They are some of the most underrated members of any team, always in the shadows behind each play, and arguably treading uncharted grounds in their day to day work. Support staff, in esports particularly, are often the lesser known factor on a team. While some have risen to quite a prominence within a scene (Tony “Zikzlol” Gray and Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi come to mind), their work is largely unexplored. I got the chance to sit down with the up and coming YIKES! Overwatch support staff, Head Coach Jeremy “Jerkkit” Wong, Player Development Analyst Zachary “Sovereign” Bent and Strategist Pirin “Kitta” Singapan.
For those unfamiliar with YIKES!, they are the same team that once represented Denial eSports. While under that brand, fans may have seen them with strong showings at Overwatch Monthly Melees and Rivalcades. As YIKES!, they’ve managed to one-up their Denial eSports performance and take first at the most recent Overwatch Monthly Melee. While the roster may have flown under some fans’ radar, that can’t be the case any longer, as they are poised to be a strong up and coming NA roster. While currently unsigned, YIKES! has shown impressive growth as a squad and are a team to keep an eye on.
The Uncertainty of the Scene: Esports and… Car Sharing?
Overwatch’s esport scene is young, even in an industry that is itself quite young. It’s only officially been released for a year, and we’ve seen the growth of its esport scene from launch to now. But with this growth has come the biggest uncertainty, and also Overwatch’s (possibly) greatest feature: the Overwatch League. With hot topics like franchising, city based teams and a global league, Overwatch League has many fans excited and pundits questioning.
But, like a shadow, uncertainty hangs over the scene because of this venture. It’s almost unsurprising to hear a big team drop their Overwatch team lately, with many pointing to the leviathan costs of the Overwatch League as the culprit. Ninjas in Pyjamas, Dignitas, Splyce, the list goes on of ex-Overwatch teams. The scene has been abuzz with opinions, whether this marks the decline of Overwatch esports before it even begins, or whether this is just a herald of the times to come: put up or shut up. For the YIKES! support staff, it seems more like the latter than the former.
Jerkkit remarked on the relative difficulty of commenting on the inner workings of a League that not many on the outside know enough about. Overwatch League, for all its hype, has been relatively silent on key aspects. “You can’t look at this from a very bystander or community or even a player perspective, because at the end of the day the decisions and the things and the information that Blizzard has provided the public so far is going to leave you in a very uncertain void.” Uncertainty is one way of summing up the community’s concerns. While many organizations have left the scene, but not permanently, it seems more a case of uncertainty in a young scene that’s driven away some key esport players.
But the trio isn’t one of those concerned with the future of the scene. Uncertain, yes, but not thinking it’ll go away. Jerkkit recalled a similar industry in his mind to draw out his analogy: car sharing (yes, hear us out on this one…). He brought up car sharing as an example of an industry that reached a certain point of growth. It was an interesting, hot topic amongst economist and venture capitalists, young and volatile, and also, not having a lot of money already in it compared to other industries.
Looking back to 2012, he discussed how Zip Car was the biggest and most successful of the car sharing companies around. But by that, it was meant that, “I’m talking about still running in the red, about 20% off on their books from being in the black, never mind making a profit yet, and there’s huge potential in the scene.” A lot of buzz, a lot of interest and a lot of potential, but not quite turning an easy profit for those involved. That should sound familiar to anyone in esports, and while it may not be as negative as that, esport teams are still running pretty lean in contrast to their traditional sport counterparts.
Surveying the landscape, Jerkkit felt that the car sharing industry was at a crossroads of sorts. “Unless someone comes in here with a big investment to really push Zip Car for ten times, hundred times more of the working capital that they have, they’re going to be stagnant and the industry itself is going to be stagnant.” Noting that without outside injection of money and working capital, a scene can be stagnant and severely hampered in its potential growth.
He noted too that it does this in a few ways: Not only by directly injecting money into the industry, but by forcing other competitors in the scene to figure out a way to remain viable. “Either find a VC firm or perhaps merge with another car sharing company to combine their resources, or it’s just going to come down to simply at the end of the day if you can’t undergo one of the two mentioned you’re going to be left behind.” It’s a go big or go home mindset, and one that happens in a lot of young industries.
