Demystifying MOBAs - The Grand Spectacle

Bridging Worlds is a series by LA-based artist and VGT author Eron Rauch about the blurred line between games and art. His multi-part essay "Demystifying MOBAs" takes an in-depth look at the game design of esports and MOBAs. This is part 7.

With the explosive rise of Valve’s Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA2), Riot’s League of Legends (LoL), and Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm (HotS), the mainstream media seems to be quite deeply perplexed by the claim that video games could be a sport. It is incredibly rare to be present in the earliest days of any cultural phenomena, but similar to seeing the supporting structure of a half-finished building. This primordial vantage point is immensely interesting because it provides a clear view of how culture is constructed both in fans and from the sporting organizations. In fact, getting to watch this process of a professional sport that is only a decade old (via StarCraft) trying to legitimize itself highlights the artifice and art of all sporting events. As esports are still uncharted territory, each game company has made distinct choices with their experiments in trying to promote, share, professionalize, and define their game as an esport.

Video: Stephen Dean’s “VOLTA” is an art piece exploring the elaborate and specific fan displays that have evolved at football games.

The Grand Spectacle Part 1: The More Zeroes The Merrier

To start our conversation, let’s look at DotA2, which only has an estimated 14% market share of the moba industry but draws the most attention from mainstream media. (Corrected on 10/19/2015 to reflect current industry statistics that DotA2 is the second most played moba not third.) This is primarily because of its massive prize pools for its top event, The International. The winnings topped ten million U.S. dollars for the victorious team this year, which about two million dollars gross per winning player. But there are only two tournaments this size sponsored by DotA2’s parent company each year, The International which is held in America and DotA Asia Championship which is held in China but which only has about a quarter of the prize pool. The rest of the year is filled with a chaotic schedule of smaller regional and online events produced by other organizations. Curiously, the way that Valve creates these giant prize pools for their two huge tournaments is by crowd-funding. To do this, Valve sells and then gives a portion of the profit to the prize pool from a specific in-game item called a “Compendium.” They are basically interactive versions of the programs sold at big sports games or concerts. These digital books, which are accessed in the game client, are filled with information about the teams but also as a raffle-ticket-like system for getting special in-game items. Which means many players buy multiple copies of these virtual programs in the hope of getting rare skins for their characters. The Compendium is also an elaborate interactive fantasy sports prediction system that rewards players for making correct predictions about all manner of potential statistics, from major events such as predicting the winner of whole tournament to the tiniest details such as what the length of the shortest game will be. The more of these items DotA2 players buy, the more funds go in to the prize pool.

Much like the Olympics, even the largest teams tend to focus their efforts around these massive tournaments, with roster changes almost inevitable between events based on success or failure. Teams that win more than predicted stay together, teams that lose faster than expected tend to get fired or break up. DotA2 teams are independent of Valve, though they are usually affiliated with a larger esports sponsor or clan organization such as Cloud 9 which has top-tier teams in DotA2, LoL, and HotS. The largest sponsored teams sometimes pay their players a salary and especially well-known players can make six digits just from team pay each year.

It is still relatively rare for DotA2 teams to live together except for a month of boot camp before major events. All but the largest teams are run like local or amateur sports organizations and the players have to fund their own expenses. The setup for professional DotA2 teams is fairly mercenary even in the bigger teams, where the organization usually pays for travel expenses for their team but in return asks for part of the tournament prize pool winnings, usually 50 %. Because of this volatility and because so much of the prize money is tied up at the top end of infrequent mega-matches it has traditionally been quite challenging for DotA players to make a living at the game with only the very upper echelon being able to pursue the game full time.

The Grand Spectacle Part 2: Dolla Dolla Bills LoL

The concept of 'gaming house' originates in Korean telecom teams, as does the tradition of providing extensive coaching and trainers.

