Esports has grown from humble tournaments to a spectacle that packs stadiums and draws multi-million dollar franchising fees. ESP Gaming’s new series, the World Showdown of Esports, challenges some of the notions of what makes an ideal arena for esports. As the field continues to grow, the WSOE offers an alternate perspective on what esports can look like, and how to solve some of the problems organizers and players are currently facing.
Some esports, like Dota 2 or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, have players competing in ongoing events in order to quality for larger events. Dota 2, in particular, has players competing for a massive prize pool, which makes for an emotionally charged tournament but a feast-or-famine ecosystem.
Ongoing leagues, like Riot Games’ League Championship Series or Blizzard’s Overwatch League, are the primary way that esports are breaking into the mainstream. While these have a powerful appeal in that they mimic the consistency and draw of traditional sports, there are drawbacks as well, including long training schedules that can induce player burnout, mental health concerns, and continuous pressure on players.
“I want to do for esports what UFC did for MMA,” Christian Bishop, the commissioner of the WSOE, tells Polygon.
Mixed martial arts was an industry that spent time underground before slowly gaining mainstream appeal and popularity. In the early days of the sport, events were held in states without rigorous speculation on athletic competitions. The Ultimate Fighting Championship slowly refined the sport over time, creating a more ethical, popular, and marketable version of the competition.
“We know we have to innovate,” Bishop says. “Sometimes you can alienate esports’ old guard, but if we want to provide a new product and add value to the greater ecosystem, we had to be different.”
The WSOE, which takes place in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, started near the end of 2018 with a $100,000 prize pool Dota 2 tournament. The events are streamed on Twitch, and there are different games for each event. Unlike, for example, the LCS and League of Legends, the WSOE hosts events for most popular esports titles. Those events crown champions, and those champions carry their titles over to future events.
The format still focuses on competition and the skill inherent to esports, but there’s more emphasis on the spectacle of the show and the players behind the screens. Bishop notes that they try to showcase the “most exciting games” first. Sometimes that manifests in a women’s-only Hearthstone tournament; other times it’s focused on the frenetic action of Fortnite Battle Royale.
Being able to adapt to games and hosting different events is a major strength. It gives the WSOE flexibility, and, if all goes well, a theoretically infinite lifespan.
“We’re agnostic when it comes to publishers and platforms,” says Bishop. Fortnite was chosen because it was riding a high tide of popularity, while Rocket League is a lower-tier game that has remained consistently viable as an esport due to its strong fundamentals.
“If any esport makes it into the Olympics, it’ll be Rocket League,” says Bishop.
This can cause complications when publishers hold strongly guarded rights to a title. However, it also means that the WSOE can keep an eye on upcoming titles and pivot to them as their star rises, while older titles can bow out when their player base wanes.
Secondly, it can be a better deal for players. While Bishop says that WSOE events are a high stakes event, and explains that it can be a full day of pressure on players, it’s much more of a sprint than a marathon. Even watching a full docket of matches as a fan for the competitive leagues of OWL or the LCS can be exhausting; being a player is a far more difficult task.
Bishop says with a laugh that he doesn’t think anyone in esports can stop players from sitting down for hours, but the WSOE focuses more on short term sprints of play time over a prolonged marathon of maintaining a standing. ESP Gaming maintains an ethics board and puts resources into hospitality and travel costs, but the standard of upkeep is lower.
Potentially the most difficult hurdle the WSOE must clear if they intend to achieve their goals is making their tournaments an effective onramp for new fans to get into esports. Bishop states that they want to make esports something a family can watch together, and they are specifically aiming for parents and grandparents.
“When it comes to a title like Dota 2, we need to take responsibility for making it clear and understandable,” says Bishop. A top-down MOBA or a fast-paced shooter can be visually incoherent for new fans, and esports is often laden with jargon and lingo that makes it sound like another language altogether.
ESP Gaming is expanding their tools to make spectating easier, with Bishop citing augmented reality and Twitch chat participation as upcoming priorities in the future. However, part of being “the MMA of esports” goes beyond the format and the narrative focus. The WSOE is looking to create a sustainable circuit that continually welcomes new fans and keeps them hooked. It makes for an intriguing alternative to the current franchised league format we see in so many other esports. Time will tell whether ESP Gaming can succeed, but the idea of champions, title fights, and emotionally charged showdowns has already seen success in wrestling and MMA.