I was recently asked to appear at the Annual General Meeting of the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC). For those that don’t know who this organization is they are a group that facilitate the prevention of the many actions that can compromise the integrity of esports as a whole, such as match-fixing, cheating or the manipulation of betting markets for financial gain. Principally they provide a channel of communication for all betting sites that sign up, sharing information about potentially rigged games, strange betting patterns and other tip-offs. Incredibly despite this being what I believe is an essential service to the space there are still people resistant to co-operating with them, suspicious of their associations with ESL and MTG despite their being no ulterior motive that I’ve ever been able to detect beyond trying to keep our industry as clean as possible.
I first met their founder, Ian Smith, at the MLG major in Columbus Ohio in 2016 where he had been tasked with doing a “threat assessment” in the world of Counter-Strike betting by several parties such activities would affect. Needless to say, he was shocked with what he saw. Having come from the world of sports, particularly cricket, where he had twenty years of experience working as a lawyer specializing in regulation, he was astounded that there were little to no safeguards in place. Had it not been for his diligent work at this time the problems arising from the world of esports betting could have been a lot worse. To try and promote the important work he was doing I was the journalist that gave him his first public interview in episode 14 of my podcast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w6mw6HdHdc). Despite all this, Ian remains one of esports unsung heroes with only diehard industry folk knowing who he is.
Fortunately, more and more people are starting to learn about and sign up to ESIC and it brings together both endemic and newcomers to the space, all with varying degrees of expertise. With so many new opportunities provided through venture capital funding, I made the tone of my speech one that was designed to temper expectations. I’ve lived through the esports bubbles before. I’ve seen what can come from unchecked spending and unsecured promises. While I trusted most people attending the ESIC AGM would be on the same page as me, I wanted to provide both a broad history lesson and a call to arms to think sensibly about what projects we pursue and exactly how much we spend in pursuit of them.
As a few people present requested copies of my speech I thought I would provide VP Esports with a copy for publication.
Hello ladies and gentlemen,
It’s great to be here tonight talking in the presence of so many esteemed colleagues. When I was asked to come and speak here before you I was expecting it to be perhaps to provide some insight into match-fixing prevention measures or something else reflective of my reporting. Instead, I was given the rather vague and nebulous brief to speak about the future of esports. Now I didn’t have the heart to tell Ian the truth. That I am many things. The greatest esports journalist who ever put pen to paper, sure. The most successful esports host who made it to American network television on an Emmy nominated show. Also true. And of course, I am the most humble and grounded personality in the whole industry.
But I am not a clairvoyant. While I’ve always believed that esports would grow and prevail during my fifteen years working in it there are many things that I could not have foreseen and had I been able to I’d already be retired, sipping cocktails on yacht. Fortunately for the purposes of this speech I don’t need to be able to see the future for esports to tell you exactly what it entails. All I need to do is look at esports past to see esports future.
I’m sure you will have read many white papers, or even had many a dinner conversation, telling you how esports is the next big thing, a robust investment that can’t fail. I heard similar things said when I entered the scene at the tail end of the CPL days when games developers were throwing money at anyone who could present their game to what they saw as a hardcore audience and by extension consumer. Organizations that housed teams suddenly found themselves presented with non-endemic sponsors for soft drinks, tech companies, snack foods. Professional players, curiously dubbed cyberathletes, appeared on boxes and cans. There was unbridled optimism, a smugness emanating from all the people that had labored through those formative years, the same kind you get from those you know who made tens of thousands of dollars on an $8 investment in bitcoin.
And then, it collapsed. There was no return of investment because many people had pocketed the money and not put it into rebuilding the infrastructure. Even delivering on the most basic of promises seemed beyond a lot of the people who genuinely believed their future involved nothing but sports cars, Caribbean holidays and featuring on the cover of magazines. Sponsors recoiled when presented with this assortment of failed office managers, grifters and the woefully inept. They took their check books and left and for the next few years the legacy of the first Golden Age of esports was a sizeable extension on the side of Angel Munoz’s house.
Then there was the bubble created in 2007. A smattering of mainstream media coverage and an uptick in gaming peripheral sales seemed to set off the next gold rush. A subsidiary of the Murdoch owned News Corp decided they would invest $60 million into creating a global, televised league, with newly created regional based franchises, that would cover multiple gaming titles. Overnight team owners were presented with the opportunity to sell their brands, to take a job for a media giant who were all too happy to overpay for anyone with any credibility. People who had missed the first golden age of esports money made up for it here. Qualifiers were played in the Playboy mansion, a day that the nerdy elite would never forget. Mainstream sports broadcasters came in for guest appearances. Glamour models explained the rules for carefully selected studio audiences. Other people saw this project as proof that the industry was ready and more sponsors and investors flocked to the scene. After all, how could one of the wealthiest companies in the world be wrong? What did they know that everyone else didn’t?
