Back when I started playing computer games, there was this guy named “Fatal1ty” who was so good at First-Person Shooters like Quake, he inadvertently created the “eSports” industry.
It began with the Cyberathlete Professional League founded in Dallas in 1997.
It’s defunct now, but it gave out over $3 million to its tournament champions—and those champions like Fatal1ty endorsed overpriced computer parts marketed to hardcore gamers.
Pro-Gaming or “eSports” remained an afterthought to the gaming industry as a whole until 2002, when the South Koreans discovered their love for Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft: Brood War, a real-time strategy game.
The country’s relationship to the game was so much like a “real sport.” You saw things like sports betting, and even its shadowy partner match fixing show up. 2002 also saw the founding of the obviously-named Major League Gaming and other large eSports organisations modelled, at least superficially, after the NFL, NBA and MLB, with commissioners and etc. Some championship tournaments were even broadcast on ESPN.
Things have been changing, however, in the last few months. Professional gamers used to earn their money by winning tournaments. The prize purses were substantial, but limited to the victors. But pooling all the winnings together gives you a dollar amount less than the average salary of a New York Yankee.
But the industry went through a paradigm shift, and now people can sit in their bedrooms and play videos games—and not even be that good at them—and make a decent living for themselves and their families.
The cause of this shift is Twitch.tv and its YouTube-like partnership program. They contracted with all the major tournament companies to stream their events on their website. But most importantly, they let individuals set up their own gaming streams. Suddenly being a “professional” gamer became possible not just for savants like Fatal1ty, but for anyone who could get an audience to watch them play video games. If you don’t think there are millions of people willing to watch someone mildly amusing do fairly mindless things, I direct you to the infamous Jenna Marbles.
Like YouTube, any Twitch broadcaster can enter into a partnership agreement and share ad revenue. Unlike YouTube, Twitch gives a subscription model to users who average around 1,000 viewers at any time, allowing their viewers to subscribe to their stream (and remove the commercial break and advertisements) for monthly fees around $9.99. I don’t have the precise financial data, but the model is enough for a lot of people to make a living off of it.
Now here’s the problem: Twitch has a choke-hold on the entire professional gaming industry. Unlike Google, which lets its posters basically get away with anything that isn’t pornography or copyright infringement, Twitch’s Terms of Service allow them to terminate your partnership agreement (and therefore your very livelihood, if you’re a professional gamer) for any reason at all. See 11.1 of Twitch Terms of Service.
That’s not OK. At the risk of sounding elitist, the kinds of people earning serious amounts of money streaming their video gaming are not sophisticated or wealthy enough to organise themselves to bargain for better job security.
When Twitch terminates your Partnership Agreement, there is no warning and appeals process; a close friend of mine recently had to call the President of a major computer game developer to get his Twitch back after it was taken down for “TOS violations” (which remember, can be anything). My source inside Twitch says the termination of his Partnership Agreement was a personal vendetta of a Twitch administrator.
I see two solutions: Either (1) a competitor to Twitch needs to arise, which is unlikely considering the immense economy-of-scale of this kind of service or (2) the professional gamers of the world need to unionize and put themselves on equal footing vis-a-vis bargaining power.
These professional gamers are no different from professional athletes. Their jobs may be less glamorous, but it still takes a similar or even greater level of skill and dedication to win a tournament or run an entertaining stream. I’m not saying they deserve the kinds of contracts professional athletes get, but they deserve at least a little job security. If the gaming industry is really interested in investing in eSports, they need to reign in Twitch.tv and give their athletes the dignity and security of a steady income.
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