LoL’s professional play has evolved through many iterations before it landed on what is now called the League Championship System (LCS). The LCS was specifically designed to mitigate many of the volatility issues that affected the professional players in the DotA community. Riot organizes regional leagues, where 10 teams are paired off on a set schedule and play every weekend for a series of seasons, which cumulates in a playoff every few months. Then at the end of the year, the three most successful teams compete in a World Championship tournament with a top prize pool of a million dollars. Most critically, in the American and the EU circuits, Riot pays the players on the teams a salary regardless of their team organization’s salary. All ten teams in both leagues currently are affiliated with both major brand sponsorship and a gaming organization which pay for players based on their status and provide a house for the team to live and practice in all year (located near Los Angeles in the case of American LoL and near Berlin for the EU).

While Riot pays player salaries in the West, the main difference with Korean LoL is that because there are long-established professional teams from era of StarCraft sponsored around telecom and entertainment companies, the teams take the lead in paying and organizing players. The concept of the gaming house originates in these Korean telecom teams, as does the tradition of providing extensive coaching and trainers in exchange for a cut of the winnings. The other other major LoL esports scene, China, has the same weekly match schedule but the teams are mostly funded by a combination of sponsor and private investment money. This combination is often considered one of the reasons that the Chinese DotA and now LoL community is so competitive. Namely, that teams have a tradition of offering massive salaries to lure away top players from competitors.

Historically one of the major differences between the early esports scene in the West versus Korea was that before Riot’s implementation of the LCS, most Western players and teams made their income through streaming live video for fans to watch on websites such as Twitch, whereas in Korea players were housed and paid by their team to practice full time. This factor has been regarded as a large part of why the Korean and Chinese teams have been dominant even though they have been playing the game for years less than the American and EU teams. The logic is as follows: most Western professional players, because they paid their bills from Twitch and YouTube streaming, are then actually having to function as celebrity entertainers first and professional athletes only as secondary function.

Team SoloMid (TSM) is possibly the most extraordinary example of this tendency, existing foremost as a bro-centric lifestyle brand (with the slogan “Bay Life”) that has their LoL team as part of a large media operation. TSM’s mid laner Andy Dinh is also the brand owner, and retired at the top of his game to take over full time business operations. They even went as far as having their players film an online reality show during actual LCS seasons. In fact, many of the people making the most money in the Western LoL scene aren’t even on a professional team. In Europe, Carlos “Ocelote” Santiago, who was the mid laner for SK Gaming but does not play professionally anymore, is known as the richest esports athlete. But his wealth is primarily earned from his website’s shop, which exceeds 500,000 euros each year in sales of branded products. Since so many of the top Western players came from this era of self funding, it took a while for players and teams to adjust to being part of a large, stable, organization. Even though LoL has been a major esport since 2011, it wasn’t until 2015 that teams started copying Korean models and getting houses for practice and hiring coaching staff. Much like traditional sports, owning teams has become a mark of status for young investors and technocrats in both in China and America, with even disgraced price-gouging pharmaceutical investor Martin Shkreli serving as chairman for Team Imagine (which ultimately failed in it’s bid to make the LCS.)

What if the bottom two foorball or baseball clubs of every region could be challenged by all comers for their spot in the league?

With this in mind, the monetary decisions can often actually discourage players from going pro or even to dedicate time to practicing correctly. StarCraft’s Korean scene makes this distinction between professional athlete and entertainer most clear. Players in Korean teams often have a massive advantage over Western players simply because Western players get so much of their paycheck through streaming that they have to be online and playing publicly for everyone to analyze all the time. While Koreans have their food and housing paid for by their team, and thus can hide their practice sessions before important matches without fear of failing to pay rent. Additionally, teams in Korea can fire and hire players without the same pressure to keep their brand making money from well-known but possibly past prime celebrity players, giving them a massive competitive edge in global matches. Although the rather ruthless way Korean teams manage players, including banning girlfriends and imposing strict curfews, has helped lead to the rise of Chinese LoL, since the tech investors and their exorbitant salaries come with few rules. The Korean scene is so focused on winning that while Western players like Ocelote often rely on their internet celebrity for their income, in Korea it is common practice for top teams to disallow players from even having Twitter accounts until they “earned it” by winning a tournament! In order to combat some of the forces that drive teams toward celebrity and not professional gameplay in the Western scene, the LCS system has one major deviation from traditional sports leagues.