Unfortunately, the doomed Championship Gaming Series paid little respect to the endemic ecosystem, strong arming media outlets, breaking apart established teams, rigging draft outcomes for drama-based storylines and changing the established rules of the games that esports fans loved. They even fined players for having the temerity to play games that the CGS didn’t support seeing this as an act of mutiny. For all the garish glitz their five-year plan made it half way through and it was almost certainly doomed to failure even if the global recession of 2009 didn’t drive a knife through its rotten heart.
So now we’re here again. Venture Capital groups falling over themselves to invest in anything and everything esports. The word “esports” is forced into things that would be ignored otherwise. Sports stars and celebrities want the joy of being a franchise owner without the billions needed to do it in the mainstream sports world. I am told daily that this time it’s real, that we are now legitimately too big to fail. Some of those people, though very few I must admit, were the same ones who said it two times prior. I smile and nod and order another drink.
So, the first thing I can tell you about esports future is this – that it is certainly going to have vast amounts of money poured into it, from all directions and different sources with many different goals. Some will be long term believers, some will be looking to do quick asset flips. A lot of you in this room will get very, very rich if you know what you’re doing. But don’t think for a second that cannot dry up tomorrow. One slight fluctuation in the insane mathematics of world economics, one change to the law in China, one import tax thoughtlessly levied here in the US and in a Thanos-esque snap of the fingers half of this industry will go away while the remaining half stays and rebuilds once more. Money will not make us immune to that.
Secondly, I can look to mainstream sports to see what our future looks like. A hunger for content will drive us forward because the esports generation consumes content like the most religious of sports fans. At a time when cable cutters are forcing TV networks to innovate, when ratings and ad sales for television are in decline, pay per view sports remains an aberration, continuing to increase its profits year upon year and, as a result, command more money for its exclusivity.
But the money flooding into sports has, naturally, brought with it corruption at all levels. In Italian soccer we see referees and players involved in match fixing, we see agents taking money for incredibly dubious transfers, some even owning players outright through shell corporations. We see money from sports clubs being syphoned off to settle debts for owners’ businesses, suspected money laundering. In the United Kingdom, even with what is laughably called a “fit and proper person’s test”, a serial criminal like Carson Yeung, convicted for money laundering, was able to buy Birmingham City. Esports has no fit and proper person’s test. Our criminals are already entrenched.
We have made many of the same mistakes of late. Players remain underpaid across the industry as a whole, letting practices like match-fixing take hold in scenes ill equipped to police it. A lack of concern about sponsors has raised a generation of children who think nothing of gambling, emotionally incapable of dealing with the inevitable losses. Positive coverage and the keeping of secrets are freely purchasable on the journalistic open market as companies fight to stay alive in a world of ad block. Competitive leagues, acting in their capacity as employers, ignore employment law, bully, and blackmail to make sure their valuation stays high. The future of esports is the future of sports. The wealthy and the corrupt will try and use all their advantages to further their own interests. They will do everything they can, like those before them, to line their own pockets with little concern for the everyday fans and workers who aren’t here for the money but genuinely here because it is something they love. Their indelible boot print will be left on the grass roots. It is just how it is. As my economics lecturer Mike Sayles told me “Greed is just human nature. Richard, there will never be a fucking utopia.” God bless that man.
All of this sounds rather pessimistic, but I imagine most of you listening might find this refreshing. After all, this is a time when people will tell you esports is amazing and without problems, that the sky is the limit. And they aren’t wrong. But it is important that we have a sober moment and think about a future that we’ve seen in this industry before or, if you are new, in the grim headlines about FIFA and beyond.
But here’s why despite this I’m optimistic about esports. Despite our youth, we’re actually ahead of the curve on being able to identify these issues. It is our experienced veterans, and not the bullshitters from LinkedIn, that will have an active role in shaping our future, applying lessons learned only a relatively short time ago to this third new dawn. We have the entire history of sports to draw upon and now we have people from that world coming here to pass on their expertise. We have an expanding demographic, younger players picking it up at one end and older, wiser heads at the other, fathers and mothers raising their children to love competitive gaming and fully aware of the perils and pitfalls out there in cyberspace, some that perhaps befell them in their youth. We know more and we’re learning faster than those who went before us.
Finally, I will add that for the first time I believe the industry is poised to take better care of itself. There are many watchdogs now who are vigilant not just about who is coming into our space but why they are doing so. We have voices with the courage to rock the boat and ask isn’t there more to this than money, people who have heard the fable of the farmer who killed the goose that laid the golden egg. And integrity is now a word often used when we speak of this business. I didn’t hear it much in 2005, 2007, or even 2012. Thanks to groups like ESIC I see, for the first time, people willing to listen to people like me.
So, for good or ill the future of esports is here and it’s you. Only you can decide if you want to build an extension on your house or a more profound legacy.
Disclaimer: Richard Lewis’ opinions and views do not reflect those of VPEsports.