Trickle-Down Economics in the FGC and E-Sports
Published on the 05/01/2019
When I started this blog, one of my goals was to talk about why “E-Sports” (Which here means globalized, professional competition using video games) was often incongruous with the style and principles of the greater fighting game community. The money was nice, sure, but it always came with strings attached and a sense of homogeneity that I didn’t think would be accepted very well by the fairly diverse FGC. Flash forward about a year, and now I see that perhaps I was looking at it the wrong way. E-Sports is not a frightening concept on its own at all – large payouts for winning tournaments that are broadcast in arenas worldwide and streamed to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, at home? That’s rad! Paying people to help run a professional broadcast and commentate the action? Tubular!
Looking back at all the writing I’ve done, there were a few recurring topics that seemed to capture the crux of my frustration with E-Sports. Chiefly, I have realized that what I have come to loathe the most is the fact that the current model for E-Sports is bolstered by a deeply conservative mindset, not unlike the mindset that has set back equality in the US for decades. This system of beliefs has a firm commitment to enforcing inequality and privilege by establishing a hierarchy amongst the player base with the sole goal of having certain people make a lot of money, and the rest staying subordinate by supporting their money-making endeavors with little to no opportunity to find the same level of success themselves. I used to be confident that the FGC would reject it, especially since it goes against most of its proclaimed principles, but looking back, this model has been slowly creeping into the status quo for a long time. The modern-day FGC has inherited some of the worst parts of political conservatism found not only in larger E-Sports initiatives, but internet culture as well. In my efforts to stamp out the roots of what I find to be a tainted cause, I will explore these conservative connections in a new series I’d like to call “Politically Incorrect.”
Before I start, there will probably be people who will read this and say “LOL ppl will bring politics into everything nowadays” and call me names that imply I am less of a man than they are like “cuck” or “beta,” and that’s fine. I will be happy to direct them to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of politics, which states it as “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” We live in a society (lol) and our everyday lives are pretty much defined by our relations with others, so yeah, you better believe personal politics come into play here, there, and everywhere. Have at it.
Now, back to more important things. To date, I think the largest example of how much conservatism has come to the FGC’s table has to be the way most major events revolve around the Capcom Pro Tour tournament series. On paper, the tour sounds good: Street Fighter V, the tournament series’ sole focus, is probably the most popular game in the scene or close to it, and everyone who enters these open-bracket tournaments not only has a shot at the prestige of winning these events, but a chance to win even bigger money down the line. The Capcom Cup Finals were usually good for a look at players that had maybe made a splash here or there but had yet to break through, such as Saul “MenaRD” Mena, who came out of the smaller Dominican Republic scene and managed to qualify and win big in 2017.
Menard receiving his 250 000 dollars check after his victory at the 2017 Capcom Cup. ©Capcom
It always had its problems, but I would say, for a while, the Capcom Pro Tour did an effective job of establishing a “world warrior” theme with its global reach and mostly open-tournament format. But clearly, the powers that be at Capcom weren’t satisfied with that.
I’ve written about it before, but Capcom’s E-Sports model is very dedicated to making “Stars” in order to bring greater mainstream success into fighting games. The idea is that if more marketable and popular players/content creators take the spotlight, then money and more profitable eyes will naturally come flooding in.
What the marketing ppl fail to mention is that the “Stars” plan only works if there is an inherent separation between “Stars” and regular folk aka “The Amateur.” I’ll let well known E-Sports personality Christoper “Montecristo” Mykles highlight why he believes they can’t work in tandem.
I’ll get to the knob he’s responding to later, but Mykles, looking at it purely from a marketing perspective, understands that the only way sponsors will care and pour money into the scene is if the teams/players they sponsor are guaranteed coverage. The best way to do that, obviously, would be to do an invitational type setting (like E-League, a Turner-owned invitational tournament) so the event could be marketed and show off players with sponsor logos slapped all over them. Win or lose, they would be heavily featured, so the people with the money would be happy and those select players could get a chance to play for big money.
