimental argument, and it actually worked; people believed strongly in the promotion/relegation system that, in theory, meant that any soccer team could find itself competing at the highest level.
If the same thing were to happen in esports (the consolidation of power among top brands), I cannot imagine that there would be such reverence to that “grassroots spirit” that grew the industry to that point. It feels like that kind of attitude is based on nostalgia or rose-tinted glasses for something that's long gone.
But I guess I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
I’m debating taking a Twitter break in the next little while, mostly because I’ve never done that before, and I want to see how much it affects my mental health. My depression/anxiety always seems to get worse when I’m unemployed, and I think Twitter might be exacerbating these factors.
I’m still streaming on Saturdays at 11AM EST. I threw in a stream last week for IAteYourPie’s’s Ironmon Challenge Run ruleset, and will be writing something about it in the future.
I signed up to Juked.gg, mostly out of curiosity, and to find more places to share my work. I think this might be antithetical to what I need to do to address anxiety/depression, but hey.
See you soon.