2017 was the year that esports became harder to ignore than ever, even for the sports blog readers who are desperate to do so. TBS has been broadcasting its Eleague Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitions since 2016, and in 2017, the show expanded into broadcasts of Street Fighter, Injustice 2 and Rocket League, with each event boasting prize pools in the tens of thousands. Speaking of big money, Dota 2's International tournament prize pool climbed to a record-breaking $23 million in 2017.
This is part of our 2017 State Of series, a look at how the major consoles, PC, and other areas of interest are doing this year.
Both the massive institutions and tiny scenes in esports thrived in 2017. The North American League of Legends Championship Series, which Riot Games founded back in 2013, is breaking even now. And Blizzard launched Overwatch League, a massively ambitious enterprise that somehow involves buy-ins from multiple traditional sports figureheads.
Competitive scenes for games like Splatoon, Catherine and even Big Buck Hunter have maintained smaller but no less devoted followings, and they have more visibility than ever thanks to Twitch and streaming services allowing them to broadcast around the world.
Blizzard and Riot are both starting 2018 with fully franchised leagues for Overwatch and League of Legends, and they’re closely modeling the leagues after the major American professional sports. A group of teams set in stone, free to play without fear of losing their spot in the league due to performance. That’s a major shift for competitive gaming, which has traditionally been meritocratic, forcing players to earn their way in through qualifiers and imposing the threat of relegation out of the league. Now with no relegation hanging over the heads of teams, sponsorship money is a little more secure. That could lead to more experimentation.
Franchised leagues mean better resources for players and spectators alike, and it professionalizes and legitimizes those scenes. Emulating tsports and embracing its cash comes with complications, though. Yes, Shaq and J-Lo are thrilled to tell you about their Overwatch team, but they’re not the only owners. Bob Kraft, Jeff Wilpon, Stan Kroenke: these men are true rich assholes, billionaire plutocrats who run the United States.
The flow of new sports money also means some beloved faces being shoved out in shady ways, like what happened to longtime League of Legends team Dignitas—even with the backing of the Philadelphia 76ers—and more endemic organizations like Rogue. Even Immortals, arguably one of the most well-known names in the League scene last year, was ground into dust by the creation of the big League league.
More resources have become available for teams that, in some cases, really need them, but avenues have opened up for exploitation as well. Competitive gaming is at least as old as the arcade, but this franchised take on “esports” is a much newer creation. As increasingly massive amounts of capital slush into esports, players will need to protect themselves against it.
While major competitive scenes like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive continued to thrive this year, 2017 saw a number of other games on the rise. Rocket League has become a real force, bringing in thousands of viewers and putting on huge tournaments. It’s easy to focus on the games you always see at the top of the Twitch channel standings. But the smaller scenes had a hell of a year.
Both Smash Bros. games remain excellent, with Super Smash Bros. For Wii U hosting its first-ever capstone tournament. Long-time competitive fighting game Tekken had a stellar year. Pinball had a 13-year-old win the world championships! A kid broke the Rubik’s cube record! And this guy gave a great interview at the Big Buck HD world championships. Long live Big Buck.
Due to the ease and availability of online streaming, more competitive scenes have been able to organize and broadcast their events. Despite some issues with Nintendo’s matchmaking, the Splatoon scene has put on dozens of tournaments between organized teams around the world. Catherine continues to be one of the best side tournaments at any fighting game event. And this arcade in Japan hosts one of the most incredible anime tournaments ever conceived, and we can see it all.
Both large and small scenes struggled to implement consistent rules and codes of player conduct this year.
In January, the Killer Instinct World Cup cleaved the fighting game community by imposing a ban on teabagging. The tournament ended up walking back the ban, but the conversation about this form of taunting, as well as its sexual implications, has continued.
The Super Smash Brothers: Melee community decided to standardize its rulesets for major tournaments this year. That included a controversial rule banning the use of anything other than the GameCube controller, despite the growing problems with the aging hardware. Meanwhile, Melee pro Adam “Armada” Lindgren threatened to quit the competition committee because there were no women on it, opening a spot for Emily Sun, co-founder of Smash Sisters, an organization that hosts women’s Smash events.
From hardware to etiquette, smaller independent fighting games scenes have been cautious about writing and enforcing rules. But major players have started implementing much stricter rules for their pro players and staffers, which tend to be vague “zero tolerance” policies that can be a catch-all for any behavior that makes the team look bad.
