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It’s Not What You Spend, It’s What You Build

It’s Not What You Spend, It’s What You Build

Once again Fortnite has made a huge splash in the murky lake where I live. Epic Games has announced that they are so keen to make their game a bona fide esport that they are going to throw $100 million into finding out just what that means. Cue the fawning from the fakes who just got here. You know the ones, those riding on the coattails of Ninja’s sudden ascent to fame, taking sycophancy to new nauseating heights as they vie to be in the entourage. Add to that the mewing from those who play other competitive games, trying to pass off envy and greed as a suggestion for improvement. Oh lord, nothing makes you see people for what they are in esports like the next big payday.

 

My thoughts on Fortnite aren’t revolutionary but will certainly be considered foolish to state. At a time when everyone speaks in gushing soundbites, I imagine my take will appear borderline insulting by comparison. I think Fortnite is a good game with a great marketing team. I think the lack of realism in the game enables them to appeal to a younger demographic and overcomes a lot of the “games and violence” headaches. I think developers should take a long look at Epic Games and how they’ve balanced a constant stream of new and experimental content, community interaction and insane publicity stunts to become a constant part of the games news cycle. Popularity builds like a snowball. You have to have something there, but it doesn’t need to be much. You just need more and more to stick to it and eventually people’s curiosity and desire to fit in will do the rest. As I said, it’s a good game. By the time you’ve got professional footballers doing your in-game dances as goal scoring celebrations and huge music artists saying they play in their downtime, you’ve pretty much already won. That kind of publicity would have people lining up to get the plague. The fact that Fortnite is fun and culturally worth sticking at is the synergistic dream most casual games developers dream of. It’s also something that one suspects could never happen for Dota or Starcraft and I’m sure their designers wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

I’m intrigued though. I’d like to see what will come of the plans. I think Fortnite could certainly become an esport, maybe even a gateway esport because of the nature of its young demographic. I’d certainly like to know more about what they believe their takeaways would be from having an esports scene. I mean it’s already the most viewed game on Twitch day-to-day, has the most popular streamer on Twitch attached to it and celebrities are falling over themselves to show they are down with the kids by playing it—albeit badly. Hell, you know it’s the latest big thing if the Call of Duty celebs are there desperately trying to profit from it. How long before there are Fortnite skin casinos I wonder? There’s a lot of questions, but it certainly won’t be the press that asks them.

 

Once again, I am provided with an opportunity to lament the declining standards of journalism. Shortly after the announcement of the $100 million dollar investment, several reporters made patently untrue statements, which I am sure were expected by the Fortnite marketing team who generally seem to be two steps ahead of everyone else. CNBC were the worst offenders, with a headline saying that Epic Games had made Fortnite. “…the biggest esport in the world,” with their sizeable investment.

 

Even if the metric by which the industry judged this was in fact total prize money spent–which it isn’t by the way–Fortnite hasn’t spent a single penny of that commitment yet, an incredibly embarrassing oversight in the report. The general tone of reporting, especially in the mainstream media, is to rarely look beyond big numbers, be they monetary or viewing figures, and will write the same piece that basically amounts to “are you investors paying attention yet?” How many years will these publications come and rubberneck at Dota 2’s The International and write the, “LOOK AT THESE GUIZE WINNING MILLIONS OF DOLLARS FOR PLAYING VIDYA GAMES” piece. Right now, there are apes flinging their own shit at walls with more craft and variety than reporting on esports.

 

There’s a separate and more nuanced discussion to be had about whether Fortnite–or any Battle Royale game–can crack the “esports” format. There’s an even more intelligent talk to be had about whether or not they need to. I’ve said it for years and I’ll repeat it here, “When we use the term ‘esports’ we’re talking about a business model, a way to build a self-sustaining scene around a competitive game that enables everyone at all levels to make money from it and achieve differing degrees of glory.” It’s not for every game and sometimes trying to be what you think “esports” is, and let’s be real most developers still don’t get it, can cause more issues than it resolves. The one thing Fortnite hasn’t struggled with at all is its business model, so maybe it needs esports like it needs a hole in its cartoon head.

 

Courtesy of the Sharper Image

For anyone excited at the prospect of $100 million being pumped into the esports infrastructure for the game, let me rain on your parade. Like all large sums of money, it’s about how you spend it. Donald Trump spent a sizable portion of his money to sell steaks through the medium of an electronics store. Kodak spent billions on the development of digital cameras the company’s executive body never released. Blockbuster refused to buy Netflix for a modest $50 million and instead put that money into trying to prop up a mode of consuming media that even Porcupine Leon could see was about to die on its arse. You’ll need to Google that reference. I’ll wait.

 

Now, sure, these are all “real” businesses and they have to exist in the “real” world, with a fluctuating global economy, ever-changing technology, insider trading, corporate espionage and the unpredictable idiocy of the average consumer. You can forgive them for monumental fuck-ups. But just how wrong can you get it in esports? Well gather round my young friends and let grandpa tell you a story while wrecked out of his mind on rum. Let me tell you about another huge waste of esports money that spent big and achieved absolutely nothing.

