So far we’ve looked at the big issue that eSports is experiencing,that is, that it is lagging behind bigger, more established sport economies, not growing at a rate it should, given its youth, and what I have deemed to be some key impediments to this, that is, the inconsistency of eSports and the instability of eSports teams. Of course the last two parts showed why eSports is lagging behind, in my opinion, this part will attempt to show one of the most overlooked aspects that is missing in eSports, something that traditional sports have been tapping into to bring in revenues that eclipse eSports entire economic impact: merchandise.
The inspiration for this article actually came from an experience I had of the difference in merchandise available between eSports and sports. I rent the basement of a bungalow and am quite friendly with the people who rent the top half of the house. They have a little one who just turned one a few weeks back, and my girlfriend and I brought him a present we got for him. I was in my CLG shirt, and being late, they were already in their pajamas. Both of them had two different Toronto Maple Leafs hoodies and tea brewing in a New England Patriots Stein. This got me thinking about the amount of merchandising that is found in traditional sports, particularly contrasted with that of eSports.
Well, as I’ve implied, the main idea of this article is looking at the difference between merchandising within Sports and eSports. One only needs to turn to any major eSports team site to find a scattering of available merchandise, t-shirts and jersey’s being the most readily available. Certainly, there exists merchandise out there for most major teams, and some of it is even pretty good. But I think it’s completely dwarfed by that available to more traditional sports teams. I’d be as bold as to wager that Manchester United or the Maple Leafs have more merchandise than all Western eSports teams combined.
There are some pretty obvious reasons for this at the outset. Traditional sports, as we have seen, are just so much bigger than eSports right now. More money means more ability to invest in the heavy start-up costs of making merchandise. The more money you have going into making merchandise, the more risky you can be. But I do not believe this is the reason for eSports’ shoddy merchandise side: it’s the astronomical risk involved, not of raising capital, but of needing to stay relevant to sell that merchandise. I go back to part two where I criticized the contingency of eSports current system, particularly those that focus on major tournament circuits. An organization can invest in acquiring, say, a few different designs for some merchandise, but once those are produced and shipped to them, they might not even be relevant anymore because they didn’t qualify to the next major.
Alongside this, too, we find the difference in ability for teams to take on identities. Sure, we have that now in eSports, but those identities are fluid and contingent. The radical and massive shifting that happened in both the NA LCS and EU LCS are a case in point. A CLG without Doublelift, Fnatic without YellowStar, a TSM without Dyrus. It’s a lot of change. But without this fickle and hard to pin down idea as a team identity, it’s hard to get fans engaged and maintain loyalty when a team inevitably falters in their stride. Sure, CLG’s identity could be giving fans hope for doing well to only fall flat on their face, or Ex-TSM now Astralis choking in the semi-finals of a major, but these aren’t really identities that teams want when selling their merchandise. While I’m not a very big sports fan, I’m drawn to the rebranding that the Toronto Raptors did recently. “We the north,” is probably the strongest, most Canadian sounding battle cry for a team ever. While it’s obvious that the Montreal Canadians or Toronto Maple Leafs are Canadian teams, the Raptors didn’t really carry that obvious Northern name. But this galvanized the Canadian fanbase around the sole Canadian team, and I think that’s important. They became an identity, and I’d be quite curious to find some juicy numbers on their merchandise sales after that bold move. I’m willing to wager it went up a lot.
This, I think, is the real reason that eSports is so hesitant to commit to the kind of merchandising deals that a lot of prominent sports teams do. Alongside the fact that, sure, teams are more liked that make it into playoffs of their respective leagues, but still can have loyal fans, while eSports can’t, it’s a very risky water to tread into, let alone dive into. I’ve experienced it firsthand being a Copenhagen Wolves fan in CS:GO. There were many tournaments that I did not have an interest in simply because my team(s) didn’t make it in. Sure, I still watched them, because they’re always great to watch, but it was sad to not see a team I could identify with. It’s not even about them making it out of groups, it’s about them even being present.
