2018 Asian Games Esports Games List Includes Some Surprising Choices

Yesterday, the 2018 Asian Games, billed as the largest multi-sport event in the world outside of the Olympics, announced what games will form part of competition at its inaugural esports event. While esports will be a “demonstration,” not a medal event at these games (they will be a medal event for the next games in 2022), this is still a pretty big deal, as it’s the first time esports has formed part of a major traditional sports competition like this. The games forming part of the lineup are: League of Legends, Hearthstone, StarCraft 2, Pro Evolution Soccer, Clash Royale and Arena of Valor (a Chinese mobile MOBA that basically looks like a mobile version of LoL).

I have to say, if I had guess what games would form part of the lineup, these are not the 6 titles I would necessarily have come up with. My thoughts on each of these choices:

League of Legends: Not a huge surprise, as this is by far the most successful of the six games listed. Of course, the other of the world’s two most successful MOBAs, DotA, is not part of the event. I’m wondering if this was intentional, as the organisers felt they had to pick one game or the other in order to prevent “MOBA overload.” You have to wonder if the two games will become mutually exclusive at major multi-esport events in the future for this reason.

Hearthstone: It’s going to be fun seeing how this one turns out, just because of the RNG factor. Yes, every sport involves luck (although with a lot of other e-sports the luck factor is surprisingly small), but given how blatant and in-your-face the luck factor in Hearthstone is, something seems a bit off about having it as an event at a major sporting competition where medals are won, national pride is at stake and *serious sports things* happen. Do you really want the medal winner of your event decided because [insert name of random damage card here] ended up hitting face instead of the opponent’s board?

Also, given that Hearthstone is not necessarily an easy game to pick up by watching, and you basically need to have played the game to understand how it works or what any of the cards do, the game will have pretty much zero accessibility for non-esports fans (or even gamers who aren’t Hearthstone fans).  This means it’s maybe not the best choice if the purpose of this event is to expose esports to a non-gaming audience.

StarCraft 2: The grandaddy of the e-sports scene! While it doesn’t have the audience numbers it once did, given its role in the development of esports it seems fitting that SC2 should be one of the events here. StarCraft is also probably pound-for-pound the most fun to watch out of the six listed here, and also the easiest game understand and digest for a non-esports audience (when non-gamers think video games, a game like StarCraft, with space marines fighting each other, etc. is probably what they think of). Overall, can’t really complain about this one.

Pro Evolution Soccer: Why not FIFA? [Update: as some reddit commenters to this post have pointed out, PES is the soccer game in Asia instead of FIFA, so that solves that mystery.] Also, scratch that comment about StarCraft 2. This is definitely going to be the most easy to understand game for a non-esports audience, although I feel like it shouldn’t really count because it’s the only game that’s simulating a real sport. On an unrelated note, since I’m assuming real soccer will be an event at the games too, how about a “split” event where the soccer players play real soccer for the first half, and the gamers play PES for the second half, then the scores are combined? This could be the esports equivalent of chess boxing.

Clash Royale: Clash Royale is kind of like the quiet overachieving kid of the esports scene. No one really thinks too much about it, but it shows up in these tournaments more than you’d think. This is also the first of two mobile games forming part of the lineup. People who haven’t played Clash before can literally see the event, download the game on their phone, and be playing 30 seconds later. I feel like I should take this opportunity to invest in SuperCell stock or something.

Arena of Valor: I’ve never heard of this game, and while some quick googling tells me it’s huge in China, I have to wonder if it was really the optimal choice here, especially since the game play is so similar to League of Legends, which is already part of the competition.

Overall, there’s a few major omissions that I would have expected to see on this list, including DotA, Overwatch and CS:GO. Even and Smash Brothers or PUBG may have made an interesting addition if the organizers wanted to stray from the beaten path a bit.

In particular, the lack of shooters is a bit puzzling . If this is supposed to be a showcase of esports in general, it seems like you’d want at least one shooter there. Maybe the organisers were concerned about the potential violent nature of these games, and this isn’t really the image they wanted to convey.

