At the heart of any good sports system are the fans who bring so much to the table: Passion, energy, and of course money.
That remains true for the esports ecosystem as well. Esports teams fill the same niche as a ball club in pro sports, with one exception…
The Publishers. Traditional sports don’t feel the need to invent a new game every few seasons, and the minor changes made to the rules are normally done by the league organizers.
The publisher niche is unique to esports.
So let’s start our examination of the esports ecosystem there.
Who are the big publishers in the esports ecosystem?
As of late 2020, there are a few big players in the esports arena, with a few bright stars on the horizon. These are some of the ‘household names’ of competitive gaming in the most popular genres around the world. This is just a cross-section that illustrates the archetypal publishers in the field. If we included every single one in our analysis, we would be here all day.
So, in no particular order:
⦁ Valve Corporation (CS:GO, DotA2)
Nearly everyone in gaming knows about Steam as a game distribution platform and Valve as a developer. But to get some scope as to how big of a name they are in the esports ecosystem, you only have to look at DotA2. The International in 2019 had a $34.3 million prize pool. When things get back to normal, they plan to have a six region, ninety-six team pro circuit. And to say that CS:GO is a footnote, by comparison, is almost absurd (even if it’s true), given that it’s the gold standard of competitive shooters whose ‘Major’ series of events typically draw about two million viewers a pop.
⦁ Riot Games (League of Legends, Valorant)
If you want to step across the threshold to find Valve’s shimmering mirror image, it would have to be Riot. The LoL World Championships, easily the most hyped event in esports, drew nearly four million viewers for the past two years running. It is the most streamed, and the most-watched, esports game by magnitudes. It commonly doubles the streaming hours of CS:GO, and triples the hours spent watching DotA2. Their competitive FPS, Valorant, is quickly crawling up the charts as established esports teams in CS:GO and Overwatch flock over to the new scene.
⦁ Blizzard Entertainment (Overwatch, Hearthstone, Starcraft)
They may be ancient, known mostly for epic Starcraft tournaments at the start of the competitive LAN game era, but don’t count Blizzard out. They made the move into the esports ecosystem with the grace of a much younger company. Hearthstone is the number one competitive card game in the world, beating out old hands like Magic the Gathering by appealing to a broader audience. Their team shooter, Overwatch, often charts in the top twenty-five games on Twitch. The Overwatch World Cup is still a big event, but recently the league lost its commissioner and top broadcasting talent. The luster may be fading.
⦁ Electronic Arts (FIFA, NBA2K, Apex Legends)
EA is an old, steady hand that has been around since the Commodore 64 days, before many of today’s competitive gamers were even born. With a stranglehold on licensed sports franchises, EA dominates the competitive sports simulation genre. With their NBA2K franchise holding big cash tournaments, and FIFA being an international esports superstar, they could have just sat atop their sporting empire and counted their money. Instead, they released one of the hottest battle royale FPS games in recent years. Apex Legends had a meteoric rise in 2020, vaulting past the likes of Rainbow Six Siege, and putting it right up there with CoD Warzone in popularity.
⦁ Activision (Call of Duty)
2020 has been a year of rebirth for the battle royale genre, and it wasn’t Epic or PUBG making the big moves. It was EA and Activision. With Call of Duty being one of the biggest battle simulations out there, maybe it wasn’t surprising that CoD: Warzone became a thing. What was shocking was how good it was. Warzone quickly became the gold standard ‘realistic’ battle royale on the market, with esports pedigree baked in. Given its massive popularity as a streamed game and Twitch pushing it in the Rivals events, Activision has some serious steam heading into 2021.
⦁ Epic Games (Fortnite)
And yet, only one game can be at the top of the battle royale ladder. And Epic’s Fortnite, at least for the moment, is still that game. It is regularly top five on Twitch, with high peak viewership for special events. With a young and talented player base competing at massive events like the Fortnite World Cup, it’s still easily holding its own. One of the reasons for that is a smart design decision: The game trades ‘realism’ for fun, without losing its competitive edge. Epic may be looking over their shoulder, but they still have a big lead on most of the other esports publishers.
⦁ Psyonix (Rocket League)
Finally, we’re going to visit a weird little corner of the esports ecosystem. A place where flying cars and giant soccer balls collide for some serious, competitive fun. Psyonix’s Rocket League regularly ends up as a top twenty game on platforms like Twitch, and a fan favorite in the world of esports. They have regular $100k prize pool events as part of their Competitive Series. And at the moment, there’s no other game chasing them down for their well-earned niche in the esports ecosystem.
Publishers that are still pretty big, but similar to others already mentioned, include Ubisoft (Rainbow 6 Siege) and the PUBG Corporation (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds). Both of these games have recently suffered from updates that have been either a bit boring or completely unbalanced. They still have a place in the esports scene, but it may fade if they don’t get their acts together.
Finally, an example of an up-and-coming publisher that is quite popular but still needs to steer the game out of beta is Battlestate Games (Escape from Tarkov).
Even if these three games are lacking in stability or polish right now, it should be noted: Hundreds of solo streamers and esports teams still play these games professionally on a regular basis. Speaking of teams…
Esports teams need to dedicate themselves to a fairly narrow number of games in order to stay competitive. The relationship between the publishers and the teams that play their games is one of trust more than anything else.
When the impact of a single patch can destroy strategies that your team has been working on for months, more conservative and scientific publishers are favored over less reliable ones. It’s one of the reasons that esports teams are moving away from games like Siege and towards games like Valorant, because they know Riot has years upon years of experience in balancing new content.
At the same time, these players are going to want to go where the money is. If fans and sponsors are moving away from a game, the players almost certainly have to follow. We’ll get more into team decisions and dynamics in the next article, but for the moment consider this:
An esports team spends months and often years honing their skills as a unit. They need to know that the publisher of the game that they’ve chosen will hold the interest of the gaming world. As the value of the publisher and their games decline, the value of the team’s rarified skill set also declines.
Find out more about esports players and teams in our next post ‘Esports players and teams’.