How a good business model makes a good esport game

StarCraft II will die as a professional esport due to an in-built, genetic flaw.  Same as all esports before it.  League of Legends might be the first game not to.

The game’s longevity lies in how well it manages to replace its leavers with fresh blood. I consider a game dead (or dying) when it ceases to deliver new champions and when more people leave the scene than enter it.

One would think that the life span of an esports title depends mainly the quality of its gameplay.  That is not the case.  At least as important, if not more so, is the business model behind the game.

Let’s look at three major esports game categories:

1. The Christmas Present

This model is video games as we know them.  Some of the best esports games in history fall into this category - Quake, StarCraft and Counter-Strike among them. (Sooner or later, they all began to crumble.) 

Here is what it boils down to:

  1. Create a game and put it in a box.
  2. Generate a ton of hype before the release.
  3. Release around Christmas (or whenever makes the most sense).
  4. Make money and never look back.

On the esports side of things the benefit is that the community grows very large quickly after the release.  But as things slow down on the sales side, the community’s growth slows down also.

People prefer to buy stuff that’s new.

As the game gets old, more people leave than new people come in.  Players on all levels drop out until the scene is uninteresting and unattractive.  This happened to Warcraft 3, Quake 3, BroodWar and Counter-Strike because it was bound to happen. Those games were all genetically disadvantaged from the start.

A faulty design.

The publisher won’t help the game as an esport because it is hard to find good justification for it. A publisher’s investment into esports lacks the ROI because you are mainly spending money on the people that already bought your game. It is like taking a one night stand back to the bar to buy her a drink after you have already got what you wanted.

We are all extremely lucky that Blizzard supports esports the way they do already (hands down one of the best publishers out there).  Could they do more for esports?  Yes, they could, but they won’t do without decent business justification.

In other words, they need to find a way to make a direct revenue stream out of esports and then they can properly support it.

2. The Perennial Sequel

The FIFA or the Call of Duty series stand out.  It’s your Christmas Present game that is released fairly often with a community that is likely to keep transitioning to the newer game.

It is a great system in theory as it guarantees a consistent stream of new players coming in every sales season.  The problem is the lack of consistency in esports quality with those games.

The game could be great one year and then the next year the community might be forced to transition to an inferior sequel with a lot of balance and esports playability issues. This risk is built into this business model and amplified by the fact that while Great Game 7 is almost done, Great Game 8 is already in production at another studio.

I have yet to see this model succeed in practice.  StarCraft II has a near guarantee of doing so, but it will only be three installments and the game will eventually die (unless it becomes a real mainstream show).

3. The Magic: The Gathering model

The third model is the healthiest esports model known to man.  It is the most stable one both esports-wise and business-wise.  The free to play multiplayer game with a consistent revenue stream based on micro-transactions that keeps delivering a steady ROI every day of the year.

The one glaring example is League of Legends.  It does not have any of the problems that the other two models have.  Champions are being added to the game in certain intervals like new cards are added to Magic: The Gathering, so the gameplay experience evolves all the time.  LoL is a different game every two weeks and is thus less likely to get boring.  (And if Riot breaks the game they can always to back to the previous patch.)

What’s completely game-changing about League of Legends is that it does not have in-built curse of a declining community that a “shelf title” has.  On the contrary - this business model allows it to gain more and more users all the time and replace anyone that has left.

Not only that, but the business model actually forces the publisher to keep investing into the game because there is no limit to what a single person can spend in League of Legends across time.  This means that player retention (a large part of which is competitive play) is directly connected to a very tangible, direct ROI for Riot.

Where a Christmas Game publisher cannot justify to care about the player who has already bought the game, Riot cannot justify not caring about their existing player base.  It’s genius.

To be alive in five years, SC2 relies on the people that play it today to keep playing.  LoL can phase out and phase in generations of players without injury to the game.  That is the fundamental difference in LoL’s DNA that will make LoL and similar games outlive SC2.

Ironically, it has nothing to do with gameplay and everything to do with money.


After some people wanted to see my head on a spike I add this, in case it was not clear:

It will take long years before SC2 starts dying (unless it propels itself to a state where amazing live streams provide a major of influx of new, young players). I am still a SC2 fan and I prefer to watch SC2 matches over LoL, though I enjoy both.

Everything I wrote about LoL applies to DotA 2 as well… by the way. Exactly the same model.

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    So very true. That being said… this just makes me long for the days of Jedi Academy… FANTASTIC game yet everyone knew...
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    Yes lets take the BIGGEST eSport game and say its dying. Starcraft ran competitively and with an extremely large...
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