But why does this relate to esports? Because they both share the buzz around the upsides and potential of the industry. Esports has gone from ‘nerds playing video games in their basement’ to ‘huge competitions for big numbers and big salaries in the public’s eye. With that it’s also caught the business world’s eye. Big money, particularly from traditional sports side, has increasingly found itself at the table with endemic organizations and game developers. That all makes a whole lot of sense. Esports has some of the youngest viewership out of any sport, it’s fast growing in viewership, and it’s red hot. For bigger players to come into the scene, invest some money, and dominate, that’s just sound business. “Overwatch today, that’s what you’re seeing. You can call me a conspiracy theorist if you want… I’m able to see a lot of trends happening before they come to fruition in reality.”
What Does this Mean for Esports?
“Sovereign: Wait, what was the question again…?”
While Jerkkit’s tangent may have felt slightly off topic, he noted that it all intertwines with his answer: Blizzard’s project is seeing the trend of esports and riding that wave for the benefit of those involved, not just for Overwatch esports, giving to both, “A boost all across the board financially.” Noting that most organic esport organizations have been running the red, and he projected would be for years to come still, it isn’t sustainable in the long term. Professing that it may sound like conspiracy theories again, Jerkkit feels that Blizzard is probably deep into their discussion and negotiations with key players and heavy weights in the esport scene, as well as those in the ‘moneyed’ scene.
“It’s becoming the time now, it’s becoming more mainstream, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Blizzard was going around and discussing and having meeting with these big sports ventures and telling them we really want you guys to come in and buy out League spots and perhaps even boost the epsorts scene, partner with some of these orgs, and share some of the responsibility of pushing esports to that next level.”
Money in esports has increasingly become a topic in the forefront of many fans minds. For many of the major esports, the grassroot, rag tag team of no namers pulling off a miraculous run is becoming less and less a thing. With the involvement of money, in most cases (looking at you, Team Liquid’s League of Legends team…) improves the consistency and stability of the team. “At the end of the day, you gotta think about it now, go back to the micro level of hiring coaching staff and players, your salaries are naturally just going to be more. Because they have to be competitive.” Not just improvements for players, but support staff and all those ‘behind the scenes’ players in esports should be a good thing going forward for the scene. Money removes a certain stress and anxiety from an organization, and gives them the resources to perform at their top level.
“That’s going to create a lot more stability in esports. One, the ecosystem in terms of the financial support is. Players aren’t worrying about their financial issues anymore. They’re really focusing in on winning games and helping that organization that hires them under their brand to really become more marketable, to be more of a staple household name for a player for a specific title they play for. Like I said, it’s not just going to apply to Overwatch.”
Jerkkit highlighted Cloud 9 owner Jack Etienne’s game plan as one other organizations should emulate. He said to simply google search the name, and you’ll see multiple articles detailing Jack’s rounds of acquiring investors and funds for the Cloud 9 team.
“Everyone sees it. He’s making the right moves, whereas there’s other orgs out there that are not wanting to give up everything they built or perhaps even a large stake or a majority stake for that working capital to really boost their organization to where it really needs to be at… That’s going to be a really big danger for them, if they miss their chance, they will miss their chance at becoming that next level org that they’ve always dreamt and wished they were from when they first started out.”
Zach on the Natural Progression of this
Sovereign chimed in on the discussion too, agreeing with Jerkkit’s overall thesis: endemic organizations may be hitting the panic button, but not because Overwatch will fail. With the entry of massive goliaths of moneyed interests, particularly traditional sports teams, endemic organizations become either something to partner with or a stepping stone to enter the scene. “These endemic orgs are now the stepping stone, I will say this very… it’s the truth, they’re just stepping stones for these huge clubs.” Those in the traditional sports scene have taken notice of esports’ rapid growth and potential, and it’s only natural that the two would mix. Sovereign says, “This is becoming the next generation of sports. If you don’t see these household names being like legacy teams, you’re going to see them fade away.”
While many are sympathetic to the organic, grassroots nature of esports, a true hallmark of many of its biggest brands and teams, it’s not necessarily a sustainable way to carry on a professionalized business. Sovereign noted that the trend for certain endemic owners to retain their sole ownership of the team isn’t just a detriment to themselves, but to the scene’s growth in sitting at the table of the big boys in sports. While this grassroots nature in esports is somewhat of a hallmark, for Sovereign it isn’t here to stay if esports wants to reach the levels of traditional sports. “That’s just not how sports works, that’s never how sports worked, and that’s not how esports is going to end up. You’re going to see them fade out.”
