Competitive video gaming is in a golden age. With a year-round tournament schedule, a viewing audience pushing past 150 million, and a thriving ecosystem of players, spectators, and companies all jockeying to define the sport, esports has arrived.
Austin Nolte has been in the competitive gaming scene for years, and has recently started commentating on tournament bouts of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (Smash). Austin regularly broadcasts live on Twitch.
We caught up with him right after the Evolution Championship Series tournament (EVO 2017) in Las Vegas this summer to talk about the state of the industry.
Small Planet: 2017 feels like an important year for both the culture and the economics of esports.
Austin Nolte: What we’re seeing now has been building for the last couple of years. What was huge for EVO 2016 was Street Fighter 5 being on national television on ESPN. This year ESPNU and Disney XD aired Smash at EVO, and Street Fighter was covered on ESPN2.
There was an underbelly reaction along the lines of “How dare you put video games on my sports channel!” But the more we’re on television the more accepted it will become. Television, and this whole new business aspect to competitive play, is still fresh for the FGC (Fighting Game Community) and Smash in particular. Everybody involved is working harder on presentation. There’s a higher level of professionalism, and certainly more opportunities for deal-making and sponsorship.
SP: Why do people watch Smash?
AN: For Nintendo I think the draw comes down to a one-two-punch of characters and players. Many of the characters in the Nintendo universe have a recognition factor with the wider public rivaled only by longstanding iconic characters like Mickey Mouse or Superman. Smash tournament play is getting somewhere between 50-100,000 viewers per event, with Smash on EVO racks up 335,000 due to it being on television. Streaming platforms like Twitch are dominating the race for viewers so far, and the audiences are getting bigger and broader.
We’ve also seen a spike of interest in the players and their personalities. Like in other individual sports, a marketable persona is a huge factor in being successful as a player. A player like ANTi has a strong Twitter following and gives great interviews. Dabuz is a player with a very deliberate, methodical style that appeals to hard-core fans. I think it comes down to a simple fact: combat between players with different styles of play is just fun to watch.
SP: How do you feel about the term esports?
AN: It has become a little bit of a joke inside the industry, “esports” gets used as a meme for veteran players. As a term, it came into play very recently. I mean, there are still debates on how to capitalize it. Up until a few years ago this was a very grassroots, community-based model.
As a term, for better or worse, esports signifies a professionalization of the competition. Nintendo of America is an active proponent of the term “competitive gaming,” which I use a lot to talk about the entire scene.
SP: How has the competitive community reacted to the explosion of popularity?
AN: There are pros and cons to it. Overall I feel that it’s good, and I feel a lot of people who love competitive gaming agree. I never dreamed I’d be on a path to make a profession out of it until this happened. Every day the industry is creating jobs for people.
There’s a growing ecosystem surrounding these events that is very spectator-centric. Ten years ago you’ve got the tournament organizers and a bunch of players. Now you walk into the hall in Vegas or Atlanta or wherever and you’ve got commentators, production staff, stream-runners, volunteers, and a large audience.
SP: What’s the impact on the casual player?
AN: Many people enter Smash and FGC competition at a low skill level. They go to EVO because it is a convention…the premiere event to go to. 800 out of 1600 players are going to get knocked out in the first two rounds, they’re completely aware of that, so their real motivation is to come support the game they love and be part of a larger community.
As esports gets bigger, those attendees are getting less attention as players, which is the downside. It can feel abrupt, this shift from “Hey, we’re all here to play” to something focused on a smaller set of elite players. To compensate for that, there’s a greater focus on panels, booths, social events, things that cater to fans at all levels. That’s a pro—there’s more to engage with.
SP: NBA teams have taken an aggressive strategy in aligning with esports. In 2018, 17 of them will participate in the inaugural season of the NBA 2K esports league. Do you see the trend in the rest of competitive gaming, and for Smash in particular?
AN: It’s very uneven depending on the game, though that might change in the next year or two. A game like Street Fighter 5 has prize money and support provided by the Capcom Pro Circuit. That base financial support from the developer sets the stage for greater viewership, outside sponsorship, and ad revenue.
There are a lot of overall revenue numbers thrown around, and this year a number close to $500 million is one you hear a lot when it comes to esports advertising and sponsorship. Coke made a big statement by sponsoring (and partnering with) League of Legends. Smash doesn’t have that just yet.
SP:Why do you think that is?
AN: Game developer support is really crucial. There are teams of players that get support from game studios, but there’s still some sorting out of how it’s going to happen, especially for Nintendo games.
At EVO 2017, the top prizewinner in Smash got $10,000. That’s a lot, but that pales in comparison to the $50,000 or $100,000 pots won in other tournaments for games like League of Legends or Injustice 2 or Street Fighter 5. Why? Because those games have way bigger sponsorship deals and more support from their developers. It’s a miracle that Smash has gone this long without major support from its creator.
SP: You’re focused on Smash commentary this year. Do you ever consider casting on other games?
AN: Yes, absolutely, I’ve recently gotten into another Nintendo game, ARMS, which now has quickly grown a competitive scene, and I think has a lot of fun potential for commentary. I’ve jumped into Splatoon 2, which just got released, and I think there’s a lot of potential there too.
SP: For legacy sports like baseball and football, changes occur incrementally. In competitive gaming change can come much faster. As a commentator are you ever concerned about obsolescence?
AN: I like the change in some ways, and I like learning new things…but you’re right, it can present challenges.
One of the problems with Smash is that it lives in limbo on a dated system — the Wii U — which has been replaced by Nintendo Switch. New games developed for Switch will get prioritized over older games to help drive sales of the new system, so there’s this balancing act between the legitimate need of the company to keep innovating and what serves the gaming community. Smash isn’t going anywhere, but as a commentator you always have to be looking at what’s coming down the road.
SP: What’s the biggest hurdle esports will face over the next three years?
AN: Spectators and players accepting change. Smash players are loyal, and they take their commitment to the sport seriously, and that commitment can occasionally turn into dogma. Any tweaks…to gameplay, to culture, to the way events are run…are prone to no small amount of backlash. I think that’s part of why Nintendo has approached jumping into the scene with caution, once they get involved it means it’s easier to receive blame.
With viewership growing exponentially each year, you’re only going to see greater opportunities for monetization, and that will be scary for groups that were used to the way things used to be.
Top photo by Robert Paul