Footing the CPT bill
The problem with integrating that plan into the FGC is that it is comprised primarily of open-bracket tournaments, which introduce that element of chaos where a “pro” player could be knocked out by a “fluke.” And God forbid there not be an opportunity to show off the logos of these massive corporations who made the arduous choice of putting pennies in the pockets of these pro teams in exchange for a chunk of air-time! Clearly this problem needed addressing, but uprooting the way FGC tournaments are structured is a pretty Herculean task. Instead of doing that, what if the people footing the bill for a big, year-long tour could subtly make it so that the deck was stacked in the favor of the more marketable players, the ones with either salaries or comped travel, who could make their tour look good?
Enter the 2018 Capcom Pro Tour! As in years before, the tour is divided up into three categories: Evolution, the biggest tournament of the year, Premiers, which are the really big majors, and Ranking events, which are the regional events/online tournaments. Every event, taking place over the course of roughly ten months, gives its top placers points on the Global leaderboard, which will eventually move its 26 highest placers to the Capcom Cup finals, and Ranking events also give you points on a separate Regional leaderboard, which correlates with one of the four distinct regions – North America, Latin America, Asia, and Europe- where the event takes place.
The Capcom Pro Tour global leaderboard. On the right side, the amount of points each player earned. ©Capcom
Capcom Cup finals also feature the winners of the Regional Finals, which are tournaments where the top placers on the Regional leaderboard for that area duke it out for supremacy. Confusing, yes, but it typically ends up working out, with some regions that aren’t heavily featured getting a featured player into Capcom Cup in order to test their skills on the world stage.
There are more Ranking events than Premier events, so they are worth less, which makes total sense, as does separating Regional and Global leaderboards so that every region has a shot at going to a Premier or Ranking event and seeing a reward for both. However, between 2017 and 2018, not only did the total amount of tournaments on the CPT go down, but they drastically nerfed how many points you earn from a Ranking event, lowered the overall point depth, and changed the regional spread of the tournaments.
2017 on top, 2018 on bottom. Hard not to see how Ranking events get the shaft. ©Capcom
You are better rewarded for placing top 2 at Evo or Premier events, but Ranking events now have stunningly little points available for anyone who doesn’t get 1st. Further, the regional disparity is massive; NA alone has 9 Premiers, and the next closest is Asia with 5, followed by Europe with 3 and Latin America with just 1: the Regional Finals toward the end of the season. Ranking events used to be a way of having people who could not afford to travel (especially in competition starved regions like Latin America) get the opportunity to get points on the board and stay in the hunt even though they didn’t have the luxuries of other players.
Poorly distributed earnings
As it stands now, unless you attend at least 2-3 Premier events and place high, just doing Ranking events will not get you anywhere near the Finals. The current Capcom Cup 2017 champion and the Evolution 2018 champion are from Latin America and Europe, respectively, but their regions are not represented with premier status whatsoever, so the players in the region who helped those champions get to top status have to make do with the now nerfed Ranking events. Otherwise, you had better be prepared to drop a ton of money to travel and stay at a hotel for just a chance at maybe grabbing some points.
And if you do manage to defy the odds and place real high at one of these events by traveling on your own dime? It probably won’t be rewarded, thanks to an absolutely Draconian payout structure that most of these tournaments follow. Evolution 2018 had the pay percentages tailored only to the top 8 placers, making it 60/20/10/4/2/2/1/1.
The distribution of Capcom Pro Tour 2018 is strongly inequel, with top 17 to top 24 players winning 500 dollars.
At a tournament of 2000+ players, I find it real strange that placing in the top 1% nets you approximately 1% of the total prize pot, especially when it’s not like there isn’t enough to go around. The tournament briefly flirted with changing the percentages in 2013, where the payout was 36/22/10/8/7/7/5/5, but this lead to complaints, from both mid-level and top players alike, that the winner wasn’t getting paid enough. Obviously there was a likely middle ground between the two, but why do something progressive when players are making a big enough stink about it?
The 2018 CPT system completely caters to the idea of the “pro” player. It has been structured so that placing high at regionally disproportionate Premier events is a necessity to get into the Capcom Cup Finals, and made the more frequent Ranking events top heavy in point distribution so as to ensure only the winners (which will again be the people with the biggest leg up on the competition) shine.
