Esports has changed a lot since David “GoDz” Parker and David “LD” Gorman founded Beyond the Summit in 2011.
Back then, there was space for a grassroots Dota organization to launch a production studio using crowdfunding money and eventually build itself into a major event organizer. LD doesn’t think an organization like Beyond the Summit could be founded and thrive in today's esports climate, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For LD, the thing that’s changing in modern esports isn’t tournament over-saturation, which he calls “bullshit,” or even sponsors that don’t understand the scene. It’s the balance of power shifting from grassroots organizations in esports to the publishers of the games themselves.
Summit events aren’t easy to create. They might look small, given that they take place entirely in a single residential home, but according to LD, they take around six months of planning from the earliest stages.
BTS has run full-fledged Summit events for Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Super Smash Bros., and while those are popular games with solid esports viewership, the decision to run them at The Summit wasn’t necessarily just driven by views. They couldn’t run The Summit at all if they didn’t understand the games.
“It has to be a game that someone on our team is passionate about for the event to really thrive. I've been a huge Counter-Strike fan dating back to when I was 13 years old,” LD said. “For Smash Bros, Brian Herren who's no longer with us was a huge fan of the game and he was the one pushing to run a Smash Summit. Dota of course is sort of the lifeblood of our company, we started off with TI and most of the folks here love the game or are very involved with the community. You need to have that relationship with any game if you want to run an event like this and really make it successful. You can still make a decent event, but we don't just want to do a decent event, we want to make something unique that people are still talking about months later.”
But there’s no getting away from the financial concerns of running any esports event. BTS might not be renting out huge stadiums, but LD points out that they’re also not selling tickets, cutting off a major revenue stream. There’s a balance between the passion for the game, and what games will get enough views to sustain the production. Smash Summit happens to be a little cheaper, given that the team only has to fly out and house around 40 people instead of 100, but neither is free.
At the same time, LD and his team have to balance dates. Tournament calendars for CS:GO, Dota and Smash are getting more and more packed, which makes it harder to find a good week for a Summit event. However, LD doesn’t think oversaturation is really holding anyone back, at least not in a free market.
“I don't think oversaturation is a real problem, I think it's a bunch of bullshit to be honest,” he said. “The way I see it, there have been times in many games' communities when there were a lot of events to keep up with for fans, and you know, your favorite teams were perhaps playing constantly. In Dota, back in the glory days of TI3 and TI4, you'd see Na`Vi Alliance it felt like every week. But to me, that's only a temporary problem. If you take a long term view of things, teams will become more selective. Over time, if a team is truly a top team and they're doing really, getting invited to every premier event and their place in the scene is secure, they're going to get more selective. If they're tired of travelling too much, they'll attend less events. If they feel like they're not getting enough practice in, they'll reduce their workload. I think by and large, things will sort themselves out naturally in almost any ecosystem in esports.”
The issue for LD is that slowly, esports is becoming less of a free market. Ideally, if top teams start to bow out of events that they don’t deem as worth their time, their spots will be filled in with smaller teams that don’t have as much draw, creating a tier system, much like what currently exists in CS:GO. In Dota, on the other hand, LD says that having to hold tournaments between Major seasons puts third-party organizers in a tricky spot when it comes to choosing dates.
“I think there's a real danger, and we've seen it in my opinion in quite a few communities, that when developers try to get too hands-on, they choke the scene,” he said. “I think Dota 2 is unfortunately a bit of an example of this. The institution of the majors system and a much more structured calendar throughout the year has really limited teams’ interest in third party events. You even hear teams bemoaning the lack of great opportunities to play tournaments.”
LD says that developers taking their esports communities in-house, the way that Valve has with Dota and Riot did with League of Legends isn’t entirely a bad thing. But if it’s handled poorly, the downsides outweigh the benefits, particularly when it’s done to solve perceptions of oversaturation. The other issue it creates, LD says, is that it puts more emphasis on larger, established companies like DreamHack and ESL over smaller, grassroots production studios and event organizers.
BTS started as a grassroots, community organization, but LD says he’d put them in a bit of a gray area between current grassroots orgs and the larger companies. As it stands now, he thinks it’ll be very difficult for third-party, community-run organizations to make the same kinds of inroads into the professional scene as he and BTS did back when they were starting out.
“I think there are great examples of similar operations rising in a variety of different communities I think in some games more than others,” he said. I think there's still room for third parties in esports, I think more and more it might not be operating events directly but doing things like podcasts and shows and perhaps even commentary for events at times, it's getting harder I think to just break in as a grassroots organizers, but again that's not how we started either. Things are changing quickly, and it does seem like there's a lot more capital in our industry, but who knows how things will change. Maybe there's a bubble that's going to crash, maybe things will continue to grow. Personally, I'm fairly cautiously optimistic, but it remains to be seen.”
As for what’s next for BTS itself, LD says they’re hoping to expand their operations in a few directions. Running Summits for other games is one thing, but LD is really hoping to do something they've never done before: a live event with a live audience.
The big downside to the Summit events is that they're private,” he said. “We have buy-ins for the Smash Summit but that's only a handful of people who have to spend quite a bit of money to attend the event, and for the other games it's just not possible due to capacity issues. We want to bring the experience to more people.
“I hope a year from now that we've run our first live event with an audience, with a crowd. We're not trying to emulate or copy PGL or ESL or DreamHack or FACEIT, and there's a lot of other great events that already happen in our scene. We feel like we bring a unique flair to the show, and we want people to experience that in person.”
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.