On May 11th, 2012, Kespa and MLG announced “an exclusive multi-year global partnership” with one another. This agreement allows Kespa owned players (some popular names being Flash, Jaedong and Bisu, among others) to “compete in MLG events.”
On the surface, it kind of seems like a cool deal. When you start to analyze all of the possible implications that a deal like this could lead to, however, several red flags should be raised. A personal belief of mine is that one should always take any contract that has been signed to its legal extremes. If you’re signing a contract, you should always assume that both parties could carry out any and all terms of said contract, no matter how “mean” or “cold” it may be. This seems like an incredibly simple point, but time and time again this issue comes up where people need to be reminded that contracts are serious business. It’s not so bad concerning individual pro gamers, or even teams, because the fallout of a bad contract is relatively limited (only affecting said team or player). This deal, however, between Kespa and MLG, has the potential to dramatically shape the tournament scene for SC2 in a way that’s bad for spectators, teams, players and tournaments.
How are the spectators and fans of Starcraft 2 affected?
Regardless of how you feel about different economic systems, it’s a widely accepted fact that healthy competition between businesses generally breeds a better product for consumers. Remember the NASL sound guy? Or the “For Auir” clappers? NASL was considered a laughing stock during its first season (and for a healthy amount of season 2), but no one is saying the same now. With entertaining “fluff” content and much better production over-all (offering a higher resolution free stream starting in season 2 compared to even the GSL) for their actual tournament, NASL season 3 has been a much more well-received tournament.
Why did the NASL improve on the quality of their tournament so much? Is it just because they were lazy in the first season? Were they new or inexperienced?
I think it’s reasonable to point out that the other major tournament at the time, IPL, had a decent impact on how NASL conducted itself in later seasons. NASL had an enormous amount of funding behind it, boasting a season 1 prize pool of $100,000 USD. IPL Season 1 prize pool was only a measly $5,000 USD, yet it was universally hailed to be a superior tournament in almost every way to the NASL. People enjoyed the casting (Catspajamas vs Gretorp) and the production far more (IPL custom graphics/overlays vs NASL constantly being plagued by problems) than it’s financially superior counterpart.
I’m not trying to rag on NASL. Quite the contrary, Season 3 has displayed amazing, marked improvement. I think we can universally agree that the pressure exerted by other successful tournaments helped to push along the NASL into the final product we’ve gotten today.
Imagine, for a moment, that things started off a bit differently. Imagine if NASL had signed an exclusivity agreement with EG and Liquid. When IPL rolled around and smashed people’s faces with their quality, NASL had only 1 option: improve the quality of their production in order to compete with IPL. If they had signed these exclusivity agreements beforehand, though, could they not have simply precluded EG and Liquid from participating in the IPL? While this may seem dubious, it’s entirely plausable. The amount of money that the NASL would have to spend on new equipment and new personel could amount to less than the amount of money they would simply have to pay EG and Liquid not to participate in other tournaments. In this kind of a setting, NASL could continue to be an inferior tournament, but the viewer would be left with no choice but to endorse them if they wanted to see their favorite players in action. There is nothing stopping MLG from doing this if either Dreamhack, IPL or NASL continues to be successful and threatens to steal market share from MLG. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the investors behind MLG demanded such action to be taken, in order to ensure a return on their investment.
How does this affect teams?
Lucifron had a very impressive showing recently, taking out Thorzain 4-0 in the SCAN invitational. A lot of people are suddenly turning their eyes to a player they’d never noticed before, and Mouz had even tweeted that they were interested in picking him up. What if Mouz wanted to easily secure more funding for their team to send their players to events, or just to pay their players a higher salary in general? With the precedent possibly already established by Kespa-MLG, there would be nothing keeping Mouz from signing Lucifron, and then approaching another major tournament (IPL or NASL) in the hopes of signing another exclusive agreement. The team has the incentive of earning more cash for doing nothing while the tournament secures “fan-favorite” and entertaining players, ensuring their survival in the tournament world. Is this at all possible, or does it seem too slippery slope? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest, but I don’t see anything preventing these kinds of deals from happening. In fact, if Kespa-MLG announces that their players will not be competing in any other tournaments, I would expect other tournaments to be contracting teams in fear of losing those potential players showing up at their tournaments.
What about the players?
Players joining teams now have a lot more to think about. There’s a risk that joining any said team could limit their ability to compete and earn prize money. They could also be limiting the chance they have for any break-out success. Imagine if EG approached Scarlett with an amazing offer, more money than anyone else had approached her with, but they’d signed an exclusivity agreement with MLG? Now Scarlett has to choose between accepting a beefy contract with decent money behind it, or participating in “easier” tournaments that won’t be guaranteed to have top-tier Brood War professionals playing in them. If tournaments and teams began signing exclusivity deals, things would become incredibly more complicated for players. The implications of said exclusivity agreements would make things incredibly complicated for young gamers to navigate through.
How will tournaments react? How should they react?
This is a complete unknown to me, and the part I’m most interested in. In my honest opinion, if I was a major financial backer of any large tournament, I would be making moves ASAP to contract Liquid, EG, IM or Startale. Having those teams under your belt gives you incredible financial leverage in the industry and ensures that you will always have some sort of star power attending your tournaments. It also gives you the ability to bargain for other players participating in your tournaments; ie: “If you won’t have the Kespa players playing in my tournament, I will keep EG/Liquid/IM/Startale out of your tournament!” If you don’t think deals like these happen in the real world, check out how the iPhone affected AT&T’s stock.
There’s also the off-chance that everything will simply carry on as usual, and the MLG-Kespa partnership will affect nothing. It’s hard for me to say, as I don’t manage or run any large-scale tournaments myself. My only worry is that if serious money becomes involved in the industry and exclusivity deals such as these are signed, the precedents set for the industry could take us to very bad and unhealthy places. The only thing I see positive coming out of this deal is short-term financial gain for Kespa and MLG, with possible long-lasting damage on the Starcraft 2 tournament scene.