Regardless, while this is not necessarily the game lineup I would have gone with, it will be fun to see how this turns out. Hopefully the organizers pick up some pointers about what worked and didn’t this time around, and use those lessons when setting the lineup for future events.

Jail Time and Fines For Hackers Show Video Games Have Finally Made It

It’s been a tough few weeks for video game hackers. Yesterday in Los Angeles, a hacker responsible for a number of DDoS attacks against World of Warcraft’s servers  was sentenced to one year in jail, as well as being ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution to Blizzard for the cost of responding to the attacks. This news comes on the heels of reports last week that South Korea has sentenced two of thirteen hackers recently arrested for making cheats for Overwatch, with one receiving a $10,000 fine, and the other receiving probation. Similarly, China has recently arrested 15 individuals charged with making PUBG cheats, levying a whopping $4.5 million USD in fines against them.

One notable thing about all these cases is that the perpetrators were charged criminally. While game companies have been suing hackers in civil court for years (see for instance Epic’s recent crusade against a 14-year-old Fortnite cheat maker), this is the actual government coming after people, often expending considerable resources to do so. For example, the WoW hacker above was caught after an international investigation spearheaded by the FBI, which took 8 years to conclude (the attacks actually occurred in 2010, the hacker was indicted in 2011, then the US government spent spent the intervening time, and what I assume are considerable resources, fighting to extradite him from his native Romania).

Cue 8-bit version of the “Cops” theme.

These kind of stories show how far the perception of video games has changed in mainstream society. I think it’s pretty safe to say that if a game company had gone to a law enforcement agency 20 years ago and asked for their help catching someone making CounterStrike hacks, they would have been politely told to mind their own business. After all, video games were still seen as kids stuff back then. The government wasn’t going to divert resources they could be spending on catching drug dealers to trying stop people from being able to see through walls on de_dust.

Nowadays that’s not the case. Video games are big business, and when Blizzard calls, the FBI apparently listens. Some countries, like Korea, have even passed legislation explicitly making it illegal to make video game hacks, with violations of the law punishable by up to 5 years in jail.  And crucially, all this is seen is perfectly fine by society at large, with no one really raising any eyebrows when any of this stuff happens, even outside gaming circles.

While I think it’s still an open question whether this kind of behavior really deserves the kind of serious criminal sanctions we’re talking about here  – after all, you could argue all these people are really doing is mildly interfering with others’ enjoyment of an entertainment product – it’s still good to see video games being taken seriously this way.

Going Viral By Accident: Stories of Unconventional Indie Marketing Success

I’ve already spent a lot of time on this blog talking about how difficult marketing can be for indie devs, and how  with 30+ new indie games coming out on Steam every day, generating any media coverage and making your game stand out for the crowd can be extremely hard.

While some indies manage to accomplish that through standard methods (writing to journalists, dev blogs, getting covered by streamers, social media etc.), it’s clear that marketing is not an exact science, and sometimes the things that result in the most exposure for games are the things you never expect. After spending some time reading postmortems for various indie games, a few of these random, unintended-consequence marketing stories stuck out for me, so I thought I’d share them here. So without further ado, here’s some the more unconventional ways that some devs have managed to “accidentally” get some exposure for their games:

  • Write an Angry Forum Post to One Of Your Fans. Hugh Monahan, developer of indie isometric shooter Brigador, was having a rough day. After seeing a spike of initial sales at release, sales for his game had faded to “next-to-nothing” levels (that would be the stretch labeled “Pit of Despair” in the chart below). When a couple of his fans started complaining on the game’s forums about the $20 price tag for the game he had sunk 5 years of his life into, instead of letting it go, he wrote sarcastic blog post tearing into them. The post went viral, and was eventually picked up by Kotaku and other game publications. The resulting exposure resulted in the  biggest sales spike in the game’s life cycle, as seen in the handy chart below:

