Writer’s Choice: Trent Murray’s Top Five Stories of 2020
I had never been more excited to work in esports than at the start of this year. I was able to attend both the Rainbow Six Siege Six Invitational and the opening weekend of the Call of Duty League in person – it was set to be the most traveling I’d ever done for esports coverage in a single year. On top of that, a group of tournament organizers announced a Super Smash Bros. World Tour, which would have meant getting to cover a full infrastructure for my favorite esport all year long.
Of course, none of those things happened. The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the fighting game community and brought all tournaments to a screeching halt. I have not traveled for work since that February weekend in Minneapolis.
Still, it has been an absolutely incredible year for esports. Between new releases, advances in diversity, and getting to write about chess and World of Warcraft far more than anyone would think reasonable, there have been plenty of fascinating developments to cover. Here are some of my highlights:
Honorable Mention: The Race to World First
As I’m writing this, Complexity-Limit is currently leading the first World of Warcraft Race to World First of the Shadowlands expansion. Each time the RWF comes around there’s something new to write about as the numbers, brand partnerships, and esports teams involved all continue to grow. There is nothing in esports like the RWF, it’s a unique spectator experience and the open, community-driven nature of the event is becoming increasingly rare.
Earlier this month I wrote an opinion piece outlining why the race should be intriguing for brands and what makes this event so special. I also spoke with Complexity’s COO about the organization’s interest in supporting the event. World of Warcraft is in the midst of a renaissance that shows no signs of slowing any time soon. There will certainly be more RWF coverage coming in the new year.
No. 5: Valorant and the Rise of Women’s Esports
Thanks to a natural translation of skillset, Valorant was able to come right out of the gate, building upon the robust women’s esports ecosystem established in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Building upon the work that came before, two exciting developments made Valorant the spearhead for what I hope will become a rapid advancement of women in esports in the coming year.
First, Spectacor Gaming’s women’s initiative FTW broke new ground when its women-only tournament was supported by Riot Games as an official Ignition Series event. I spoke with the co-founders of that initiative about what it meant for Riot to recognize their work to that degree, and what the future holds for FTW in esports.
The added prestige of that tournament put a greater spotlight on its eventual champion, MAJKL. With their newly elevated position as an Ignition Series champion, and buzz surrounding the team potentially being able to contend with the male-dominated pro teams, MAJKL was soon signed by Cloud9.
While there have been women’s teams signed to esports organizations before, it was clear from interviewing C9’s general manager that the organization and these players had aspirations beyond the women-only tournament scene. Cloud9 would treat the newly minted Cloud9 White as a true sister team to its other pro roster – possibly eventually swapping players between the two squads.
Co-ed esports teams are obviously the eventual goal for esports as a whole, and Cloud9 White is an important step on that journey. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how this team performs in the 2021 tournament scene.
No. 4: Panda Global Brings in a Merchandising Veteran Ahead of Brand Refresh
Esports is still a very young industry compared to other entertainment categories. Organizations are still learning what types of merchandise work for their audience, and there just aren’t merchandisers with decades of experience available for each team to recruit.
While any company being forced to lay off employees is obviously terrible, the pandemic’s impact on live entertainment did bring Cirque Du Soleil merchandise veteran Terry Turner into the job seeker pool at the same time that Panda Global was looking for someone to lead its merchandising strategy. After interviewing Turner, it was clear to me just how much untapped potential is still left in the esports merchandise space for teams to explore.
Panda Global is a uniquely focused organization, participating only in 1v1 titles (primarily fighting games). That unique focus is ideal from a merchandise and branding perspective. Having recently unveiled a full brand update, Panda Global and its new merchandising lead have a fresh canvas on which to create new and innovative products for fans to consume. What they develop could lead how this part of the industry develops in the coming years.
No. 3: Chess: What’s Old is New Again
One of my favorite things to read on Twitter is Rod “Slasher” Breslau’s collection of angry tweets from people upset whenever ESPN shows esports on TV. I take a similar sort of joy in seeing people try to argue about whether or not chess should count as an esport. For the purposes of The Esports Observer, frankly, the conversation is irrelevant. Esports teams have signed players, the game is played digitally and consumed in high volumes on streaming platforms – it belongs in our sphere of coverage whether or not some people don’t want to give it some specific label.
To many, the rise of chess on Twitch this year came out of nowhere. A popular streamer played against a Grandmaster, and suddenly there’s a massive influencer tournament and all anyone is talking about for weeks midsummer is this ancient board game.
However, after digging deeper into the trend and speaking to various figures at the company behind Pogchamps, Chess.com, it struck me how very intentional this all was on their part. Chess.com identified streaming as a growth vector early on, and took specific, strategic steps to grow its presence on Twitch. That preparation allowed the company to move quickly when the trend suddenly spiked, and has carried on into a new level of awareness and engagement for chess as a whole. Digital chess is here to stay and I will keep covering it, esport or no.
No. 2: Stop Overpaying Streamers
The shutdown of Mixer wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was disappointing. By all accounts many streamers were happy with the service, and competition in the streaming space is always a good thing. However, one important lesson that should have come out of that entire saga was that no streamer is worth $30M USD by themselves.
Streaming is an a la carte viewing experience. Even the biggest names on any platform carry just a fraction of the total audience. Far more people are watching their favorite streamer who averages 2K viewers at most. What’s more, the viewers of those smaller streams are far more engaged and loyal than the average Tyler “Ninja” Blevins fan.
I was frustrated when reports of even larger deals for Blevins and Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek began to circulate following the end of Mixer, and so I outlined the issues with placing your hopes and resources in only the biggest names in an opinion piece.
No. 1: Heeding the Call of Duty
The Call of Duty League season opener was an important moment for the esports industry. It represented the official kickoff of Activision Blizzard’s home event strategy. It represented a major shift in the CoD landscape, with effectively only 12 teams now competing in the game at the highest level.
With most live events eventually being canceled, this first CDL weekend took on even greater weight as one of the only in-person events held all year. Having been there in person, it was certainly an exciting kickoff to that potential home/away system. The Minnesota home team did a great job building up a “rivalry for the north” with the Toronto Ultra, that would have made for compelling content had the teams been able to face off more often in person.
After the event, I outlined many of the brand integrations and unique experiences at the venue. With the addition of the CoD Challengers open tournament taking place in the same location, the event had an interesting mix of modern esports extravaganza upstairs, and grassroots, watch-players-over-their-shoulder-mid-tournament feel of an old school event.
It remains to be seen when esports events will return to their in-person focus, but looking back on the CDL opener I know for certain that the future of esports is not an online-only structure. There is nothing quite like the roar of the crowd enthusiastically reacting to each moment in-game.
When the world opens up again, I look forward to attending another CDL event to see how things have progressed since those initial matches.
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