At the end of every season, the bottom two teams in the standings have to play the top two teams from an amateur tournament, called Challenger League, and if they lose, they have to give their spot in the LCS to the victorious team. To get their sport back the failed team has to survive grueling, unpublicized months in amateur scene to regain their spot in the LCS. Often being relegated from the LCS leads to teams disbanding or having both their players and sponsors replaced completely. Imagine how that would play out in the realms of professional baseball or football if the bottom two clubs of every region could be challenged by all comers for their spot!

The Grand Spectacle Part 3: Blizzcon Madness

Compared to any of the other major esports games, HotS is still in its infancy even though it has been live for months. Thus far Blizzard has shown a tendency toward two models they might speculatively use for professional play. The first is to serve as a backing organization while letting another company manage the esports broadcasts. The other is to directly interact with the community through sponsored major tournaments like in DotA2. In the past with StarCraft and WarCraft Blizzard has partnered behind the scenes with a third party esports organizations such as ESL (an online broadcasting brand) or GomTV (a Korean cable network) to run the ongoing league-style events. Even during the first few years of LoL’s rise to be the king of eSports, the approaches of Riot and Blizzard could not have been more different. While Riot became known as the esports brand because they built an in-house studio and hired their own broadcast team to professionally produce events, Blizzard was actually spending more money on promoting esports each year but didn’t have their name on screen because they chose to keep sports production and video game design apart. After the success of LoL’s LCS Blizzard reorganized the fragmented professional StarCraft 2 community into what is now called the WCS, which features weekly matches in a league sponsored and run by Blizzard, capping with a tournament at Blizzcon in California each year.

The only other clue we have to Blizzard’s intentions for HotS as a sport is that they may be reaching for another traditional model, which is the NCAA college basketball tournament (called March Madness here in the US for all of the insane amount of attention and gambling it receives). Blizzard recently sponsored a tournament called “Heroes of the Dorm” which let 64 colleges field HotS teams in a bracket system very much like March Madness. A number of the best players even got hired to join top tier pro teams afterward. Currently Blizzard is maintaining a hybrid approach, partnering with ESL, the online gaming website and broadcasting brand owned by Turtle Entertainment, to run the broadcasts while using established Blizzard personalities from the StarCraft scene as the face of the tournament. ESL handles the weekly matches, and Blizzard still gets to have their name at the top of the billing for the final global tournament. In many ways, thinking about how disorganized and amateur the early days of any popular sport like baseball or football were highlights how the formation of professional leagues, tournament structures, and public performances is a critical part to how societies categorize the difference between sport, game, and hobby.

Ahhhhhh, The Passion of [Male] Youth

If you were to watch any MOBA esports, two things would stand out immediately about the players and fans. First, almost everyone from casters to staff members to fans to players are really young. Second, they are almost all male. Historically because of the Korean government’s active hand in promoting esports as a way to show the world how technologically advanced they were, players of games like StarCraft have been recruited extremely young. Like the Russian ballet and gymnastics, the Korean esports world has systems in place to identify talent while they are still in elementary school and place them with trainers and teams as early as junior high, giving them exemptions and modified schedules for school. It is not uncommon for 14 year olds to live in a team house and play professionally, though most of the top players really start to reach full potential at 16.

Starting as an American and European game at first, LoL’s original cast of professional players were college age, since that was the first time most players could devote the requisite hours to streaming to pay bills to be full time gamers and also to have the scheduling freedom from to practice with their teams. When the LCS initially formed, paying sizable salaries to pro players, most of the teams had very little infrastructure in place to support an influx of high profile professional athletes. Teams were often just the five young guys living in a nearly bare house. In fact, in many cases it the first time most of the players had been put in a situation where they were living on their own. Expected to play 12 hours a day, but given no other parameters or role models, predictable problems occurred. There were even some notorious moments of total public drunkenness, verbal tirades, and collapses from lack of sleep and proper nutrition during professional games. As teams gained stability, coaches and trainers were hired, and physical conditioning was emphasized, but the bro-ish standard of behavior that comes with the frat-house manner of gaming houses was already enshrined in the Western scene.