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    The result of getting covered by Kotaku.
  • Put a Gif Maker Into Your Game. Patrick Corriery, the developer of PolyBridge, a hugely successful bridge building simulator, credits a lot of his success to one simple decision: creating a built-in GIF generator for his game. He did this on the suggestion of a developer friend, not expecting it to be a major game feature. However, once the game came out, the GIF generator ended up being the key driving force behind the game’s success. Players started sharing little snippets of his game on reddit and other social media, a few of them hit the front page, and from that point on the snowball kept rolling creating massive buzz and sales for the game.
  • Go Viral On Reddit With a Cute Infographic. The devs of the indie bullet-hell shooter Starlicker put a lot of work into making their game, and by the time it came to release and market it, they were by their own estimation tapped out. Luckily, a friend of the devs, wanting to help them out, made a cute info graphic asking people to check out the game. The post managed to tap into the sensibilities of the reddit hive mind, shooting up to the top of /r/gaming and even ending up on the front page for a while. It was viewed at least 400,000 times, resulting in 10,000 downloads,  which accounted for more than 90% of the game’s total lifetime sales.
  • Create a “Twitch-Plays” for Your Game. Ok this one wasn’t really accidental, and isn’t something that’s going to work again, but TinyBuild Games, publisher of the boxing-themed-tamagochi-like-life-simulator Punch Club came up with a pretty brilliant strategy for generating coverage for their game. Before putting it out, they created a “Twitch plays” for it, in the same spirit as Twitch plays Pokemon. The catch was that the game would not be released until the Twitch community beat it. The novelty resulted in a lot of media coverage both relating to the stunt itself and the practicalities surrounding it (after all, some people had pre-ordered it seeking a fixed launch date). As a result of the coverage the game made it to no. 5 on the overall Steam sales charts on the weekend it was released, a pretty impressive feat for an indie.

The Biggest Problem Facing E-Sports Right Now

What would you say the biggest problem facing e-sports right now is? The lack of mainstream TV deals? Dangerously high levels of energy drink consumption? The occasional collapsed lung?

This man has a problem.

While I think we can all agree the collapsed lung issue needs to be closely monitored, in my view there’s one fundamental problem facing e-sports that’s bigger than all of these: game companies have way too much power.

The reason for this is simple: they own copyright to the games, and if anyone, anywhere wants to run and broadcast an e-sports tournament, they need to get their permission. Because of this game companies basically have the ability to exercise absolute, 100% control, over the e-sports ecosystem. Some companies are currently taking advantage of this more than others, but in the long run they all have the ability to do this.

This is probably the most fundamental difference, business-wise, between e-sports and traditional sports. Imagine if someone needed the NBA’s permission to start a basketball league, or the PGA’s permission before running a private golf tournament. That’s basically the situation with e-sports right now.

In my opinion, is a very bad thing for the long-term health of e-sports, for two reasons:

  • Lack of Competition: I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that competition is crucial for the development of a healthy e-sports scene, especially at this early stage. If you want the best possible e-sports product to develop, you need to let different people with different approaches try things out. Some will work, some won’t, but ultimately the market will ensure the best products come out on top. If game companies can deny licenses to any potential competitors and basically set themselves up as the only game in town, then this process can’t happen, and we’re all the worse off for it.  The best example of this is probably the Overwatch scene for most of last year. Despite the game being hugely popular, its competitive scene was essentially dying on the vine and teams were shutting down left and right because Blizzard was  refusing to grant anyone licenses to hold Overwatch events (this was because, of course, it didn’t want these events competing with the Overwatch league it was going to start up itself).

 

  • Lack of Bargaining Power for Teams/Players: This is a corollary of the competition issue. As discussed in this post, because they control the games, the game companies have essentially all the bargaining power in negotiating how revenue gets split with players or their teams. Using the Overwatch league as an example, if the teams/players aren’t happy with how much money Blizzard is offering them, they can’t really tell Blizzard to f*** off go and set up their own competing league. Their only options are quite literally to take or leave what Blizzard’s offering. In the long run this means less salary money for players, less money for teams to market themselves (and by extension e-sports), less interest by investors looking to start or fund teams, and, ultimately, a less vibrant evolving e-sports scene.

