"We will be the amateur league, we will be the youth academy, we will be the future of eSports." Aston Mack, Head Administrator, Collegiate Star League.
They may be bold words, but they're fitting for an organization whose humble beginnings of just a few regional colleges looking to settle school rivalries in StarCraft grew into an international league of 700+ participating universities across North America, Asia, and Europe. The Collegiate Star League (CSL) has become one of the most important forces in eSports in just a few short years and CSL head administrator Aston Mack is always willing to spare some time to elaborate on how the CSL developed and what it's goals are for shaping the future of eSports.
The future of eSports is something that has consistently been on shaky ground. The path that eSports is taking with single big-money events from Major League Gaming (MLG) and the IGN Pro League (IPL) is similar to the state of eSports in the mid-2000's before the entire scene inevitably crashed and burned. The release of StarCraft II in 2010 played a significant role in the resurgence of eSports and the Collegiate Star League looks to be the first true step towards healthy and more responsible growth of eSports as a whole. Mack knows it will be a difficult road but he remains confident nonetheless. "That's why the CSL exists," he insists. "We want to be that catalyst for change. If nobody else is going to do it, we're going to be the ones who save eSports."
It won't be an easy road. Behind all the hype and large online viewership numbers tossed around there is still a question of financial stability within the eSports community. While the strides that MLG, IGN and so many tournament organizers others have made in elevating eSports in the past few years are admirable, the current state of eSports is hardly invincible. Most major tournaments prefer to hype up individual players and glorify the spectacle to drum up advertising and sponsorship. And while the hype is a great attention getter, it doesn't foster genuine growth when the organizers of these events often blow through tens of millions of dollars for one event and have to practically start from scratch in obtaining capital for their next tournament. Having to constantly shore up capital from investors for every single event can make it a see-saw effort for organizers and it hardly speaks to the stability of the sport. It's even less certain for the teams and players who work hard to make a living in eSports.
A longtime player and member of the StarCraft: Brood War scene since 2004, Mack is a perfect consultant in this regard, so much so that he's been labeled the 'event guy' for the CSL; coordinating and planning event locations, staffing, hotels, and everything in between. He's very candid in his opinion on how most eSports events are run.
"I honestly do not believe that the current format that so many tournaments adhere to is fiscally suitable for eSports. It's not as stable or consistent as a self-perpetuating league. When you have an event that glorifies the individual, you run into situations where hundreds of fans won't show up to the event or watch the stream because their favorite player doesn't show up. That's the danger of hyping the individual over the sport as a whole. The way it's currently run, you have to the be absolute top 1% best in order to make a living in eSports. You have to be winning top tournaments consistently. The whole thing starts falling in on itself unless tournaments can pay out at least to the top eight finishers and even then players need the money to travel, eat, and practice at these events."
It's something that keeps a lot of players from entering the sport simply out of the need to survive and make a living. When tournaments only pay out to the top three finishers and there's a competitor pool of over a hundred at the event, the return on time investment for budding players can be discouraging. Mack uses Korea, home to the biggest market and arguably most of the best players in StarCraft, as a blueprint for building a healthier eSport.
"What happened in Korea that saved StarCraft and their respective KeSPA League is that it became a team league," he recalls. "As a team sport, players can be recruited to fill certain roles and be sponsored to the point that they can at least make a living on the most modest means and have a chance to work their way up. Once on a team, players can contribute as training partners and serve as strong anchor positions knowing they are under contract and not have to go to sleep every night thinking they have to win a major tournament just to survive."
The KeSPA League was a major cultural shift in eSports and it solidified the team format as the future in Korea. It wasn't long before official team houses were set up where players could live, train, and practice on a consistent basis to improve their skills. More importantly, it allowed for the development and recruitment of new talent on a consistent basis.
"What a team league does is it takes it from the top 1% of high-level players making any money to about 20% by helping create a healthy environment to grow the sport and bring more people into it. That way you have more people competing for more positions. You no longer have to be the best player in the world; you can be among the best in a position where you can train alongside the best in a team environment and improve your skills to perhaps one day be the best. It's a more nurturing, stable, and healthy competitive environment. And as a league, it means you're playing all the time and consistently improving your skills alongside your peers," Mack explains.
In so many ways the CSL's success is a no-brainer. Colleges are bustling hubs of talented young individuals, many of which are already gamers and members of online teams/clans/guilds. In most cases the foundation for student teams are already in place with the school itself acting as home base. Best of all, college students bring with them a host of skills as majors in marketing, business leadership, communications, writing, and so on. There is no better place to recruit the future faces of eSports than from the already talented, capable, and well-spoken student bodies at universities across the world. The result is this wonderful cross-pollination of students integrating their career ambitions with their passion for eSports and vice versa.
The CSL grew very quickly thanks to these academic roots and the barrier to entry for new teams into the CSL is astonishingly low. "The current requirements for registration and membership for the CSL simply mandates teams provide full player information and proof of enrollment via university e-mail before the start of each season, a team roster of at least seven players, as well as a team captain and team coordinator (neither of which are required to compete themselves)," Mack highlights.
"Team captains at most participating universities have applied to become recognized as official clubs by the university and student body, allowing them to promote the team, league, and various events. It allows teams to hold sanctioned fundraisers on campus and request university travel pay to events. It also allows them to officially request space for team meetings, practice, and events. Since most campuses have game rooms, student arcades, or LAN centers, there is a natural meeting place for teams to hold meetings and practice alongside one another in a 'war room' setting when they aren't doing so from the comfort of their own custom rigs."