Owing to the new expectation that all players on a team should live in the same house, practice constantly, and with most players being around 19-20 years old, players are rarely are part of a stable relationship. In fact, there have been almost no married pro esports players. Even having a girlfriend is generally considered nearly impossible to balance with playing professionally, since there was historically no off season until Riot decided to implement big changes after the worldwide tournament last year. During the earliest days of LoL when teams didn’t have houses, Alex “Alex Ich” Ichetovkin (currently age 23) was wildly considered one of the best mid laners, and was married. But his team eventually disbanded partially owing to the birth of his first child preventing him from living in a team house. Additionally, a member of Complexity Black, Bubbadub, the only LoL player to have a mustache according to his Gameipedia page if that tells you anything about the average age of the players, was married and quit his job to play professionally for a season. But even he had to live apart from his wife with his team for the year he played pro. He’s now a very successful coach, which alongside caster, is the usual job for former pro players who want to stay in the business.

Surprisingly, even though the average age of DotA2 players are much higher and their schedules more flexible since they rarely live in team houses, only one top tier pro is married, Xiao8 from the superstar Chinese team LGD. He has always had the reputation as a superstar and man-about-town, and was rumored to have made as much as six million dollars a year during his heyday. Speculation was rife from the moment of the announcement that marriage meant he was retiring, and sure enough a few months later he quit playing professionally. As a small side note, the age that is considered standard retirement for esports players, 28, is not as arbitrary as it seems. It actually comes from the fact that 28 is the last year Koreans can go and complete their two year mandatory military service, so pro players defer their service as long as they are playing well and then retire to serve their term, since returning after two years in such rapidly changing games is nigh impossible.

Alongside the lack of married players, out of the hundreds of professional teams between all three games there are only a half-dozen female players who have ever even been part of a professional team and none that have started a top tier professional game. As self-reported by Riot “over 90%” of LoL’s player base is male. Possibly sensing that over 50% of the gaming public is being left financially untapped, but also in line with their stated goals of trying to make their community less toxic, in 2015 Riot has been trying to hire at least a few female analysts and casters to be public faces for the esports side of the game. But all one has to do is watch Twitch chat to see the massive levels of general abuse, sexualization, and harassment the pioneering Riot-employed analysts like Devin “Froskurinn” Ryan Mohr (also the former coach of a professional Chinese team, Roar) or Eefje “sjokz” Depoortere still regularly receive. One note is that some colleges in the US have agreed to start having scholarship-based LoL and DotA2 teams. This is particularly interesting because there is a law in the United States called Title IX which as it is currently read mandates educational institutions have to provide equal sporting opportunity to all sexes (though with the way male sports still dominate campus life Title IX is hardly a panacea but it has vastly improved women’s access to professional teams). To me, it is absolutely clear that this boys’ club mentality both in the game art and in professional esports is the one remaining significant stumbling block to the final assertion of esports into broader cultural acceptance. The reason that MOBAs are a key part of this is because they dominate the conversation about esports.

If unchecked, the incredibly toxic and bro-ish tendencies of the MOBA community could potentially taint the entire idea of how people perceive esports. The problems women face have been well discussed elsewhere and I highly recommend reading these accounts for a fuller picture of what is at stake. Polygon’s Emily Gera has covered the implications of how this issue affects the long term prospects of esports at Polygon. PC Gamer’s Christopher Livingston reported on a panel discussion of women in esports that tackled amongst other thing, the topic of female-only leagues. At The Guardian, Philippa Ware looks at some strategies to bring more women in to esports. But the question still lingers if fans of MOBAs, esports professionals, and the video game production companies will chose to make their communities hospitable to women.

Next week, we’ll continue looking at the various trappings and histories of esports broadcasting, including the way that the broadcasts turn abstract virtual games in to grand symbolic narratives.

Part 1 - Demystifying MOBAs: An Introduction to an Introduction

Part 2 - Demystifying MOBAs: Characters - Representing A Digital Pantheon

Part 3 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Pantheon in Action

Part 4 - Demystifying MOBAs: A Charming Stroll Through Flatland’s Battlefield

Part 5 - Demystifying MOBAs: PLAY - The Gory Farming of Glory

Part 6 - Demystifying MOBAs: A History of Speed

Part 8 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Heralds of High Drama



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