Cover and thumbnail via @Bart Oerbekke | ESL One New York
"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it" - George Santayana
Many have hailed 2020 as the year mobile esports becomes mainstream, with existing titles growing in popularity and newer ones already announced. The mobile platform has managed to capture an audience that was largely untapped by the PC games and has managed to find an entry into areas, where the popularity of PC titles have always been limited. With PUBG Mobile, Garena Free Fire, MLBB and even AOV/HoK exploding into big titles with an engaged audience, an ecosystem has begun to emerge, one whose potential size is much larger than a traditional PC one.
While we’ve spoken ample times about why and how mobile titles are gaining so much popularity in so little time, it is time to also reflect back on the history of esports and understand why it's important to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Contracts and Shady Orgs
With both audiences and the sponsors recognizing the value and reach of mobile esports, organizations have begun to pick up players and teams to cash in on the popularity. While some of the existing well known ones such as Cloud 9, Faze Clan and even Fnatic have already recognized the opportunity, existing organizations such as Team Queso, Nova Esports and Evos are some of big names in the mobile gaming domain. However, with the average age of mobile players relatively lower and the ecosystem being much newer, there is always going to be occasional organizations who try to exploit their players. Already one such incident involving North America’s Lowkey Esports has emerged.
NA's Denial Esports finally shut shop in 2019 after years of shady practices and mismanagement | Image via Call of Duty World League
As the scene grows bigger, more organizations and team owners will try to get a piece of the pie and while not all of them will have bad intentions and shady practices, some will. In the early days of the PC esports scene, this was rampant with many players having to leave their teams despite being owed money. While over time, the number of incidents has decreased, the business of running shady organizations or ones with questionable books is still there.
Players and audiences must be careful when choosing a brand in which they want to place their trust. Signing contracts, getting lawyers to look at these contracts and having open conversations with the management is crucial to not getting tricked into signing with these organizations.
Also read: Faze Clan picks up Thai PUBG Mobile roster
One of the key scandals to have constantly disrupted traditional PC titles, has been match fixing. From the early days of Starcraft to modern day Counter Strike and Dota 2, match fixing is a problem not unique to esports but sports in general. However, in esports, where the payouts in the tier 2 and tier 3 scenes are much lower and the player base is significantly younger, match fixing is much easier and more rampant. There are known cases of players having been banned for life for their involvement in match fixing and such scenarios should be avoided in mobile esports. Organizations and managers are key in supporting their players and making sure they aren’t involved in these type of activities, while the community themselves must be careful in dealing with shady tournament organizers, gambling portals and people with a history of such cases. It’s easy to sway young players with the lure of money and there will always be people who try and make a quick buck of it, but ultimately when the cards fall, it is the players and the team who will face the consequences of their actions.
The iBP scandal comes to mind when discussing match fixing in esports | Image via @ESEA
Publisher Support and the Importance of Communication
Other than the players and organizations themselves, the publishers have a key role in developing and growing the title. Helping create a sustainable ecosystem and fostering a community is in the best interest of the publishers themselves. In PC, developers like Valve have taken a slightly hands off approach with Dota 2 and CSGO and allowed both the community and third party TOs like ESL/DreamHack and PGL among others, to play a hand in building the scene. However, they also support these organizers with money, resources and communication to keep things moving. In the case of Riot and Blizzard, there lies a overwhelming sense of control from the publisher into what direction and how the titles are moving. Both methods have their pros and cons, but it’s safe to say that no title in today's day and age can become an esport without a concentrated effort from the publisher.
Therefore, it is vital for the community, the players, the professionals and the organizations to have an open line of communication with the publishers and build up the ecosystem together. Take the case of PUBG PC, a title where the esports structure has seemingly crumbled due to bad decisions taken by the publisher and has led to many organizations pulling out of the game.
Growing too Fast
A lot of people have spoken about the esports bubble, with names like Mark Cuban being extremely vocal about how it’s ‘bad business to own a team in North America’. Despite this, teams continue to buy into million dollar franchised leagues and make record breaking roster moves. Salaries in esports, continue to be the highest they have ever been and there seems to be a sense of optimism among team owners and industry experts. While the general consensus is the fact that the market will correct itself as we grow bigger, this does mean that a lot of organizations and stakeholders, who have grown too fast will have to dial it back. To avoid this, mobile esport titles should grow within the limitations that it has and not try and project or paint a false picture of themselves. For example, viewership for mobile titles is quite consistent and high; but the average age of viewers and the purchasing power is relatively low. Also, mobile esports have a very regional appeal to them with specific titles finding popularity in specific regions and countries. These are all important factors that decide the kind of sponsorship and ad revenue that the titles warrant and are important to discuss.
The initial cost to buy in to the Overwatch League was 20 Million USD | Image via The Overwatch League
Too many titles and too many IPs have grown too fast and ended up inflating both the expectations and the market in recent years. This remains true for both organizations and tournament IPs and is something that is very important for mobile esport stakeholders to address.
Mobile Esports will be an exciting space to watch out for in 2020. It's reach into untapped regions, natural appeal to a wide demographic and ease of access makes it a dream for marketers. With money being poured into the scene, both viewership and stability is expected to grow while the stigmas associated with mobile titles continue to fall. However, it is also time to be wary, as players, as team owners, as publishers and as a community and not repeat the mistakes of the past.