This problem also applies to other parts of the e-sports ecosystem like streaming. Every single streamer right now is  infringing on a game company’s copyright. While most companies are currently being cool about the issue, as the money being made from streaming continues to increase, how long until more and more of them start going all Nintendo and shutting down streamers unless they agree to kick in a huge chunk of their profits to the company? Or how long until they decide only a select group of company-approved streamers can stream their games? And if this starts happening, what effect do you think that will have on the quality and variety of gaming streams available out there?

So what’s the solution? Simple – create an exception to copyright law that lets anyone, not just the game companies, operate and broadcast e-sports events (and streams) without needing permission of the holder of that game’s copyright (i.e. the game’s publisher).  Anyone who wants to set up an e-sports event or stream a game would have the unencumbered ability to do so, and the free market would be free to work its proverbial magic. Fans of Overwatch wouldn’t be forced to cross their fingers and hope they like what Blizzard does with the Overwatch league because they know they have no other options. Blizzard would have a bigger incentive to make sure it puts out the best product possible because it knows it can’t simply sue the competition out of existence.  The cream would rise to the top and we’d all get the best e-sports product possible.

Of course, I think there’s about zero chance of this kind of change happening for the foreseeable future.  For something like this to happen you’d need (1) a change to the copyright legislation creating some kind of exemption for operating or broadcasting e-sports events, (2) a court decision changing the interpretation of the existing copyright legislation on the terms above (maybe expanding the fair use doctrine to cover something like this – how likely such a challenge would be to succeed I have no idea, I’m just spitballing here).

As things stand, there isn’t really any big groundswell of support that could motivate the former, and I’d be surprised if anyone involved in e-sports has the resources and incentives necessary spend huge sums of money and years in court arguing about the latter. However, as more money starts being made in e-sports, don’t be surprised if this becomes a bigger point of friction between the game companies and the team owners/players, and some serious legal fights in this area taking place (maybe instead of going for the clickbaity title, I should have called this post “The Biggest Problem Esports Will Face In 5 Years.”). It will be interesting to see what happens when/if this does occur.

 

Pokemon GO Lawsuit Settles for $83,000

Remember that Pokemon GO lawsuit I posted about a few months ago?  It turns out that Pokemon GO probably is protected by the right to free speech, as the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has agreed to settle the case for the sum of $83,000, with the entire amount reportedly going to the plaintiff’s legal fees. The park board will also agree not to enforce the ordinance at issue, which creates an awkward permitting process for any augmented reality games to be played in Milwaukee public parks.

This settlement comes after a July court ruling holding that it was likely that the plaintiff would succeed in establishing that the park board ordinance banning augmented reality games from public parks violated their right to free expression under the first amendment, and granting an injunction preventing the park board from enforcing the injunction.

This is as close to a 100% win as you get in law, with the board agreeing to give the plaintiffs everything their were asking for, and pay their legal fees. Score one for the forces of justice and freedom.

How is the E-Sports Revenue Pie Going to Be Split?

Pie
Yes, I got lazy with the picture, but you try finding something that matches “e-sports revenue pie”

I recently did a podcast with local game developer Christian Sears, and a really interesting question came up and I thought I’d write a post about it, as it’s probably one of the most interesting issues to follow as the e-sports industry develops. The question comes down to this: as e-sports, and in particular e-sports leagues, become more established, how are revenues they earn going to be split?

One good starting point for an answer to this question is probably traditional sports. In most traditional pro sports leagues like the NBA and NHL, revenue is generally split roughly 50/50 between owners and players. Each league has arrived at that split after years of hard-nosed labour negotiations, including lockouts, strikes and countless melodramatic press conferences, so maybe there’s something about that number, and we can expect that in e-sports revenue will also end up being shared along those same lines.

