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Esports 101: Can cash prize buy your event success?

At first thought, and sometimes even after a few more, what many people think is that the bigger the prize pool for an esports event, the more succesful it will be in terms of number of registrations, visibility and community building effort.

nicolas cerrato, Blogger

October 10, 2016

9 Min Read

Let's give it away from the start: if it’s true an above average cash prize will generate more visibility and media excitement, it won’t necessarily help registration and will never contribute to building a strong community.




The 1st big obvious example of cash prize failing at building success for an esports game and community dates back to 2005 when the Dallas-based Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), then the Western leader in esports events production, and Dreamcatcher, publisher of then-new 1v1 FPS game Painkiller, made the false assumption that putting a lot of money up for grabs in a year-long circuit would create hype and kickstart a lively and long-lasting esports scene and community around the game.

So in 2005, The CPL and Dreamcatcher put $1M on the line in a worldwide Painkiller pro circuit, where the new FPS joined Counter-Strike 1.6, then the #1 game by far in esports. And much much smaller cash prizes despite having 5 players per team.

Fast forward to 2016 when EA announced $1.3M cash prize for the FIFA 2017 esports season and it sounded pretty big: you can only imagine how huge a $1M cash prize sounded for a new game in 2005. There was a roar in the esports community.

But when the 1st tournaments came in, disappointment started to show up: there weren’t many registered players, even with 1M on the line. And there weren’t armies of fans cheering for them. There wasn’t a lively community burgeonning online either.

What this 1M cash prize actually did is that it had a handful of pro Quake and Unreal Tournament players, let’s say 200 as we want to sound optimistic, the most talented in the world, thinking they had a shot at a descent amount of money in this new game that looked a lot like the one where they would crush basically everyone for years.

Everyone else below their level, 99,9999% of the potential player base, thought: “Oh I’ll never stand a chance anyway”. And so the $1M resulted in 200 people having a lot of fun for 1 year and pretty much no one else showing real interest.

That money also allowed a few PR stunts such as the finals, involving Dutch-phenom Vo0 and American superster Fatal1ty, live broadcast on MTV.

Here I’d like to point out it’s possible that this PR work generated through cash prize helped sales of the game, maybe a significant deal even. But this article is focused on the community management aspect of things. In that regard, PR stunts such as those are now known for their inefficiency in building communities. 

If PR is a direct damage (DD) spell, that can generate a lot of sales in a very short amount of time, community management is a damage over time (DoT) one that aims at building long-lasting momentum in order to drive recurring revenue over several years.

So in terms of building a community, that’s what Dreamcatcher got out of the $1M in cash prize: roughly 200 pro players deeply involved for one year, but not longer: they came for the money, so when the money’s out...

At the rate of 200 players for $1M, how much would it have cost Riot Games to recruit 100M active players for League of Legends? 

$500 000 000 000.

Since the Painkiller days, many a gaming marketer willing to crack esports has learned this lesson the hard way: from ShootMania to Evolve to Heroes of the Storm… It is so convenient to think cash prize will buy a game a seat in the very private club of succesful esports games.




One of the things that leads people to overrate the impact of cash prize is I believe the fact that we‘ve had around us, for our entire lives, examples of games that mechanically generate more registrants as the cash prize grows: lotteries.

In TV lotteries there are always way more people playing for a $100M prize pool, than for a $10M one, than for a $1M one.

This difference in the effects of an increased cash prize from one type of game to another, from the lottery to Painkiller, are due to differences in the games’ design and, in return, how players expect to perform.

Precisely, what matters is how random the game is.

In the case of lotteries, the extreme random factor allows everyone to think they have a shot, even at 1st place. When the cash prize gets big for that kind of game, the average Joe thinks “I have a shot at becoming rich for cheap. If I only need to get lucky: why not me? why not try?”.

In the case of Painkiller, Quake, and even a game such as Hearthstone which is the most random among top esports titles, skill & knowledge play a major role. This requirement for skill & knowledge prevents most people from picturing themselves as winners of a big tournament. Even more so since the bigger the prize, the more top players will get motivated to do well.

So say you put 100M on the line in Painkiller or CSGO, which are heavily skill-based: as soon as they read the news, 99.9999% of the people will intimately think there’s no chance any of this money will ever be theirs, no matter how hard they could try.

So the vast majority of players will think this big cash prize is cool, and that’s it. They won’t engage into the game or community more because of it.

To get a better grasp of this idea of “cash prize X random factor = registrations potential”, here’s a visual model:

click for full size visual

About the graph: while I’ve been playing with this idea of “cash prize vs random factor” influencing registrations for a few years, it’s the 1st time I try and modelize it… and I’m sure it could be improved. I’d also like to point out this model is not the ultimate one for registrations prediction: prize distribution, registration fee, numbers of players/match, the amount of “fun” the game provides and other factors should be taken into account for that. And there could be more improvements of course but in any case, in this post our goal is to look at “random factor vs cash prize” in a pure way.

It could be fun, although time-consuming, to draw a huge map of the top 100 esports events of say the past 12 months and look at how they position themselves compared with the model.

What’s less time consuming and maybe more useful to yourself is asking the question: where does my game and/or competition position themselves in this graph? If you’re into esports game marketing and events production, hopefully that should help you manage expectations and investments.




To the last point of that article: Why do gamers play? Why do esports lovers play play this particular game? Why can a huge community flock around certain games and not others?

While a full answer to these questions is one epic quest, here I can at least say that the vast majority of gamers don’t play for money. Just like the vast majority of people playing music don’t do it for money. 

For those that become pros, money is an extremely pleasant side-effect, but it’s not the main motivator… or maybe in some cases it can become one after it’s started pouring in, but it’s not what brought them here in the first place.

Behind the handful of money-making pros playing 8 to 12 hours/day for years, you have thousands, dozens of thousands even for games such as CSGO, DOTA 2 and League of Legends (interesting data about League of Legends’ playing time per account), playing almost the same amount of time without a financial reward, without even ever expecting one.

People play a lot because they love the game, if you wanna talk like the NBA… or because they are sick addicts, if you wanna talk like a certain kind of media.

In any case, the key to esports success and generating a lively and long-lasting community around your game lies in the game itself and how players can flock to its community, if there’s even one to start with.

Just like the reason for listening to Mozart’s music throughout the centuries lies in how his pieces are arranged, what amazing feelings they get us listeners through, it goes the same for video games: true long-term esports success, which is more than extremely rare, comes from a fruitful emotional relationship between each player and their favorite game.

When this relationship becomes important enough for any given player, they’ll try and look for others to share it with: that’s how communities and tournaments are born. 

Some of them grow so big that, after a few years, they can fill stadiums with thousands of passionate fans and a huge cash prize on the line.



TL;DR (Too Long. Didn't Read)

What an above average cash prize will and won’t do for your skill-based competition:

It will…

1 —provide the handful of super talented gamers who think they have a shot at the top spots with motivation to register, practice hard and show up 

2 — draw attention from the media, ranging from the esports media to — when the money’s really big — the most mainstreamest media like it was the case for DotA 2’s The International recently

It won’t…

1 — boost the number of registrants beyond those who think they have a chance at performing super well, which is something like 0,0001% of the prospect base

2 — contribute to building a big, long-lasting, vivid, self-sustaining community of players around your game



That’s it for this one. I got this question more than a few times as an introductory one over the past few months so hopefully you found the article useful!

Please join us here in the comments and on Twitter and let everyone know your feedback and maybe questions too.

What other esports-related question would you be interested in? If I find I have something interesting to say about it, I might take a shot at an answer in a future post.


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