About three weeks ago, the FGC was hit by some big news regarding Echo Fox, one of if not the largest and most prolific E-Sports organization to host fighting game players:
“Organizational realignment.” It sure sounds nice, doesn’t it? Clinical, professional, unbiased. But don’t let the fancy wording fool you: this is an old song with new lyrics. We’ve heard it in a more dire form from Circa, we’ve heard it in video form from the weirdly hoodie-clad VP of Splyce, from EVB Gaming, The Steam Co, MadCatz (although they might be back on the come-up?), Yomi Gaming, the list goes on and on. And these are all just in the past three years! The verbiage may change, but the subtext is always very clear: it wasn’t financially feasible to keep investing in the FGC, so we’re shutting down.
My bias in this matter will be hard to hide, so I won’t even try: one of the people let go by Echo Fox was a dear friend of mine, Jivan “Theo” Karapetian. Echo Fox was his main source of income, and if his tweets are anything to go by, he was not given any prior notice, and in fact had his travel booked by the organization not 12 hours before they let him go.
It’s a shitty way to do business, and while most of the other players who were released didn’t have such an obvious tell into what was going on, I’m willing to bet they didn’t get any notice either. Legally, I’m sure it’s perfectly fine; these guys all signed contracts, and I’m sure there is one line buried in a paragraph containing enough legalese to get Alan Dershowitz aroused that states that the organization can let any player go at any time for any reason. But still, if you’re Theo, what are you supposed to take from this? No organization should be the kind where you never know when your number’s up, especially if they pay you enough for it to be your sole income; if the amount I’ve heard for an Echo Fox player salary is accurate, I should never have went to college! But what good is that salary if there isn’t some base form of protection for the players, like any sort of benefits or even simple performance review? How are we supposed to take these people with money seriously if they don’t seem to take their business seriously?
I wanted to think that maybe this announcement would be the one where people would finally stop and go “Okay, what was this organization thinking?”, but that’s not exactly what happened.
I understand that these are guys with big platforms, so just saying wildly speculative stuff would be uncouth at best, but to say that an organization may have invested more than what was feasible is “vastly overstepping” what should be appropriate discourse, or that there’s “very little reason” to be critical of Echo Fox’s large talent dump? I’m all for the power of positive thinking, but it seemed very strange to me that even well-known FGC figures were kind of just blowing past the announcement as “welp, shit happens!” and “Don’t say anything until we can confirm all the facts!” There is this myth that big money will stay away if the rabble gets to be too confrontational, and I’m not saying these guys believe that, but I don’t think hand-waving the situation away is beneficial, either.
We’re always told that the FGC is growing all the time, and that we’re in a veritable gold rush of opportunities to make it into a career. Yet time and again, we see notable name brands scoop up a few FGC players and really start to aggressively expand, only to shrink or die out at an equally fast pace. I understand that any kind of business is built on the bones of those that came before it, but in the past three years, nobody seems to really be building anything and the graveyard is getting awful full. At what point do we take these large organizations to task for throwing money around like it’s going out of style, then just pulling a “whoops, my bad,” a year or a couple of years later? Especially since it tends to come at the expense of the player?
It should be understood that play is rarely, if ever, what these orgs care about. It’s important in a communal sense, since that is what’s respected and what draws eyes to a player, but the money is not in inconsistent tournament earnings unless you’re a legitimate phenom IE SonicFox. Players on teams are expected to essentially become influencers for a brand, going all-in on whatever that brand sells and totally investing in it while being at the whim of people that aren’t invested in them nearly as as much. The sad truth is that with the exception of a few titles, fighting games don’t really move the needle as far as overall game sales or casual viewing on major streaming platforms. Dragonball FighterZ, released in January, was the best selling fighting game released this year, but compared to the greater video game releases, its probably ranked somewhere down near top twenty. If that and Street Fighter V, which has had a well-documented struggle to meet sales expectations, are the two biggest games in the scene, I’m sure that most really big money advertisers, your Cokes and your Intels, are going to take their business elsewhere, and they have.
As Jason Rice, co-founder of the independent platform fighter studio Wavedash Games, puts it, E-Sports is ultimately charity, in most cases. There is strong evidence that this industry will become a big money-maker, but everyone seems to have a different opinion on when and how exactly that will happen. While that debate is raging on, the people who publish the games are making the most money, while the organizations that sponsor players are relying mostly on ad money, which usually comes from sponsored videos and jerseys slathered in enough logos to give Nascar drivers whiplash. But even charity has its limits, and as we move more and more toward data-driven analytics being the king of the marketplace, a simple plug isn’t going to do it anymore for most of these advertisers; they want to see the hard data and figure out who’s actively purchasing their product and not just seeing an ad. This is all to say that the advertisers could save a lot of money by buying up ad space on social media platforms, an action with proven and steady returns on investment, instead of paying out money to teams and players who would serve as influencers that might convert investments into ad revenue. At best, you’ll see at least a minor return investing in games with far larger audiences and players, like League of Legends or Overwatch, then a fighting game.
You’ll notice that I’ve really been avoiding using the term “person” here, because that really is not the point. Much like a corporation whose only interest is the bottom line, these big organizations have frequently shown that, to them, players are really only as good as how much money they can make you, and if you don’t have an intimate knowledge of how to market products to a mass audience, you are no good. On-the-job-training? Taking responsibility for these young people’s lives? Forging the skills and abilities for a long-term career with the organization?
