"Anyone who's still concerned with legitimacy needs to move on, because it's here. And it's here to stay."
That was Twitch COO Kevin Lin, speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the DICE Summit earlier this month. It's part of a cycle of sentiments around the competitive gaming scene that has repeated itself for years. For every story about the explosive growth in eSports viewers and dollars, it seemed there was another story of mainstream voices like ESPN president John Skipper dismissing the market out of hand. However, Lin suggested the tone of this cycle is changing as the eSports community stops looking to the outside world for validation.
"It's not really so much a search for legitimacy any more. It's just a search for growth. That's what people are aspiring to now."
"The first couple years, between 2010 and 2012, there was a lot of that search, that desire to be compared with a sport," Lin said. "But over the last few years, because the audience has tuned in and everybody's paying attention from the advertisers on down, it's not really so much a search for legitimacy any more. It's just a search for growth. That's what people are aspiring to now. The legitimacy problem, in my opinion, is gone."
The legitimacy problem may be solved, but that just means eSports faces a new assortment of challenges. Lin identified a handful of significant bottlenecks to the field's growth, starting with some very literal growing pains.
"One big thing is as each [game's] community grows, you start to see this huge influx of tournaments online and offline," Lin said. "And it becomes this sort of glut of events. There are only so many players and so many teams to participate in those events, and many events' success really hinges on what teams they can get to come play. Now you've got almost every single weekend where players are flying from China to Sweden to the United States, and it wears on them."
Lin didn't have a set answer for addressing the glut of events in certain games. Some have suggested increased regionalization of tournaments to cut down on the travel burden for competitors, but Lin is skeptical that would work given that eSports is, in his words, "inherently global."
"You see this constant influx of talent, but a big part of it is the storytelling for that talent, not only how you discover them, but how you help them become popular and well known, how you draw that star power."
"People want to see the best teams from around the world play. That's what they expect," Lin said. "My guess is the organizations will start to organize with each other. They already do in some sense, making sure not to schedule over each other, but maybe there's some more coordination."
Star players and teams that serve as attractions for these tournaments are already limited in number, and Lin is concerned that the major players in the eSports field are missing opportunities to foster more of them.
"You see this constant influx of talent, but a big part of it is the storytelling for that talent, not only how you discover them, but how you help them become popular and well known, how you draw that star power, so to speak," Lin said. "There's a lot of work to be done there by the whole industry to help that."
Lin also said he'd like to see the industry figure out a better way to create sustainable eSports ecosystems around those tournaments.
"How do you fund these events? How do you fund the prize money or pay for player travel? Right now a lot of that hinges on sponsorships, ad revenue, subscriptions, and in some games there's the opportunity to create in-game items that can help fund it, but it's tough," Lin said. "It's really tough going for a lot of these guys. One of the big things that will happen this year, and has been happening over the last couple years is bigger and bigger sponsors are coming in to help build that foundation. Hopefully sponsors start to respond, especially big non-endemics, start to pay attention, realize this is a great audience for their brand, realize it's an interesting and growing cultural phenomenon, and that they begin to embrace that. That will really help boost the scene."
"So is match-fixing a problem? Absolutely it's a problem."
Lin said Twitch has seen increasing traction with non-endemic advertisers since it brought on an ad sales team about two years ago.
"It took a lot of education in the beginning, but people are really turning around," Lin said. "A lot of advertisers are now asking us specifically about eSports. 'Teach us about this. How do we get engaged? What games do we engage in? When do we engage?'"
There's also one concern surrounding eSports that directly undermines their hard-earned legitimacy. If people tune in to watch competitive gaming, match-fixing scandals like the recent one involving a pro team of Counter-Strike players are a detriment to the sport.
"Every sport is not without its own scandal," Lin said. "You look at traditional sports and they've got doping issues. They've got match fixing issues too. They have scandals around refs and whether they're actually being non-biased. It's just going to happen in a growing industry like this. So is match-fixing a problem? Absolutely it's a problem. Cheating is certainly a problem as well for online tournaments, and even physical tournaments where people figure out ways to apply cheats. And it's just going to take maturity of the scene. It's going to take everybody in that scene wanting to drive toward legitimacy to push that. It's going to involve the game companies, the players, the team owners, the leagues. They're all going to have to say, 'Look, we want to create something here, and every time something like this happens, it really takes us a step back. So how do we all move forward together?' And it's going to take a lot of coordination from all parties to do that."
"[F]or eSports to work, you will have to have some core titles that can span generations. And I think within this generation of eSports titles, that's kind of why it's working."
One thing Lin would love to see as eSports grows is the emergence of cross-generational games. Traditional sports have benefitted greatly from their longevity, with people passing down a love of the game to their children and grandchildren. That hasn't been possible in eSports yet, both for its relative newness and a game industry that has thrived by replacing popular games with sequels rather than cultivating them over time. However, Lin sees the emergence of games like League of Legends, titles built for longevity, as a helpful departure from that tradition.
"It is a very significant shift from the AAA boxed model where you're refreshing the franchise every single year and changing the game significantly," Lin said. "I do believe for eSports to work, you will have to have some core titles that can span generations. And I think within this generation of eSports titles, that's kind of why it's working."
In addition to those bigger picture issues, the growth of eSports also means potential problems for Twitch. While the video-streaming site is doubtlessly a significant player in the eSports scene right now, its nature as a partner and carrier could leave it open either to competitors who want to step in and fill the same role, or for developers of successful games who might get the idea to bring their online broadcasting in-house.
"We've got a pretty good relationship with the game companies and most of the big content creators," Lin said. "I think they see the value in a Twitch. They see the audience. For us, we've got to continue to innovate. We have to continue to build things these guys want, to continue to scale the product to reach a larger international audience. I think as long as we do that, people will see us as a viable distribution platform for them. Will people move to other platforms? Certainly. It's one of those situations where the scene is so nascent that you'll see a lot of new options pop in, and we're totally OK with that. It keeps us honest, it keeps us on our toes. It gives people choice, which is important in any growing industry. But the great thing about it is it really legitimizes what we do. The more attention paid to the space, the more investment in the space means the more the space can grow."