Of course, with e-sports you have a third power group that doesn’t really exist in traditional sports: the companies that make the games. While no one “owns” basketball or hockey, someone does own games like Overwatch, League of Legends and DotA. Anyone who wants to operate an e-sports event needs the game maker’s consent, which means the game maker is going to get a piece of the pie. For this reason, I think the key issue regarding how revenue will be allocated in e-sports leagues is not the split between players and owners, like in traditional sports, but the split between the game companies and everyone else.

That seems to be the direction things are heading for a lot existing sports leagues. For instance, the League of Legends North America League Championship Series (NALCS) recently unveiled an overhauled revenue sharing model that states revenue will essentially be split three ways with Riot Games, the company behind LoL, getting 32.5% of league revenues, teams getting 32.5% and players getting 35%. In Blizzard’s upcoming Overwatch league, the split is apparently going to be 50/50 between Blizzard and the teams (with no details regarding how much of the teams’ share will go to the players).

While 32.5% and 50% are already significant numbers, if I had to guess, I would say that as things continue to shake out, the revenue going to the game companies is only going to increase. This is because, as discussed above, they’re literally the only game in town, and have all the bargaining power.

Say for example Blizzard goes to the owners and players in the Overwatch league a few years from now and asks for 70% of revenue instead of the current 50%. Even if all the owners and players were united against Blizzard’s demands, they can’t exactly tell Blizzard to f*** off and start their own league, because, as discussed Blizzard literally owns the game their league is based on and can prevent them from doing that. Instead, the owners and players would have essentially two choices: (1) take the 30%, or (2) stop operating and make nothing.

Blizzard, on the other hand, could always find more teams and players to replace the ones sitting out. They probably prefer not to go through the effort, but if the league is making money hand over fist and that extra 20% of revenue works out to a lot of cash, the effort may be worth it to them. Plus, if the league is doing well financially, there will probably be no shortage of new teams and players looking to sign up, even if they’re only getting 30% of revenues instead of 50%.

The bottom line is that Blizzard can always find more teams and players. The teams and players can’t find another Overwatch league.

Right now, the owners and players in e-sports leagues are basically in the same situation baseball players were before unrestricted free agency came along. They’re basically at the mercy of the game companies, who can pay them the minimum they’ll accept to continue operating and no more, then keep all the remaining profit for themselves.

I may be overstating things here of course. There’s obviously PR aspects to this I haven’t really considered. As EA has learned recently, the gaming community can get petty worked up by things they perceive as unfair. This would also take a certain cold bloodedness from the game companies that we haven’t really seen yet, nor would I expect to see anytime soon given that a lot of these e-sports leagues are just getting off the ground, no one knows how successful they’ll be, and everyone is in the “let’s all get together and make this thing work” phase.

However, and as e-sports gets more established and the amount of money at stake increases, that phase might start to give way to a more business-minded approach by the game companies (it’s worth noting, for instance, that Blizzard has essentially spent the year essentially shutting out independent Overwatch tournaments, harming the Overwatch scene in the process, in order to prepare for the roll out of the Overwatch league), and lead to the kind of negotiations you see in traditional sports. If that does happen, I can tell you right now who’s probably going to win, and it’s not going to be the teams or players.

MLB to File Trademark Dispute Regarding Overwatch League Logo

From the “this is why people hate lawyers” file, it appears that Major League Baseball has filed a notice with the US Patent and Trademark Office stating it intends to dispute Blizzard’s registration of the logo for its upcoming Overwatch league, on the grounds that it may be confusing with its own logo. Here’s the two logos side by side for comparison:

Logo ComparisonConfused? Me either. The main similarity between the two appears to be the image of a white silhouette bordered by a two tone background. Hmm, why does that sound familiar? Oh right.

                    NBA Logo

So watch out NBA. After the MLB’s inevitable crushing victory against Blizzard, you’re next.

My favorite thing about this story though? Technically this isn’t really news. The MLB actually filed the notice at the heart of this story almost three months ago, in late April. No one reported on it at the time, and since then there’s actually been no new developments on this (the MLB has until July 26 to file their legal argument in the dispute).