I’m being a little harsh here, since all new businesses inevitably have growing pains, but really, you have to question how many times these organizations has to fold before someone gets wise to the unsustainable practices of them. Most of these E-Sports teams real involved in the FGC are in what I’d call the “Good Vibes” category. They don’t make products except clothing and other tchotchkes, and rely on both ad money and most likely a generous venture capital investment to keep afloat. When asked what the brand does, you get a lot of nice-sounding platitudes and sentiment about how the team wants to set a cool and fun example for others. For example, from the “About” section of the website for the now-defunct Circa E-Sports:
Good use of buzzwords like “community” and “team synergy,” but it still leaves your head scratching as to what exactly this brand does besides play games well. Money won’t magically show up if you enforce a positive image, but it seems like that is what the farm is bet on. Most teams have this same kind of page, from Team UYU to Noble to even Echo Fox. I’m positive that it’s mostly a holdover from general E-Sports being founded on the idea of teams hunkering together in houses or training together to form a family-like atmosphere, but that doesn’t really apply to the FGC, where the only exception to that rule was probably Yomi Gaming. That company also was done within a year due to, shocker, a not very sustainable idea for business.
Now I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Most of those “Good Vibes” organizations don’t pay their players active salaries, and instead offer little bonuses like comped travel and maybe sending them equipment that is relevant to the brand, in exchange for streaming and repping the org in tournaments with a shirt and whatnot. And that’s cool, I doubt most players are really betting the farm on those kinds of sponsorships. You still have to wonder, however, if those organizations are at least trying to teach their players how to market themselves as a brand, because clearly that’s the most important thing in this dog-eat-dog E-Sports world. Being good in the right game will pay the big bucks sometimes, but the key to sustainability is finding the right marketing hook, and I don’t think that’s something that comes naturally to people who were plucked from playing games in their room. At the same time, the typical branding patterns that may work for Overwatch and LoL players may not quite work for FGC players, so experimentation and high-level understanding of analytics are also going to also be important skills to pick up. But if the org is just content on paying you to go to a few tourneys a year and stream with the logo up, then I feel like this cycle of middling returns will just continue. Because of that, players will bounce from org to org, seemingly understanding that there is never any security in them because the threat of the money being cut off is always lingering.
Ultimately, the problem is that the current model of how E-Sports works, in all forms, is that the revenue that is earned only goes to publishers, those who can consistently find work as middle management-types, or players that can win consistently. The other guys – the streamers, the tournament organizers, the non-phenom players, even the corporate sponsors – receive a very, very small amount of it. Investors pouring in money based on hype is exciting, but expecting that hype alone to drive the business is showing increasingly poor dividends. Seeing hacks like Richard Lewis basically say “Lol investors will throw money at anything, if the FGC can’t get that it’s their fault” seems to imply that everyone benefiting from E-Sports kind of knows that this is all a dog and pony show, and that the best way to succeed is taking what money you can make for yourself, and don’t worry about things sticking around, ’cause they won’t. I don’t need to tell you how shitty that is for the health of a community and its players.
Look, as much as I seem to rail against this E-Sports thing, the thing I’m really speaking out against is the very exploitative and chaotic atmosphere it creates for the most important part of the culture: the players and organizers who are expected to help make the industry profitable these organizations. I’ll admit I’m guilty saying mocking things about those who would want to make E-Sports a living, but how can I not empathize with someone who is lured in with a life-changing, salaried position to do what they love? And how am I not angered when that is soured by poor business decisions and an incomplete vision? It’s very, very easy to say “Well, you should have known it wouldn’t last” with hindsight, but if a guy like Rick Fox or Drake is telling you that he has a plan, who wouldn’t be all in? These are serious guys, they have lots of money and careers as businessmen/athletes, right? And yet, when I see swaths of people getting released without any notice from an org, or full orgs shutting down quickly due to hemorrhaging funds from unsustainable practices, I can’t help but see the business as thoroughly exploitative of young talent and their optimism, uprooting their lives in order to see if they can profit off of them.
I’m not saying every player is an angel who always does the right thing – but no player for any other sport is expected to be either. A lot of these players are real young, and may benefit from extensive coaching, which is why professional teams in pro sports will have teams of coaches to help them learn. What are these organizations doing to help players develop, and when they let them go, what does “supporting their future endeavors” actually entail? Beyond paying them money that will eventually be cut off, what did these players learn to succeed in life past E-Sports? Until some of these questions get answered, then I think we should start holding some of these orgs responsible for helping to create a vision of sustainability that is just not coming to fruition.
I know I may sound like a bit of a downer here, so I want to reiterate that it is not a problem, in any way, for people who are passionate about the scene to invest in its future. It’s also not really a big deal if it doesn’t work out – it’s a tough world out there! But I do think the scene has to look out for itself, and I think after so many orgs have either shrunk greatly or just disappeared, we need to start asking how these organizations plan to be sustainable. We shouldn’t feel the need to kowtow to these guys because they have big money – if it’s truly a serious business, its plans for sustainability and growth should be questioned. And if they don’t like it? Then we don’t need their business; the FGC was around long before big money came in, and it will be around if it’s not. The FGC is a brother(and sister)hood, and it’s time we started owning up to that by trying to protect players from these monkey’s paw offers of wealth and glory.