Pro players in franchised games like League of Legends are under the yoke of both their team and Riot’s rules. Riot has shown that it’s willing to fine League pros for something as mild as bragging about their salaries. This year, Riot Games had to deal with a player accused of domestic violence, and it wasn’t prepared for it. And from conduct to gameplay, Blizzard has yet to finalize its rulebook for Overwatch League.
The lack of codes of conduct in both small scenes and much larger franchises can introduce big problems for pro players and esports staffers, since it’s not clear what’s expected of them. If esports organizations don’t clearly lay out or collectively bargain rules and punishments, then 2018 will bring more and higher-profile firings and rule changes. This isn’t an easy problem to fix, but winging it is not the solution. Everyone involved will benefit if big and small institutions work with their players and staffers to get explicit conduct codes in place.
As esports becomes increasingly professionalized, ridiculous player behavior will inevitably decrease to the point of nearly dying out. But we’re not nearly there yet, and esports thankfully still contains tons of intense emotions, to the good and bad.
Street Fighter’s scene remained a font for fun antics this past year, especially the ongoing feud between Joshua “Wolfkrone” Philpot and Kenneth “KBrad” Bradley. The pair’s first showdown happened in January of last year at Frosty Faustings IX. After some online trash talk about the match, KBrad beat Wolfkrone at Final Round 20 and got up in his opponent’s face to gloat. Then, thanks to Eleague on TBS, the pair’s rivalry made it on TV. There, KBrad said of Wolfkrone, “As a person, I just don’t like him,” and Wolfkrone responded, “Who gives a fuck?” TBS also hired a security guard to up the theatrics.
Other fighting game pros elevated their own wacky personas this year as well, to match the increased popularity and visibility of their games. Street Fighter pro Victor “Punk” Woodley declared himself “the alpha” of teabagging. Dominique “Sonic Fox” McLean, notorious teabagger, continued to speed-crouch his way through several tournament wins. Longtime meme “Cryin’ Bryan” finally got a big win. And Joy Goodwin—wife of Street Fighter pro Marcus “The Cool Kid93" Redmond—proved she doesn’t have to play any games herself to be the scene’s best and biggest trash talker.
Super Smash Brothers also has its share of lovable personalities, from the teenage Bayonetta main who dances through his on-stage entrances to the Melee pro who lifted a chair over his head during a tournament and inspired an entire audience to do the same.
Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is one of esports’ most well-known names, and a single moment from his heartbreaking loss at the League of Legends world championships showed how intense the emotions in esports can be. Just a short few weeks later, he was back at it in League’s All-Stars, taunting his opponent by reducing him to a mere number in a 1v1 duel. And earlier this year, Faker embraced his “king” status, appearing on a literal throne at the LCK finals.
A popular event in Manila held a rage-quit competition. EternaLEnVy lost his balance. And the community rallied behind a beloved commentator who was diagnosed with breast cancer, who was met with an outpouring of support when she flew out to Seattle to help with this year’s broadcast of The International.
Like their tsports counterparts, many scenes are trying to figure out how to legislate trash talk. StarCraft: Remastered pro Lim “Larva” Hong Gyu destroyed his opponent during an invitational exhibition while showing off his ability to play the game with his feet. He even pretended to take a nap during one of his rounds. The event’s sponsor got pissed at him, and so did his opponent—but he doesn’t plan to apologize.
The Overwatch scene has seen a lot of new young pros grappling with the sudden stardom that comes with the game getting so big so quickly. Félix “xQc” Lengyel streamed himself sending fake complaints about other players via Blizzard’s reporting system and ended up getting hit with a temporary ban. Former pro and Overwatch streamer Brian “Kephrii” St. Pierre posted a video bragging about his maturity, and a day later, a group of women whom St. Pierre had cheated on his wife with leaked his extremely horny DMs.
In lighter news, pro Overwatch team EnVyUs started their own cooking show.
Up-and-coming pro gamers have had to navigate their increased presence in traditional sports and even non-sports media. Comedy talk shows and clueless sportswriters alike have done the same bits about pro gamers’ sex lives. Deadspin’s own Tom Ley still can’t understand why pro gamers don’t use their real names. Competitive video games, with its goofball monikers and terminology, has repeatedly strong-armed its way into traditional sports spaces this year, with no sign of stopping—as long as big-name brands and investors keep inexplicably thinking that owning an Overwatch team or whatever makes sense for their bottom line.
Do we think it ever will? Probably not. But it’s been weird and wonderful to watch it all go down, and we can’t wait to see what 2018 brings.