On the trend of players and teams being dropped by organizations, particularly under-performing rosters, Sovereign feels that this is actually a benefit to not only the the players themselves, but the overall ecosystem of Overwatch. If the players were already under contract and signed to teams outside of the Overwatch League, Sovereign explained, and a draft was held for teams who actually had spots in the Overwatch League, those players may not be picked up, or would be but their teams would demand financial gain. For those organizations feeling the cash burn, it’s a sign of the times and (hopefully) can lead them towards reaching out to get sufficient funding to remain relevant.
But What About the Money…?
While the information around Overwatch League has been relatively small in quantity, one of the biggest story lines out on it was the price tags. Reported or rumored, choose your preferred way of putting it, costs of League spots ranged between two million to a staggering 20 million. But Jerkkit felt that, given his previous ideas that bigger money was going to increasingly play a part in esports, this actually isn’t that crazy. “I mean, at the end of the day, let’s be real here. If you’re going to tell me that the Philadelphia 76ers, the Miami Heat, or any other professional sports org that comes and buys or partners with an esports team right now to get into this league, what is two million dollars? What is five million dollars? In fact, what is ten million dollars? Twenty?” Jerkkit stated that while to us, the general public, this is an insane figure, that perspective isn’t the same for these bigger, moneyed ventures.
Even more so for Jerkkit, in the case of traditional sports teams, these figures are nothing in comparison to their own teams. “Some of their rookie players coming into their professional sports teams have signing bonuses of those amounts. So… twenty million dollars, that’s a good tax write off if anything for these guys.” While many would reply saying that the rookie being signed to a team for millions is probably hailed to be their next star, and not a venture into a risky, volatile scene like esports, the point stands. For sports teams and investors, 20 million isn’t as big of a deal. But, Jerkkit mentioned, for teams still running in the red, 20 million is impossible.
As for the status of the Overwatch League and esports going forward, Jerkkit isn’t worried.
“The buildup, the anticipation is phenomenal. You have all the players who are not orged, fighting tooth and nail to make sure they’re on top of their game, to make sure they are on fire all the time, because they don’t want to be left in the dark when those teams are ready to pick up players again for their designated Overwatch League teams… I think Blizzard is doing all the necessary things it needs to do to really drive home and push esports as a whole in North America towards the mainstream segment of society. Because it currently isn’t still.”
Kitta chimed in as well, professing to not having much to add to the discussion other than a slightly dissenting voice. While she agreed with the other two that a deep player pool of unsigned talent is good for the overall scene, particularly if there is a formal draft to the Overwatch League, she highlighted some concerns over Blizzard’s lack of communication with its community. “For Blizzard to be successful they really need to value the community, it is their biggest asset to making their business work.” A strong community isn’t just important for a game to thrive, it’s probably the most crucial aspect for an esport to thrive too. If Blizzard can meet in the middle and provide for their community, while also developing the league without too much trouble, Kitta still feels the League will be a great success.
The Ever-Present Question: Overwatch League
Needless to say, when Overwatch League was announced, the ambitious project was at once hyped and then doubted. Sovereign recalled how he felt the progression to be expected: big money enters into the organic, grassroot scenes, and it becomes a highly professionalized league. While the Overwatch League brings a lot of exciting aspects to the esports scene, Sovereign also highlights how many feel it’s an impossible task. “The Overwatch League sounds amazing, the scope sounds amazing, but for anyone who’s been in esports, it sounds a bit unrealistic. To have like a global league where every region is playing in their own league, and they have this global thing going on.”
While it sounds like a crazy venture, Sovereign thinks that Blizzard can still pull it off. While he said he was anxious for them to release some new information on the League (this interview was conducted before the big update from Blizzard on the Overwatch League), he feels that for now it’s only a good idea, one that needs to manifest quickly. Noting that Overwatch League is set to kick off sometime this year, that’s not a lot of time for it to formalize more into an actual league. While it’s mostly a lack of knowledge about the Overwatch League’s actual progress, given Blizzard’s tight-lipped nature with it, Sovereign, like many others, is going off of what little has been stated. It’s quite an uncertain, but hopeful time. “That’s kind of where Overwatch is right now, everyone is really scared but excited.”
