With the size of prize pools continuing to balloon and the visible success of popular pro gamers, it’s easy to only see one particularly lucrative aspect of the esports industry. The opportunity to make a significant amount of money from playing esports is obviously appealing and the variety of potential revenue streams for gamers are many; however, when it comes down to it, most of the profit and power is not centered around the gamers themselves, but rather the publishers who own the rights to the very games being played.
In a recent article from Wired, writer Cecilia D’Anastasio described the experience of James “Clayster” Eubanks. Eubanks, one of the premier Call of Duty players in the world, recently helped his team, Dallas Empire, win the first ever official League Championship title for Call of Duty. Yet, due to decisions made by Activision, the publisher of Call of Duty, Eubanks found himself abruptly dropped from the team a month later. This instance of a successful pro gamer finding their career path suddenly altered by forces beyond their reckoning draws attention to the power structures of an industry that has gone through a period of rapid growth over the past few years. This speed of growth is a big reason why it’s often confusing to understand who’s actually pulling the strings when it comes to pro gaming.
For instance, with regards to the Eubanks example, Activision only started the Call of Duty League this year. Following the example set by Blizzard producing their professional Overwatch League, Activision announced that they would be producing their own professional esports league in 2019 with the first Call of Duty League season starting in 2020. As such, this past July’s championship was, in some ways, a bit of an experiment for Activision. This first season consisted of a championship tournament between 12 five-player teams from different cities around the world. In August, just after Eubanks and the other four members of the Dallas Empire team won the title, Activision decided that moving forward, professional Call of Duty league teams would consist of only four players. This decision made Eubanks the odd man out.
In a more established sport or competition, team sizes would never be changed so suddenly. Yet, when it comes to pro gaming, there is often a severe lack of established precedent. While the rapid growth of the industry has proven lucrative for competitive gamers like Eubanks, without the established rules of larger, external league organizations, rapid changes and developments can happen quickly. When the publisher of a game is also the power behind a particular game’s league, the publisher controls how the league works.
As the esports industry continues to develop, it alternates between mirroring and diverging from the precedent established by traditional sports. However, there are important distinctions to keep in mind; as D’Anastasio points out, “Nobody owns soccer. The beautiful game isn’t anyone’s intellectual property. Esport games are.” At the end of the day, the power and revenue that comes from traditional sports is generated by the marketing, sponsorships, and viewership of professional matches. Nobody is making money off of the actual sports being paid. When it comes to esports, however, while revenue is being generated in many of the same ways as it is in traditional sports, the publishers who own the games themselves are the ones who are ultimately profiting.
Activision, the game publisher behind Call of Duty, is only one of a number of giant companies that own the games which pro gamers build their careers playing competitively. Yet, in reality, pro gamers don’t make much money directly from the games they play or even the publishers of those games. This might seem counterintuitive. If the publishers are at the top of the food chain, one might assume that the profits would trickle down to the gamers at the chain’s lower links. However, the only money that gamers get from publishers would be from the prize pools of official, publisher-produced league competitions (like the Call of Duty League Championship) or any specific sponsorship deals a publisher like Activision might set up with gamers directly. This is only a small part of the pie for a pro gamers’ income.
Ultimately, a pro gamer has multiple revenue streams bringing money their way. From viewership of their streams to content creation to the monetization of social media accounts like Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, a pro gamer’s capital typically functions in much the same way a social media influencer’s does. That’s not to say that the player’s skill and talent don’t matter; they do. The better a competitor is, the more attention they draw to both themselves and the game they’re playing. That attention is ultimately the ‘coin of the realm.’
The function of pro gaming itself serves to draw attention to the games being played. Not all pro gamers are competitive gamers; many are streamers or content creators. The very “pro” in pro gaming comes from the fact that these gamers have been able to become professional, or rather, have become able to monetize their gaming. They can make money off of it in much the same way publishers do.
Looking back at the origins of the esports industry as it currently exists, in the early 2000s, a lot of today’s pioneer pro gamers started off sharing YouTube videos of their video game exploits. This paved the way for streaming as it has developed within the industry. A lot of the first esport competitions were organized by gaming enthusiasts. For years, gaming was considered a niche interest. It has since become one of the biggest industries in the world. D’Anastasio notes that “generous appraisals put the global esports market at $1 billion.”
So when it comes to who has the power in esports, the easy and oft overlooked answer is, “the game publishers.” But that’s not really the whole picture. Sure, as D’Anastasio puts it, “While players acknowledge the opportunities they’ve been given to literally game for work, they’re wary of how much power the publishers hold.” However, when you really think about it, the power that “the publishers hold” comes from the attention of the gamers themselves. Not necessarily the pro gamers, because they profit on the same attention that the publishers do. No; ultimately, the gaming industry is what it is today because a bunch of “gaming enthusiasts” made it so. It continues to thrive because people are willing to spend their time, money, and attention on the games that they’re passionate about.