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Keekernomics #2: It's a Small World

By Chris 'keekerdc' Schetter
Jan 31, 2011 23:02

ImageOn the roots of the world's major sports, the effect that transportation and communication technologies had on their growth, and how the internet has conversely given rise to a global esports monoculture - for better or worse.

On a very surface examination, I find there's very little that separates esports from sports in general.  There is a particular quality of esports, however, that seems to be a major divergence from the larger sports world: its use of the internet to establish itself and grow.  The effect this had on the initial formation and growth of organized esports is quite complex, and when combined with the 'shrinking of the world' in general through increasingly rapid forms of transportation and communication, the result is the generally singular international culture of esports we find ourselves in today.  I wish to examine this effect and what it means for future growth.

How it was

Looking back through the general history of organized sports, most major sports got their start in the late 19th century or early 20th century.  Obviously, at that time there was no internet, and communications from one end of country to another, let alone communications between continents, were slow, expensive, or practically impossible.  Patents for the telephone had just been filed as association football was starting to organize into larger sanctioning bodies in Europe which actually reached across borders.  Transportation was in a similar state, with the fastest form of transit being in the form of railroads, and trans-continental movement was still very much an ordeal.  Because of this, new sports and the more organized scenes around them formed on a very localized basis, and competition was focused on a regional scale, with teams forming with ties to a specific locality, and leagues being formed amongst teams within a particular region.

"Patents for the telephone had just been filed as association football was starting to organize into larger sanctioning bodies in Europe..."
These factors led directly to the formation of strong professional leagues around cricket, football (soccer), baseball, and other sports to follow, leagues that provided structures for teams to generate revenues and become profitable.  The necessity of teams directly linking their identity to particular towns, combined with an early interest in using organized sport as a platform for betting, led to the notion of fanhood and the growing tendency for matches to draw crowds.

The technologies available had a direct impact on the development of sports as businesses.

The prevaling conditions in the larger economy, and communications and transportation in particluar, I feel contributed directly to the discovery of viable business models in team sports.  It also slowed the growth of entire sports down to a much less frantic pace than we've seen in gaming, allowing for the 'free market' of leagues jostling for stronger economic positions and dominance to play out over decades rather than months.  If growth was seen in the larger sense of an entire sport, it was necessarily more stable and more sustainable simply from being deliberate and incrementally gained.  Larger internationally-based scenes and competitions formed much later when it was actually feasible, both from an economic and logistical sense.

Jumping forward to the present day, we find that the internet allowed esports to leapfrog the slow process of building a localized foundation - a foundation to which the larger sports world can attribute its stability - for better or worse.

How it is

Instead of first establishing strong roots in a particular region and spreading from there, gaming skipped straight to organizing on a national and international level.  This did mean that folks who might be the only people interested in organized video gaming within a 10 mile radius could be involved in it without having to network with those in their own town to drum up more support and interest in it.  And that's just the problem; local and regional scenes are the foundation on which large professional sports sit, and esports doesn't have this in any capacity.  Gamers didn't have to network with the people around them to drum up support for these new sports, and I feel the whole scene is weaker because of it.

The large multi-game leagues that act as the top of the scene exist without any of the underlying regional support structure that a more traditional growth pattern would have provided.  Focus has been disproportionately placed on fast paced, global-level growth rather than on a creating smaller, regional scenes.  What we're forgoing are not only more stable and partisan fanbases in general, but also audiences that would be far more targeted and easier to monetize to than the current globally dispersed audience that live streams draw.  (Please read that bit again; I'd write it five times over because it's that important...but it'd look strange.)  Such regional scenes would also provide a much needed safety net when larger entities experience hiccups in their operations, or implode altogether.

"Simply put, esports is a monoculture, driven by the internet and live streams, and the audience for gaming simply doesn't have time for anything but the best."
Perhaps of greatest importance, since the scene is only unified on an international level, and the only point of entry is also on an international, internet-based vector, all attention and thus all marketability is focused on those few teams that can maintain dominance at the summit of the scene.  Simply put, esports is a monoculture, driven by the internet and live streams, and the audience for gaming simply doesn't have time for anything but the best.  With the live stream being king, and with no options for smaller teams and startup teams to establish a market from which they can derive viability as a business, a strong boom-bust cyclic pattern is the only way most of the scene can hope to operate, with sustained long-term losses being the norm.

This is why I find the definition of growth in esports to look far less like the construction of a building; going brick by brick, constructing a platform for future stability and growth; and much more like throwing hunks of brick onto a trampoline, and then marveling at the height at which they've managed to achieve.  There may not have been a more viable path to get to where we are, but I think that underestimating the importance of regional scenes is a mistake we shouldn't continue making, and will be discussing this topic in particular in next month's columns.



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