Franchised League vs Tournament Circuit: Which structure is best suited for the future of esports?

Esports is still in a stage of development so it's a perfect time to figure out the best format.

Counter Strike Global Offensive and Overwatch stand as two of the largest esports, both able to fill out stadiums and hold consistent viewership. 

Yet a fundamental difference separates Valve’s CS:GO from Blizzard’s Overwatch. The former using a tournament circuit and the latter a franchised league knows the Overwatch League (OWL). 

Photo Credit: Kotaku 

For those unaware a franchised league is one where an organisation has to purchase a slot, rumoured to be as much as $40 million, while a tournament circuit relies on invitations and qualifiers to determine which teams attend.

As esports still stands in its early days, the question arises of what format will rise above the other and prove to be most beneficial for the industry’s development going forward. 

The tournament circuit will remain a preference of the two since it adheres to the competitive element of esports more. The main reason for this is a fundamental basis of a franchised league is the lack of any relegation system due to the buy-in for a slot. 

Financially this is necessary as Jack Etienne owner of Cloud 9 describes “[Franchising] allows you to bring in sponsors to create really strong years-long partnerships,”. 

Photo Credit: BloombergHowever, the absence of relegation means subpar teams continually play at the highest level lessening the competition of which the OWL contained the most extreme example.

The Chinese franchise the Shanghai Dragons in their inaugural season ended the season without a single win going 0-40, the longest recorded losing streak in any competitive league ever.

In absence of fear of elimination organisations in leagues often become more concerned with the marketability and fan engagement of their brand, while winning often creates more fans it doesn’t guarantee it. 

Noah Whinston former CEO of Immortals said regarding League of Legend’s franchised league said:

“My goal for the LCS is not how can we create a single best competitive team possible…my goal for the LCS is how can we build a potentially generational base of fandom.”

In contrast, the open tournament circuit forces teams and players to work their way up to play on the best stage creating a more competitive environment. 

For example, the current world #2 team in CS:GO Team Vitality formed on the 8th October 2018 and had to play just below 200 maps before receiving their first direct invite to a top tier event on July 17th

Photo Credit: FACEIT

Vitality had to prove themselves consistently as a world-class team before being able to play at the biggest events while no such qualifications are required from a team in the OWL.

This being said the tournament circuit hasn’t perfected meritocracy yet. An example being Polish fan favourites Virtus.Pro. By the second half of 2017 the team was in a significant slump yet still received six invitations to tier one events due to their popularity. The team ended up in last place in four of them. 

READ MORE: Virtus.Pro and the end of an era.

However, while there are examples like this the largest events in both Dota 2 and CS:GO that Valve sponsors are entirely meritocratic with no personal decision making put into who attends. 

Indeed, the International for Dota 2, Valve's other main title, which boasts the largest prize pool in esports at $31,763,873 and growing has the most extensive qualification systems in any competitive game. 

Photo Credit: Valve A system which uses other tournaments within the circuit to qualify a team to The International. Instead league play enforces more competition on individual players as opposed to teams since the organisation is permanent while the players are not, an odd contrast in a team-based game.

Furthermore, the schedule of a league decreases competition compared to an elimination based tournament. Which team plays which in a league is decided by a schedule and this schedule is not determined by seeding meaning there is a random factor to the difficulty of matches a team experiences. 

READ MORE: Dotesports interview with Jack Etienne

In the case of the Overwatch League in the coming season 2020 there have been four divisions announced meaning some teams will inevitably be placed in an easier group. The nature of these divisions is based around location not competition.

Photo Credit: Blizzard

In contrast tournaments are generally seeded and have teams being progressively eliminated meaning as a squad advances they face progressively harder opponents, exceptions to this arise with one off upsets. 

It’s very unlikely a bad team will have an effortless run to the finals since the consistent and better teams will regularly reach far into the tournament and prevent an easy victory.

 The test for a side then comes from how far they can advance in any given tournament as opposed to how well a team does in a week of pre-scheduled matches. 

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This creates for a more engaging viewing experience since your favourite team being eliminated from contention is a far greater stake than a drop in league standings. 

League playoffs that the entire season builds towards are an attempt to counteract the lack of stakes. 

However, this situation has two problems. The first being that if a team is dominant early on and quickly qualifies the rest of the season becomes ultimately meaningless. The second being that the risk of a team loses their playoff chances only comes in later into the season meaning the tension isn’t consistent throughout.

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Yet while the tournament circuit does a better job at sorting the best from the best it is the case that the franchised league holds its place because how much easier it is to grow. The previously referenced $40 million buy in for the OWL is evidence of how appealing the franchise league is for organisations. 

The opportunity to build your brand over several years allows you to create a dedicated Fanbase and a developed brand identity. Figures from traditional sports such Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and OWL’s Boston Uprising, are drawn to the league for this exact reason.

Counter Strike holds fan engagement but in ways that aren’t easily reproducible. 

Firstly, the ancient 20 year age, in esport’s terms, of the game has given it time to establish a Fanbase and team loyalties.

Secondly, and more significantly the game has a rare trait of being filled with single nation teams lending itself to nation based Fanbase. 

Of the current top 10 teams in CS:GO, five consist of the same nationality featuring Denmark, Brazil, France and Finland. This means viewers from these countries can more readily associate with the teams.

Photo Credit: ESLIn comparison, outside of all Korean teams of which there are 6, every team in the OWL is mixed nationality. This is a trend across every team esport outside of CS:GO. 

As a result OWL takes the approach of using city based franchises to generate fan interest with names such as Vancouver Titans and Seoul Dynasty. The city-based system acts to substitute  for the lack of team heritage in Overwatch, only being released in 2016, creating fan attachment from nothing.

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As a result, any arising team based esport would be drawn to the franchising of the league to generate fan interest. This comes from a new esport lacking the legacy of Counter Strike and its history of single nation rosters. 

So while the tournament circuit creates a more competitive environment it seems the franchised league will become necessary for new esports to grow and gain global recognition.

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