In addition to that, imbalanced cash payouts mean that the pro players who can already win on their skill alone make more, get to travel more, get better all the time so they lose less, then eventually get sponsored, sometimes quit their jobs and play more so they lose even less, and then everyone else on the bubble cannot break in because there is no opportunity beyond top 2 in most pay structures. This is not to say the stress of traveling isn’t still a factor, or that the competition for the top spots aren’t fierce, but it’s hard to deny that for the majority of players, these changes are a case of the rich getting richer, so to speak.
Now you may be wondering “Yeah cool, CPT stuff, what was all that yammering about politics at the beginning for,” and I’m glad you asked! This method, giving the already strong players more opportunities to do well and get their name out there in the hopes that they, and they alone, will bring more people into the scene, is a variant of the classic conservative economic policy known as trickle-down economics.
This term is often fancied up as either “supply side-economics” or “Reaganomics,” but at its core, it’s the same thing: incentivize the rich and the privileged by making their paths to wealth easier in the hopes that they will spend more (in E-Sport’s case, play, stream, and win more) and the money they invest in the national economy will then “trickle down” to the middle and poor classes. And, as can be expected of people given an almost completely unregulated path to making cash hand over fist, this is absolute bullshit.
Study after study has revealed that higher amounts of inequality does not, in fact, motivate people to work harder, because it’s incredibly difficult to win a game that is rigged. The money that is supposed to “trickle down” is often amassed in secret by billionaires who simply just want to have more and more. Marginalized people are tricked into working harder for less money, while their employers make more money than they ever have before. We are living in a time of unimaginable wealth, and yet the wage gap is almost worse than ever.
Worse still, the people with all the money also line the pockets of the Congressmen and women who could change these crappy policies, so we have gone almost forty years with conservative leaning Presidents constantly giving tax cuts to the rich, who contribute nothing to the little guy.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a world tour with grossly unequal payout and structure hit the FGC; this fundamentally conservative style is at the heart of a lot of other E-Sports endeavors, too. Kotaku did some excellent reporting on the rough state of the Dota 2 competitive scene, which is seeing 3rd party tournaments and strong players suffer because the huge amount of money in the scene is concentrated around the winners and runner-ups of one tournament. It is not uncommon for entire teams to be forced to dissolve if they don’t take home the top prize at that tournament, The International. Much like in the FGC, trying to play competitively in Dota 2 is relatively easy compared to the bureaucracy and venture capital gains needed for, say, a competitive Overwatch team, but the rat race you enter into is even more brutal. If you’re trying to make a living, there is really no choice but to compete and qualify for The International, which holds over half the prize money in a given competitive year.
It’s all trickle down! The FGC is often told that the “growing pains” of E-Sports integration will mellow out as more money and players get into the scene, but it’s pretty obvious that even with all that, the same problem persists: the money is only concentrated around a select few and does not get distributed equally. Some of the best Dota 2 players in the world are making poverty-level annual incomes, so what chance does the FGC have?
You would think that influential people in the scene, who claim to be for players first, would do something to address this. You would think they would see this inequality and think it’s bad. Unfortunately, just like in politics, the elite folk in E-Sports know there’s a huge gap in what people earn, and they don’t really care, because they still make money regardless of how well the majority of the players get treated. Instead of using their influence to maybe get some actual regulation going with regards to helping players and teams stay afloat, we instead get to watch them sneer at the idea of the disenfranchised wanting to change the status-quo, while simultaneously patting themselves on the backs for reporting on the woes of the players.
When challenged by the FGC about the separation of “Pros” and “Amateurs,” here are some choice responses from a couple E-Sports vets:
You may be wondering why these guys are just such dicks about it, too. So they can’t bleed the FGC for what it’s worth completely, who cares? They’ve still got other communities like League of Legends, Counter Strike: GO and others, right? Wrong.
To them, they are masters when it comes to monetizing all forms of gaming, and they won’t stop until they’ve done it to the FGC, too. Known ghoul Dinesh D’Souza, who stans so hard for conservatives that he makes Tucker Carlson blush, once wrote that conservatives want to keep the “values” of their society, but are often stopped if a society is “inherently hostile” to their ideals. How do they fix that? They have to “undermine it, to thwart it…destroy it at the root level.”
