The hesitant toe-dipping, transitionary step for any sub-culture to make into the mainstream consciousness is an unimaginably confusing and complex process that runs on a purely case-to-case basis.
Every pervasive element of our everyday lives at some point had to go through this fiery and confusing crucible of media criticism, public rhetoric, and silent judgement from peers to get to a point of widespread acceptance.
Surfing, Star Wars, rock music and Pokemon all went through their fair share of apocalyptic naysayers condemnation but in the end were accepted due to the size of their respective fan-bases/participants reaching a point where their collective mass made it impossible to dismiss as niche or silly or ephemeral.
The way in which all these different scenes found their way into our grouped idea of ‘normal’ is vastly different, making it almost impossible to create a clear pathway for other sub-cultures to follow.
The rise and eventual quasi-acceptance of MMA into the sports world has blazed a path and faced similar problems that provide an interesting, albeit foggy reflection of the eSport’s title ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s’ (CS:GO’s) future.
Although the debate over defining eSports as ‘sport’ is a hot topic for debate among those outside the scene, the main similarity between CS:GO and MMA is not the ‘sport’ element, but simply the core competitive nature of the two. The competition regardless of the minor CS:GO gameplay updates or MMA event organiser will always centre around players/fighters battling each other to win. Furthermore, these sub-cultures have a following due to fans/analysts/peers wanting to watch this competition or participate in the competition in some form.
Considering these two absolute, bedrock, foundational similarities existing identically across both scenes, naturally, they both will face similar concerns and enjoy similar successes. In saying that though, the major glaring difference between the two is the controlling organisational aspect of the different spaces.
MMA currently has the majority of its market share controlled by the UFC, with Bellator taking the second largest amount but still lightyears behind holding primacy in power. The UFC are by far and away the flagship organisation and largely dictate much of where the scene is heading and being the benchmark in numerous different elements of the sport.
In contrast to this, is the free-market place of organisers in CS:GO. Almost any group or person with an idea, some experience and most importantly, a whole heap of cash, can create a tournament that would have elite-level teams in attendance and if marketed correctly, a relatively large audience.
For example, an event called EPICENTRE came around this year, from an organiser with almost no reputation and put on possibly the best event of the year with one of the largest prize pools and the most critical acclaim. An almost unimaginable scenario to occur within MMA, even if a new organiser could get the acceptance of an athletic commission.
However, this utopian sounding scene of free opportunity also has many pitfalls; the primary of which an over-saturation of tournaments. With organisers able to easily put forth large prize pools and a high polish on their product, the top teams in the world can find themselves travelling around the world with little promise of rest more often than not, and fans being presented with an unfathomable amount of games week-to-week.
This lack of control stems from a lack of a leading organisation like the UFC has in MMA, and has led to the scene becomes absolutely saturated with massive grand finals and potentially scene-changing series in a non-stop stream of games.
For some stretches of time, it’s basically Connor McGregor fighting Nate Diaz or a Lawler versus MacDonald II equivalent every weekend. Even for someone like myself who keeps up-to-date on every single element of the scene on an almost hourly basis, the amount of moving pieces and active narrative threads can be easily overwhelming.
As such, teams have started to create large associations with the intention of being able to boycott events, grant a degree of exclusivity to the teams a part of the association, create their own leagues with the exclusive teams, and then further down the line market the complete package of the association to mainstream media companies and TV executives.
Or in other words, they’re looking to become a quasi-UFC company to control large portions of the scene, and who can really blame them?
Team owners don’t want to have to play within a free-market, they want the security of a league system with franchised slots and no prospect of relegation. This is the way forwards if the goal is centred on bringing big money into the space and growing out of the sub-culture roots. However, if the goal is more geared towards maintaining this free-market but just upping the barrier-to-entry to prevent over-saturation, then the idea of hegemonic control by a couple of companies is terrifying.
This eventual goal of ‘big money’ can be reflected with the UFC’s multi-billion dollar selling to the WME/IMG group – who also coincidentally started one of the biggest eSport’s highlights of 2016, the televised CS:GO tournament – ELEAGUE. The growth and eventual selling of the UFC is a goal that most of the creators of these eSport’s associations look to replicate and as such, the UFC can provide a look into the future of what this process entails.
This economic focus from the ‘higher-ups’ and ‘suits’ of eSports has led to more egalitarian issues regarding the players, just as the UFC’s specific focus has led to mistreatment of their fighters. Many CS:GO players sign contracts that completely take away their image rights, personal branding, opportunity for other revenue streams, and also make them completely subservient to the will of their organisation, all for a salary that can be – given the amount of hours required to play at the highest levels – lower than minimum wage.
Fighters in many senses share similar problems when dealing with the UFC, due to the Reebok deal they can’t have their own sponsors, are independent contractors so they don’t enjoy retirement plans or healthcare, are subject to the will of matchmakers, and are paid fractions of their worth. The comparison is acute, and the methods of solving these problems are similar in both scope and efficacy between scenes.
The way MMA fighters are trying to combat this directly, and indirectly, are ways that CS:GO pros can learn from and are reasonable to see cropping up in the near future. The recently announced MMAAA (Mixed Martial Arts Athlete’s Association) which is looking to become a front for fighters and help combat many of the indifferences they face, has a game plan similar to what a CS:GO players association might look like as well. A fighter/player organisation that wants what is best for the competitors and is willing to actively fight against the higher ups to make this happen.
The other primary force that looks to help equalise fighters worth is economic competition. Bellator is the UFC’s main rival and is slowly ramping up its roster by paying much higher salaries to free agents and also promising many other benefits like individual sponsors, and a cut of the TV revenue on their fight.
The CS:GO equivalent to this would be the rise of player-owned teams like GODSENT, Astralis, and Heroic. All teams are run by the actual players themselves and can therefore, dictate their contracts, the shares of the revenue from the team, and also what events the attend, how much media they do and how they want their public image to be portrayed.
Although one competitor might win a battle with his index finger and the other might with a spinning back kick to another person’s skull, both share a surprising amount of injustice in their fields and look to change this with similar solutions.
The beauty of this, is that those that want to see eSports in its most pure form, free of outside problems or muddling executives, and focussed entirely on the competitive aspect is that we can mirror many of the problems and future problems with the scene to MMA, and as such avoid them all together or find solutions based on where they went wrong.
The existence of MMA can act as an elderly, calcified oracle into the future. If eSport’s as a whole chooses to actually look ahead, rather than focuses on short-term gain and instant gratification.
Find Max on Twitter @max_melit