Major League Gaming, a professional eSports organization, announced on Monday that it was acquired by video game publisher Activision Blizzard for a reported $46m, bringing MLG’s assets and infrastructure under Activision Blizzard’s Media Network.
This is the latest event in a timeline that begins on 21 October, when the publisher announced it was creating a new eSports competitive video game division chaired by former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein and senior vice president Mike Sepso of MLG. Bornstein has been a large proponent of eSports, and Activision Blizzard’s properties like Starcraft, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are competitive games. So why has the eSports community seemed less than thrilled about the acquisition in forums and comments sections all over the internet?
Major League Gaming became the butt of memes on October 2012. That month, at the game awards show broadcast on MLG.tv, journalist Geoff Keighley conducted an interview flanked on either side by five bottles of Mountain Dew, a family size bag of Doritos and a giant Halo cardboard cutout redundantly plastered with more Doritos and Mountain Dew logos. The extremely meme-able visual was screenshoted and is still disseminated widely whenever MLG comes up. The moment presented everything wrong with games journalists alleged impartiality in a media world dominated by product placement. The MLG brand will have to wipe itself clean of the residue left over from ‘doritosgate’. Three years since, a Google image search of MLG still retrieves ‘MLG #420 Swag Doritos’ memes, mocking the brand for trying to sell gamers products they’ve long been stereotyped for liking.
As eSports have expanded into the US since being popularized by professional leagues in South Korea, publishers have increasingly taken control of their properties. Riot Games, publisher of the most popular title stateside, League of Legends, is also in charge of that game’s competitive scene. The same can be said of Valve and DOTA. That Activision Blizzard are trying to fulfill MLG’s promise of creating an ESPN of eSports seems unlikely given that they don’t own the titles that are the most popular. If Activision Blizzard were to launch a platform that did not cover their competitor’s titles like DOTA2 or LOL, it would be like, as Austin Walker wrote on Giant Bomb, “ESPN being unable to cover the Super Bowl”.
Admittedly, publishers have the most to gain from their properties becoming eSports, and therefore the most to contribute. A good example of this symbiotic relationship is Valve’s to DOTA 2. By selling cosmetic costumes to DOTA’s players, Valve was able to crowdfund an $18m prize pool for its 2015 international DOTA 2 tournament. Contrary to the non-gaming public’s disbelief that this kind of money is on the line for a game, it’s necessary. You can’t have a professional sports career unless there’s something approaching professional sports money.
There’s a mutual relationship that publishers need to maintain with their titles’ respective communities and leagues that is not only appropriate, but necessary to grow the industry. On the broadcast side, Twitch accounts for the lion’s share of all streaming related game content (which includes eSports), with YouTube making moves to position itself as a competitor. Before its acquisition, MLG.tv always played second fiddle to Twitch, relying on its own dedicated player and exclusives to create an audience. This has lead to some skepticism about whether Activision Blizzard Media Network is truly trying to become an ESPN, or whether the AB Media Network is really Activision’s version of the WWE network; a separate channel altogether dedicated exclusively to their properties.
The other source of uneasiness is Activision itself. Activision has been accused of annualizing its most profitable series unnecessarily, Call of Duty being the most prominent example. The annual releases have given the publisher a reputation for milking their audiences and as a result that series competitive scene continues to shrink with each new installment of the franchise. Activision is now one of the most maligned publishers in the industry; the publisher’s own CEO acknowledged this back in 2008 and not much has changed. The company will have to change its business model if it wants to appeal to the competitive scene. Often, newer games are inferior to their old ones. People liked Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and the original Starcraft much more than either of their successors. Starcraft was played seriously for well over a decade, while the eSports scene for its sequel began to wane just two years after its release.
The most enduring eSports communities, like the ones for Counterstrike, Smash Bros Melee and Starcraft, were given time to develop into the scenes we take for granted today. Them becoming eSports was a long and organic process. These games existed before eSports was even a term, and the ‘metagames’ of each took years to emerge as players and audiences alike became more skilled at them. It took hundreds of commentating hours to come up with the shorthand names for techniques that are now widely understood by the audiences watching these games.
Publishers are now trying to capture the eSports lightning in a bottle on untested games, the most egregious example of which being the 2015 February tournament for Evolve which publisher Take2 set-up at the Penny Arcade Expo in Boston less than two weeks after its commercial release. The fanfare at PAX included LOL style commentators trying to provide live insight on a game that no one had figured the ins and outs of. Evolve turned out to be a commercial and competitive failure, in spite of its impressive set-up that day.
For Activision Blizzard to succeed in truly creating the ESPN of eSports, it’s going to take a lot more than just money and fanfare.
This article was written by Basim Usmani, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th January 2016 13.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010