It's a big move for both gaming and academia and is one of the first global pushes towards giving eSports a defined presence in the academic world. As officially recognized clubs, teams are not only recognized by their student government and listed in the university's yearly catalog, they also benefit from exposure on their university's website and school newspaper. It adds a certain level of academic legitimacy and professionalism to eSports.
The results are already showing and sponsors and companies have taken notice too. Initially, the CSL, like any organization, was looking for ways to fund and sponsor the league in order to keep it solvent. Mack reveals how a steady flow of capital came along from professional gaming organization and eSports media giant Azubu shortly after the CSL incorporated last year:
"Azubu came along at just the right time, liked what we were doing, and agreed to partner and sponsor us. It prevented us from having to pass on any registration or entry fees to teams, something that might have imposed a barrier to entry. Having Azubu on our side creates a healthier league because it allows us to support our teams and accommodate them to the best of our ability. We're even giving away several scholarships this season for various achievements including outstanding player, community service, leadership, and outstanding academics. With the scholarship and so many things we do, we want to be additive to each student player's college experience. We want teams to love being part of the CSL."
This frees up club money for team shirts or jerseys, pep rallies, computer equipment, and event travel. It allows teams to do all the great things that school clubs do and it allows them to do it in an official capacity. There's definitely something to be said for the feeling players get from being a part of a team and of something larger than just themselves. It goes back to the CSL's goal of championing the community and culture of eSports rather than just the individual.
"Azubu saw value in us because we are focused on the amateur and developmental scene as well as the pro scene," Mack admits. "We represent everyone who at some point or another thinks they can become a pro player. We represent everyone who never thought they could have a chance but now do. We represent everyone who never thought they'd make it on top of a stage in front of a live crowd but is eager to prove they can do it."
A team league also means that established star players who age or go on the decline but are pillars of the community can transition to team coaching or administrative positions and still contribute their knowledge and insight into the sport rather than leaving it for good and moving on to do something else with their lives to support a family. Even better, it means that successful pillars of the community can make a long-term career out of their passion for eSports.
"Some of the most famous players and eSports personalities including the infamous Sean 'Day9' Plott, Team EG captain Geoff 'INcontrol' Robinson, and Tyler 'NonY' Wasieleski competed in the CSL," Mack notes. "The number of pro players making a splash at big international tournaments as a result of playing in the CSL is growing. You have players like Adrian “KawaiiRice” Kwong at the University of Washington who coach and turn prospective low-tier players into top-tier contenders. What you get is the start of new teams like team LighT and a player in Patrick “Caliber” Coury who is suddenly tearing up the StarCraft II scene is a very short period of time."
There is a definite thrill that comes with winning as a team and representing a university on a grand stage through competition. School pride certainly plays a big role and high tournament placement or a league championship victory by a school team is something that tends to spread as news across campus and can help make eSports suddenly relevant at a school. Much of what the CSL is doing is establishing a system very similar to athletic sports where players can compete for a spot on a team, be recruited by scouts at a college, and develop into star players. The CSL is also doing something that eSports has been lacking or outright ignoring for years in looking at outside influences for inspiration.
"From the very start we took a deep look at the sports world and what they do," says Mack. "We looked at how great it might be to have a weekly show that analyzes StarCraft and covers the players and tactics of the game. We're looking at getting talented casters and color commentators a list of stats and figures available at their fingertips during events to add credence and perspective to matches. Those are the things that keep viewers interested. Even better, we want to showcase the story behind players and teams, much like ESPN brings drama to sports coverage via player and event spotlights."
To this end, the CSL homepage not only services the league by showcasing players and teams through university spotlights, it has a support team available to address inquiries from universities and teams regarding all aspects of CSL participation. The CSL is even drafting documents to assist and guide team captains on how to effectively grow their team. It's all part of a movement towards establishing a healthy league that will be around for years to come.
And the CSL isn't content with just resting on it's laurels and only supporting StarCraft II as it's mainstay. While StarCraft II is certainly the core focus of the CSL, the organization goes through trials of other eSports games through a scaled down form while it works out a proper format for developing each league. This ensures that the intricacies and variations of each game are considered before establishing a full fledged stable league. League of Legends was the first to enter the trial format and DOTA 2 followed shortly afterward. It's quite possible that the CSL may eventually become the cornerstone of eSports going forward. At the very least it can help guide eSports to a more stable and successful future.
All the effort that the CSL has put into creating a healthy eSports league atmosphere will be on display at the AZUBU Collegiate Champions Grand Finals on the weekend of February 16th and 17th in Los Angeles. With a prize pool of $180,000, the CSL has proven that steady and healthy growth can lead to primetime big money events. Best of all, admission to the event is absolutely free for anyone interested in experiencing the electric atmosphere of eSports competition in person. The official CSL Twitch.tv channel will also live stream the event for free. It really doesn't get any better than that for fans, players, and colleges all around.
[The CSL was founded by head community manager Mona Zhang. Current CEO Duran Parsi joined soon after and help lay the groundwork for an organized league. The company then recruited production editor Timothy Young and tournament head Alan Nguyen before adding Aston Mack and lead writer Theresa Gaffney into the fold. In 2012, the CSL officially incorporated and went from six people maniacally managing a league of over 200 universities to a strong staff of a few dozen that continually brainstorm the future of eSports.]