Guys like Lewis and co. are good boys for the cause, who will do what it takes to make sure things are done their way, and if they can’t, make fun of you and dogpile you with nonsense until you finally give in. If you can’t fit into a culture, make it your own: that’s the conservative way, and it is why you’ll find such homogeneity across these E-Sports titles. Any type of flavor or spirit has been snuffed out by this relentless re-shaping, which is probably why the FGC is so hostile, since this is the stuff happening to a lot of US-based players on a personal level, too.
Here’s a fun thought experiment: take away the word “pros,” “the best,” and “losers” or “them,” and replace them instead with “the rich” and “the poor,” or “the Liberals” respectively. Is there any difference between that kind of rhetoric and this shit? Or any of the other societal elites stanning hard for the rich?
The answer is no, there is no difference, it’s the exact same rhetoric. These people will come in with the promises of wealth and riches, but that is just lip service in order to make the middle/poor class believe they aren’t getting the shit end of the stick. They just want to keep the scales forever tipped toward imbalance, where they can safely make all the money they want and not have anyone challenge why they need it all. Somewhere, Ronny Reagan’s ghost is saluting these brave individuals who have carved out a healthy income for themselves on the backs of others.
A hard situation
In E-Sports terms, this inherent power imbalance creates really bad conundrums for players. Big companies like Valve and Capcom can make almost whatever rules they want, and the players have no choice but to either play ball or play in tournaments and events that have no chance of competing with the production value, prestige, and money prizes that a corporation can provide. Both Capcom and Valve have shown that they have no problem taking away little avenues of support, like sponsorship or the ability to monetize their brand in order to try and break even, if you get in the way of them making money. You have to attend their events, which means you are playing into their rat race whether you want to or not. Much like the oligarchs who run the US, they have the money, which means they have the power to not be fair in their policies, and until that goes away, nothing will change.
The worst part of all is the barking dogs like Lewis, who will come and yell at you if you reject this Catch-22 horseshit because he’s a good boy. Most of the FGC come from impoverished or marginalized backgrounds, and they can smell a crook or a liar when they see one. These guys treat the FGC like garbage because it isn’t full of corporate money, but a large section of the the community is at least smart enough to know that the majority will not see one cent of that cash. There’s hardly any separation between “Amateur” and “Pro” right now, so the players, rightfully, aren’t falling for the bullshit talking points these guys like to throw around. Stripped of their usual conversation stoppers, the E-Sports dogs resort to concern-trolling and barking about victimhood, claiming that they got run out of town because they dared to offer some respect to the trashy FGC. These guys always show their true colors, and it’s almost always steeped deep in classism.
For all the good they did in telling Richard Lewis to go screw, the FGC’s response to the current CPT model, which is run by the far less volatile folks at Capcom, still concerns me. There was not a whole lot of pushback to the changes to the 2018 tour, and there were very few players willing to speak out against it. In fact, if you looked around enough, you’d see that there was some trying to push that, yes, this tour was for “Pros” only, and that was that.
On one of his frequent tantrums, Richard Lewis implied that many FGC top players already believe the same as he does – that the entire community is held back by its middle class -but are afraid to say so for fear of repercussion. As big a buffoon as he is, I actually believe him, because this is the mentality that the current E-Sports model breeds: everyone who’s bad is holding you back from making as big a success of yourself as you want.
That idea is just a plant by these soulless corporate geeks in order to sew discord and get people to believe they have to separate the ones who “deserve” success from the ones that don’t, but it works, is the problem. That’s a sign, to me, that that whole “destroy it at the root level” thing comes into play; if you get top players worked up and frustrated enough, they might actually believe that the majority is holding them down. It stinks, and I don’t like it.
As usual, I’d like to point out that I think there are plenty of people who are fighting to change the status-quo and resist the pull of traditional E-Sports. The FGC is only partially infected by this bug, and with more “amaetur” events growing by the year, there may be a seismic shift in the status-quo.
But it’s going to require those people to push back, which is very difficult because the people who have all the power are really good at using it to sabotage or blacklist you. I don’t blame people for wanting to make money through video games, especially if that’s what they truly love, but not if it’s only them and their friends benefitting. A community is made up of a dozen roving groups, and to segregate most of the players in those groups for the benefit of a handful of players and one game?
This article was originally published August 18th 2018.