 

“Are you going to tell us about CGS again grandpa?”

“Yes I absolutely am.”

“But you’ve told us this story before, lots of times…”

“And you’ll sit there and listen again or you’ll get no pocket-money.”

 

Yes, the Championship Gaming Series. I’ll spare you the broad strokes because people who were there at the time are still talking about it ten years later. The reasons those of us who lived through it bring it up all the time are two-fold. First, its failure, coupled with the sudden global recession in 2009, set the industry back a decade. Second, and most importantly, no-one ever takes any lessons from its failure, simply dismissing the whole thing as failing because, “it was ahead of its time.” It should be the go-to example of how to absolutely fuck everything up spectacularly. The Francis Ford Coppola quote from the start of “Hearts of Darkness” has always summed it up for me, “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Photo: Alicia Kincaid (Championship Gaming Series)

 

The definitely not evil and sinister News Corporation, the one ruled over by the definitely not evil and sinister Rupert Murdoch, saw the popularity of the World Series of Poker as a broadcast medium. He also saw the potential growth in competitive gaming and a market opportunity. They figured they could make a hermetically sealed esports league for multiple games titles, make competitors and managers who operated within it employees, and then broadcast the whole thing as syndicated television for profit. So confident they were that it could all work. they set aside $60 million for the project budgeted over five years. People had never heard numbers like that before in esports, especially since the death of the previous biggest show in town–the CPL. Turns out that money was pissed up against a wall like Friday night’s beer.

 

I’ll spare you the grotesque specifics of how CGS executives behaved like cheap pimps in a room full of hookers, or how the people who wanted their slice of the cash-cow flavored beef debased themselves in ways they still drink to forget. Instead, I’ll just tell you how they blew the money by overpaying everyone that had esports credibility. I don’t mean by a little bit, I mean paying six figure salaries to get people to commentate on games they had played competitively once. On top of that they spent needless amounts on things that seemed to exist only to check off some nerd’s bucket list. An event held in the Playboy Mansion? Beam me the fuck up.

 

Then it just got plain weird. A LAN center in the UK that was designed specifically for CGS purposes and their European expansion would be ran by a company from Kazakhstan which the CGS would hire. The amount of money paid would have been enough to put the down payment on owning the entire building outright. Envelopes filled with money being passed out to the press, the hiring of adult glamour models to do introductions to the games, franchises added in the United Arab Emirates that never played a single official match, named sponsors that actually didn’t pay. They just burned through the money and there was nothing coming back.

 

And so it came to pass that on November 18th, 2008 everyone was fired by an email that was leaked and published on my old website Cadred.org. Shortly after, the website was taken down and all the content vanished. Assets were auctioned off, business partners were left pursuing legal battles and, as always in a story like this, the executives just walked away clean. Some even think those executives can come back and all should be forgiven. The same folks that took food out of the mouths of others who spent ten years not just cleaning up their mess, but building something on top of the rubble and ashes they left behind. If they get even a morsel, I hope they fucking choke on it. Metaphorically speaking of course (cleared by lawyer).

 

The point of this stroll down memory lane is to demonstrate that you can literally burn through huge amounts of money and have absolutely nothing to show for it once it’s gone. Think Brewster’s Millions but there’s no bigger payday at the end. Just another failure that makes this industry look bad–which honestly, doesn’t take much. Not every idea dreamed up by your marketing team is a good one, not every expense is valid, but when you’re told you have a huge sum to spend, people always adhere to the philosophy of “plenty more where that came from.” Which is true until it isn’t true anymore and by then it’s too late to realize that you should have been shrewder.

 

I’ve seen a lot of Fortnite pros talk up the idea of putting half this fabled amount in to one big tournament “for the publicity alone.” Aside from the obvious reason why they would suggest this, it’s unequivocally a terrible idea. The International as an event is a spectacle and is often thought of as the Superbowl of esports but having one massive tournament that dwarfs all others creates a bunch of problems in terms of scene stability and infrastructure. Issues that Valve has been addressing with the implementation of the minor/major system and new changes to how the pro tour works. Dumping half your budget into one event to grab the same headlines you can get by just saying you will spend it seems like a waste. And that’s before you even get to the issue of what it would do to every other community event, player contracts and an increase in predatory practices by MGOs. An event like that too early into an esports’ life cycle and it could be a scene killer.

 

At the time of filing, there are sightings coming out of E3 that are talking about “50 cities in 50 weekends” as a scheduled pro tour. No time to look into it now and I’ll push down my gut reaction until more information comes out. The long and the short of it is this. Epic Games is uniquely positioned to actually build something that can be self-sustaining, free from all the franchising nonsense and venture capital baiting bullshit. It can turn its potentially fleeting popularity into something with a much longer shelf life. The number is big, but ultimately meaningless. Empires have been built from less and no amount of money can insulate you against failure, it just makes those failures more spectacular when they are expensively bought. Spend wisely. Receipts are meaningless in this business.

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