“Esports to them is just another X-Factor” – Will the OWL model ruin esports?

A guest piece written by Mark Mantle. Follow him here.

The Overwatch league: a behind the scenes look at how big business is done, whilst putting an end to the ‘free for all’ open playground that once was esports.

Bobby Kotick and his billionaire friends are building their own fantasy electronic sandpit while simultaneously taking control and influence of everything that once was open to all.

“From meritocracy to the biggest, crony, check.”

Not too long ago; players, teams, tournament organisers, sponsors partners, broadcasters, journalists, artists, heck everyone in the esports industry would compete to put on their best show at the highest level possible and everyone had a chance to stand out. Now it’s “kiss the hand with the ring” if you ever get the opportunity, or simply go do something else.

For those who already control considerable amounts of interests in what we like to call the mainstream, esports wasn’t to be taken seriously due to its low numbers on financial PowerPoint presentations over the last decade. But congratulations are in order as esports are finally legitimate and accepted by the business norms of today. By that, I mean that the industry as a whole is being sucked into the fat cat top down model we see all over the world. It used to be about competition, now it’s only business.

Endemic organisations would rise to the top of the pecking order by skill, passion and reasonable management. Money has always been hard to come by but if you were demonstrably the best then you would understandably get more of the spoils. You could build something, compete in some way, get recognised and progress upwards.  But all you have to do now is follow the startup 101 by coming up with a brand, get investment, slapdash the execution, market the sh*t out of everything (Blizzard’s only option now), all with investor money and then sit back relax or pray.

“Esports to them is just another X-Factor or random country’s got Talent TV show, with sporting elements, backed by a heavy dose of reality TV. The dream.”

That, or like with what’s happening with the OWL, buy a spot in the league and become part of the fraternity. Help the men in the ivory towers lock it down, control the narrative and act like you’ve done something great for esports. All this regardless of history and legacy.  Just look at all the teams that have dropped out of competitive Overwatch and those who have been allowed to remain. Just look at how none of the true endemic organisations, that built esports over the last 20 years are anywhere to be seen in the Overwatch space.

But isn’t it wonderful to finally have daddy recognise us by giving his approbation and patting us on the back? Imagine him whispering gently into your ear: “Well done, I’m proud of you, you have built something remarkable, but now, let daddy and his friends take over little one. It’s time we take over and make sure things are done our way from now on and that we keep you little freaks under control. You can have your fun as long as daddy and his friends get the control, the influence, the power. Sure you can have some pocket money here and there, it’s chump change anyways. But be nice, or you’re grounded.”

The original gamers in esports — those who scraped by, weathering endless insecurity, doubt, and hardship, driven by passion and love of the beautiful competition that esports has to offer are now the ones getting brushed aside, forced to watch in fear as the reigns are in rich but ignorant, condescending and proud hands.

OWL commissioner Nate Nanzer talks about his best in class.  They are the new breed of brands put together by businessmen, funded by other men in suits. So yes they are probably the “best in class” of the school you and your partners went to. Definitely not the school of hard knocks the rest of the esports industry comes from, however.

There’s been a radical shift in how esports is perceived recently. The fresh investors and businessmen that are flowing into the scene are as interested in esports genres, the games, and the fans as much as they are about any random TV show, concert or play. People watching other people play videos games on stages around the world, how is it different to people watching other people sing on stages around the world? Esports to them is just another X-Factor or random country’s got Talent TV show, with sporting elements, backed by a heavy dose of reality TV.

“The dream”

All of these genres brought together in one single activity, gazed upon lovingly by the coveted demographic of newly spawned millennials. No wonder they are flocking in by the dozens and locking everything down with franchises, under NDA’s, behind closed doors. It’s so fresh yet ripe for the taking. Better to wall things off now before others get wind of it. 

During the next couple of years, these men of distinction will invest and grow the scene to its critical mass and upon its crescendo will come the overwhelming advertising, mind-crippling garbage, that has seen every other entertainment activity become an endless ad roll until people stop watching and move on.

Hence is the prophecy; make of that what you want.  

The change in power is happening, the hostile takeover is in full effect, and we are accepting it with open arms. Because to resist the narrative results only in becoming blacklisted, ignored, forgotten… but not being part of the group results in the same outcome.

Best of luck going forward to those involved in the OWL and LOL franchises alike. You are part of the narrative now and must stick to the program. Just know that when things go south, you can turn around and count on family and friends. We will be here watching, waiting. Ready to pick up the pieces and start over.