So how do you sell merchandise to a fan base that only likes you, giving them the benefit of the doubt, when you manage to scrap your way back into the tournament circuit? I think you’re hard pressed to. Nobody wants to be the fan of a team that only sees a small online qualifier before being disqualified. More so, nobody wants to buy merchandise for that team either. Even if that fan is diehard, it’s kind of a hard sale to begin with. I think that this pressure too on organizations is unjustified, particularly now, as teams and scenes have matured from simple upstart talents taking the scene by storm, to it being that teams need time to grow into stronger teams. Of course, upsets are exciting, and underdogs making it far into tournaments make for great storylines, but in the long-term, it’s important that those teams do not become just flashes in the pan. That’s hard on players and organizations, and makes merchandising nearly impossible.
So why is this the last article in our series? Well, because we needed to first understand the problems that eSports faces as an economic thing, then look at the reasons for why it is this way (the structure of eSports currently,) and lastly be here, looking at the merchandise issue. I think that exciting and properly branded merchandise can be the missing piece for eSports growth. Sure, getting sponsors that are not just gaming related will increase the organization’s economic standing, but the heartbeat of almost any market is in the consumer’s mentality, of wanting to buy things. I think that eSports fans, just as much as sports fans, are hungry for branded merchandise that they can buy, but it’s hard to find any quality or of established teams.
It’s of interest to note that Immortals, one of the strongest looking NA LCS teams currently, just opened up their own merchandise store, and a lot of it is pretty good. TSM, who I, being a CLG fan, would mock frequently, had some of the most boring merchandise to date, probably alongside that of Cloud 9 (outside of their iconic blue shirt…) Ninjas in Pyjamas, too, have always been pretty on point, alongside Natus Vincere (Na’Vi.) But these are all well established, almost household names within the eSports scene, particularly as a lot of them have branched out to become multi-game organizations. But a look to some of the smaller organizations, Copenhagen Wolves or SK Gaming say, and you’ll see a very odd arrangement of merchandise available. A scarf for a player who left you literally years ago? From one of El Classico in the EU LCS? C’mon.
What’s actually ironic about these teams, though, is the ones who are more known in the circuit style tournaments are the ones with the better merchandise, namely Ninjas and Na’Vi (for CS:GO and CS:GO/DotA2 respectively.) But I do not think this disproves my overall sentiment. Those teams, of course, can have the luxury of investing in merchandise, because they are part of the ‘top 8’ in their respective scenes. NiP might be in a slump for CS:GO, but you can never count them out of a Major. The same goes for Na’Vi, although they’re in anything but a slump (again for CS:GO.) I think this only proves my point further, that the circuit system creates a Haves and Have Nots of organizations, and this is one that, like most inequalities, hampers the Have Nots from ever cracking into the top.
This is why I think franchising and stability need to be seriously considered as eSports matures, rather than as it grows. I do not think that eSports will slow down anytime soon in its growth, the market is very stable as far as it is that gamers will always exist. If League of Legends falls, another game will take its place. But maturing is different. eSports organizations need money too, and this sounds greedy, but it’s not. How are you supposed to grow and strengthen your team, by hiring coaches and analysts (rather than basically abusing them for their work by only offering volunteering positions…) or acquiring team houses and paying them to go to major tournaments without money? Salaries in CS:GO are a rare commodity even, how are players themselves supposed to be truly professional when they need to subliment their eSports-hood? This happened in many other sports in their beginning, of course, but it’s not the case now as sports have matured. Professional players shouldn’t have to juggle work with their passion.
Highlighting the discrepancy between sports and eSports merchandise is just one of the ways I think we, as a scene, can move towards more stability for those that keep the scene competitive: the players and the teams that back them up. Fans obviously are important, tuning in to games is obviously important, but all of this will just collapse in on itself if it’s not sustainable. Maybe that’s fine, I’m not one to say that the current eSports titles will be with us in the next ten years even, but for now, we should treat them as if they will be. And growing in the right way, a way that is both sustainable and profitable for those involved, is important. I’m skeptical of the tournament circuit style eSports being sustainable in the long run, but I may very well be wrong. However, something will need to change so that those who are providing the amazing thing that is eSports for us viewers can make a proper living off of it. And if it means some growing pains for a while and some questionable decisions, I think that eSports deserves to be viewed in the long-term rather than the short-term. I believe that I’ve highlighted, although largely opinionated, some major ways that the scene can take this shift and mature into something bigger and better than it already is.