Jerkkit, ever business minded, noted too how he felt that the big price tags of League spots was a positive, even with bigger organizations like Splyce, backed by the Boston Bruins of the NHL, may have balked at the price.
“Yea, it’s a sports org saying that, and a lot of people are saying that, isn’t that a concern? It is and it isn’t because you can look at it in two ways: You can look at it as they don’t value, but they see potential in the industry, they don’t see the value in a League spot being that high. But at the same time, if everyone does it, from their peers, whether they’re in the same sport, or in different sport with the same financial funding, how are they not going to want to jump in on this? You got to? Isn’t that the reason you got into this in the first place?”
The Overwatch League is also particularly attractive to traditional sports teams looking to enter the scene. Why? The infrastructure for a location-based team is already well established. Jerkkit noted that for endemic teams, this could be a difficult task to imagine. Where would you house your facilities? Are you going to need to provide your own viewing area for your fans? But for sports teams, this groundwork is already laid out. “It’s literally them unlocking their doors and letting the esport team and their fans in and letting them partake in these events.” Traditional sports teams are, in a way, already in the same business as esports: making the best, most competitive team they can, housing their fans and selling official merch to make a profit.
Jerkkit said that particularly that last point, merch, is a side of esports that has been sorely undervalued. While revenue sharing is a key aspect of the Overwatch League’s future plans, he noted that it’s merch that sets esports apart from its traditional sports side. For sports teams, he said, a lot of their profits come from alcohol sales, ancedotally recalling how you never really see lines at sports games for the merchandise booths, but you definitely will for any concession stand selling alcohol. While noting that bandwagoning, particularly when a team enters a playoff situation, can create a lot of merch revenue for sports teams, it’s not as present as their alcohol sales.
That’s different for esports. “There’s not a lot of bandwagoning. You either love esports or you don’t. There’s no in between.” Jerkkit attended the NA LCS Finals in Vancouver for League of Legends, and noted that the lines were, given esports’ relative young fan base, not for the alcohol stands. Instead, there were lines at merch stands, “these merch stands had, at times, [lines] that would reach to the next concession stand before the next merch stand.” It wasn’t like these stands have different merch either, it was just that the demand was so high. Having attended the NA LCS Finals that went to Toronto, it was the same story here. Merch and esports are a match made in heaven for organizations trying to make some money.
While merch stands dominate the scene now at live esports events, Jerkkit held that, if managed correctly, esports will soon have that aspect AND alcohol sales. Fans do get older, and eventually reach the legal age for drinking. “You factor that in later down the line… how much more revenue are you bumping from food and beverage.”
As if the potential merch sales and soon-to-be alcohol sales weren’t attractive enough, Jerkkit also highlighted a key element that esports has over traditional sports: enthusiasts. Fans aren’t just ‘weekend warriors’ of teams, or fans of convenience or fair weather fans that’ll tune in when a team is doing well. Esports fans, “If they’re not at work or school and they’re a fan of an esport, they’re watching a live stream of a player from their favorite team play, or just maybe community streamer, or something along the lines where they understand the game to a certain degree of level that translates them into an enthusiast.” Esport fans watch the game to see their favourite teams or players duke it out, to see amazing story lines play out from season to season, or just because they love the game to such a degree that seeing it played out at its highest level is joy in and of itself. Fans of esports, for Jerkkit, live and breathe esports.
That’s why Jerkkit remains optimistic about Overwatch’s future as an esport, and the League itself. If nothing else, for Jerkkit, it’s not Blizzard’s esport track record that inspires hope, but rather their successful business. “But their business sense and how they do business, that I’m definitely confident in. That’s what a League, a successful league, requires is a successful business with the right expertise to get together the right talent and organizations and sports owners under one roof and really spear head this in the right direction.”
This is the third and final part in a three-part series highlighting the behind the scenes forces helping YIKES! to their explosion onto the NA scene. The YIKES! support staff were full of knowledge, and I cannot thank them enough for sitting down and spending a whole two hours interviewing with me.