As far as I can tell, the only reason this has become a story now is that New York entertainment law firm Morrison Lee posted an item about it on their firm blog and everyone else just ran with it, with the story even ending up in non-gaming publications such as Deadspin, and CBS Sports. This probably says a lot of things about how the media works that I’m not smart enough to encapsulate in writing here. In any event, it looks like one little law firm blog can change the world after all. In keeping with that, if anyone out there has any sweet, sweet industry gossip they’d like to leak, please know that I am available.

Who Owns Your Steam Games? (Hint: It’s Not You)

team

Now that game sales are moving more and more into the digital realm, a question I sometimes hear is whether this changes anything in regard to game ownership, and whether users really “own” the games they buy through services like Steam.

The short answer to that question is no, users don’t really “own” their Steam games. However, they never owned games they bought on CDs either. When someone buys a game, all they get is a license to use the game, usually for personal, non-commercial purposes. The game company still owns all the intellectual property related to the game, all the buyer gets is essentially a right to play it. This has been true since the beginning of the industry, and the shift from selling physical copies of games to electronic copies has done nothing to change this from a legal perspective.

From a practical standpoint, however, things have changed considerably. Electronic delivery of games has made it far, far easier for companies to actually enforce the terms of their game licenses. For example, while in the days of CDs game companies had essentially zero chance of enforcing prohibitions on making copies of games or sharing them with others, nowadays that’s not the case. Services like Steam can keep far closer track of what you do with your copy of a game, and make it far harder for users to “circumvent” any such restrictions.

Moreover, if someone breaches the terms of a game license, it’s a lot easier for for companies to terminate that license (i.e. cut off that person’s access to the game). For instance, Valve regularly bans Steam users caught cheating by their software.

While Counterstrike cheaters aren’t too high on anyone’s pity list, other Steam users have also been banned for other, more vague transgressions against Valve’s terms of service, losing access to copies of all games in their library. For instance, this story highlights the story of a who was banned by Valve for vague violations of its terms of service, without any clear explanation for what he did wrong. The user lost access to a game library containing approximately $1,500 worth of games, with no refund, which appears to be Valve’s policy in the case of these bans. The ban was eventually lifted after the story made the rounds on some game publications, however the user was never provided with an explanation for what his alleged transgression was.

Admittedly stories like the one above are few and far between at the moment, however as electronic sales become more established, and other companies become more involved in online game sales *cough* Origin *cough* they’re bound to become more common.

Right now the only legal recourse someone who feels they were unfairly banned by Valve or another company from their service would be taking that company to court or arbitration, which makes no financial sense, even for $1,500 worth of games. At the same time, this is still real money that people have spent on their games (not to mention what can be hundreds or thousands of hours of progress, which must have some value), and allowing companies to essentially act as judge, jury and executioner in cutting off their access to their game library, without giving the these persons some practical recourse to dispute their ban (beyond the pipe dream of a lawsuit) seems entirely unfair. What the practical solution to this problem is I don’t know, but it’s something to think about as the era of physical game copies winds down.

 

CD Projekt RED Struck By Blackmail Attempt

It looks like the video game industry isn’t immune from the kind of ransomware attacks that have been hitting…well, everywhere, recently, as CD Projekt Red, the Polish developer behind the Witcher series, reports being subject to a blackmail attempt by thieves who have stolen some early development materials for its’ upcoming game, Cyberpunk 77. The blackmailers have reportedly threatened to release the materials online if their demands aren’t met.

What’s been great to see is the way the company has responded to to the situation. Taking a page from the Jaromir Jagr handbook, they’ve basically told the blackmailers to go ahead and release everything. They’ve also put out a public statement summarizing the situation, and noting that the materials are old and don’t represent the current state of the game.

All in all, this was a fantastic way to handle this by the company. In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if the positive PR, and the extra exposure  for Cyberpunk 77 that the company gets as a result of this incident (ironically enough, this story will probably be the reason many people hear about the game for the first time) will outweigh any damage done if the materials are released.

Full statement from CD Projekt Red below:

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