Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Case Against Top-Heavy Prize Funds

The Intel Extreme Masters World Championship is a 3-day $100,000 winner-takes-all Starcraft 2 tournament. It is to my knowledge the first major tournament outside Korea with such a top-heavy distribution of the prize fund
There are two big tournaments that I am currently following with great interest: the IEM World Championship in Katowice, the culmination of the Starcraft 2 Intel Extreme Masters Season VIII; and the FIDE Candidates Tournament 2014, the winner of which gets the right to challenge world chess champion Magnus Carlsen to a match for the title later this year.

The FIDE Candidates Tournament 2014 is a massive three-week double round robin tournament in which 8 of the world's leading chess grandmasters determine the challenger for Magnus Carlsen for the upcoming 2014 World Chess Championship. The Candidates Tournament is also one of the most lucrative tournaments on the chess circuit.
One thing I noticed is that the distribution of the prize money differs greatly between the two tournaments. At IEM Katowice, the winner gets $100,000 while all other 15 players including 2nd and 3rd place get nothing.
The Fide Candidates Tournament distributes the prize fund of 600,000 EUROs (~ $832,000) more evenly. The winner gets 135,000 Euros, and last place still receives 25,000 Euros. The tournament is a 3-week commitment though. The winner, of course, also gets the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship. The loser of that match is going to receive at least another $500,000. In other words, winning the FIDE Candidates Tournament is worth $675,000 easily. So in a sense the tournament is pretty top-heavy, too. However, even 25,000 Euros for last place is not bad at all for 3 weeks worth of work. And participation in this tournament most certainly increases a player's market value. I am not sure if that's true to the same extent for the SC2 tournament.

Despite his rocky start into the tournament, Armenian "Super Grandmaster" Levon Aronian is considered to be the likely winner of the FIDE 2014 Candidates
I just googled "SC2 dying" and got 422,000 hits. I have always thought that this "bullshit" about "SC2 dying" is largely just people bashing the game, trying to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the same time though I don't understand the reason behind this extremely top-heavy prize fund. It seems to me that a vibrant professional SC2 community is in the best interest of Blizzard and all sponsors (like Intel) that try to make money by selling products and services to the community. The more buzz there is in the professional community, the more exciting the big tournaments are to watch for fans like me, and the more exposure sponsors get for their products. But by making these tournaments so extremely top-heavy in their prize money distribution, the organizers make it very difficult for almost all SC2 professionals to continue staying in the game. 
I check about once a week, and whenever I do, there seems to be a new story about a pro gamer retiring, usually citing a combination of lack of interest and financial reasons.

Another - slightly less important reason - why I think the distribution of the prize money in Katowice is wrong is that there is such a big element of chance involved in winning a major SC2 tournament. Luck of the draw, a constantly changing map pool, patches, technical difficulties such as lag are just some of the factors  beyond the skill of the players that have a huge impact on the outcome of the tournament, and that turn the whole event into a lottery to some extent. If skill is just one of many factors (though arguably still the most important), it doesn't make sense to me to reward only one player for getting through all the "randomness" of the tournament. If the IEM tournament was to be held again in 4 weeks, the winner could very well be someone else. If the FIDE Candidates Tourney was to be played again, the winner would most likely be the same. 

And I'm not convinced that any player is going to try harder in a winner-takes-all format, no matter how much the casters hype this tournament.
As a former Terran, I would have liked Polt or Taeja to walk away with the $100,000 from IEM Katowice. Unfortunately, that is no longer going to happen.


  1. The case against a top-heavy tournament would not be complete without attempting to make the best argument *for* a top-heavy tournament. From the point of view of the promoters, I expect the argument is that it is more exciting for the press to have a champion who wins $100k. To put it another way, the top-heavy format is the cheapest way to have a $100k champion.

    Also, is it more exciting for the viewers to have a final where there is $100k on the line?

    As you can see these arguments have nothing to do with the health of SC2 as an e-sport, or about equitable treatment for the players. I leave those out because I believe those are not dominant concerns in the mind of the organizers.

  2. TotalBiscuit (a prominent figure in the esports community) brought up quite an interesting point of viewer to playerbase ratio.
    People were complaining that CS:GO and LoL had way more viewers thus this is a basis that SC2 is "dead", TB responded with the following insightful post:

    "Time to drop some motherfuckin stats.

    100k for SC2 is GREAT. Wanna know why? Because according to, there are 328,642 ladder players active during this season. So why is this great? Well, whenever someone drops some stupid statistic like "Oh look at this LoL final getting 350,000 in their best case scenario of white dudes vs Koreans", you can look at LoL's player statistics and see that actually the conversion of players to eSports viewers is far lower. According to Riot stats, which are most likely fudged but even if they're anywhere near... you have over 60 million monthly players yet these events are only converting that into 385,000 viewers concurrent? It's impossible to know how many uniques the SC2 and LoL streams got but if we compare concurrent, you are looking in the best possible case scenario at a ridiculous 32% player to viewer ratio for Starcraft 2 and fairly pitiful 1.91% ratio for League of Legends. I'm saying best case scenario because SC2ranks is only pulling ladder player stats whereas the League stats include everyone in every possible game mode. SC2 has more than 350,000 active players doing team games, unranked customs and Arcade, but even if you tripled SC2s playerbase, the ratio is still ridiculous. SC2s audience in general is more supportive of competitive play, more interested in eSports and as a result more likely to respond passionately (and negatively) in situations such as this.

    We should be celebrating that conversion ratio, not trying to chase a viewercount that passed us two years ago and is going to keep passing us whether we like it or not. We have a large, healthy playerbase who likes to watch eSports events and who is on average older with more disposable income. That's very marketable to sponsors. If organisations are savvy and careful, they can create sustainable businesses around this game. WCS continues to get strong numbers, SHOUTcraft Clan Wars, a $500 per match event, is pulling in more than 40,000 viewers across its live shows, reruns and vods and is running in the black while continuing to grow. IEM Cologne was an instudio event that peaked at over 100,000 if you include the foreign language streams, again a model of sustainability and common sense.

    People are extra salty after a terrible final and a questionable prize distribution model, but can we please just take a step back, look at the facts and stop comparing ourselves to a free2play dota-clone with mass casual appeal. Guess what, we're also less popular than Angry Birds, are you going to get salty about that too? If you actually love this game as much as you all claim, then focus on enjoying great games and supporting cool events."

    Is SC2 as popular as it was in 2011? No, however it is far from dead, players are retiring but this is not a new event, it happens in all games, old pro's retire and new pro's come in. Nice blog post!

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