ELEAGUE and Street Fighter on TV: How do you make a game into a Tier 1 esport?

by Daniel Rosen Feb 28 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Capcom

What does it take to make a game into a premier esport? The term itself a little silly, considering there's some pretty big disparities between what we traditionally consider to be the big three esports titles, but everyone else wants to hit the heights of CS:GO, League of Legends and Dota 2. From Vainglory to Overwatch, every game with a competitive scene is trying to reach Tier 1. Last week, ELEAGUE decided it would give Street Fighter a chance, too.

For a long time, the fighting game community has sort of languished right outside the realm of esports. Depending on who you ask, fighting games are Tier 2, or Tier 3 or Tier Nothing to the members of the community who don't really care about esports. But it's hard to deny that there are elements of esports in the FGC right now. EVO and the Capcom Cup finals were televised, and now, ELEAGUE has invited 32 players to a $250,000, televised league, something that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. But is it enough to turn Street Fighter into a premier esport?

Plenty of esport titles have been on TV before, including Street Fighter, and they aren't currently commanding hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch, so we can safely say that just being on TV isn't enough to make a game suddenly super popular. However, ELEAGUE does seem to raise the profile of the games it gets itself involved in a little. However fair or unfair that might be ELEAGUE has done a pretty good job of branding itself as a premier event for whatever game it jumps into. The first two seasons of their CS:GO league did well enough to earn them a Major after just one year of existence, which even broke Twitch records for peak viewership.

However, the only other game that ELEAGUE has staked its claim on so far is Overwatch, which did fine for ELEAGUE, but not too much for the scene. Twitch viewership wasn't bad, especially for a growing game like Overwatch, but it didn't exactly break records. On the last day of the Overwatch Open, the channel broadcasting the event hit a peak of 30,879 viewers, while Overwatch reached 42,873 overall. That pales in comparison to the 214,280 peak viewers that the Overwatch World Cup stream pulled in at BlizzCon, which is still the most watched Overwatch tournament to date. ELEAGUE didn't suddenly turn Overwatch into a premier esport with the Overwatch Open. Despite their best efforts, they didn't really reshape the scene.

A chart displaying Overwatch peak and average viewership on Twitch courtesy The red box highlights the portion of the chart that corresponds to Sept. 25-30, the Overwatch Open playoffs days.

But maybe Street Fighter is different? It has a lot of things that both Overwatch and CS:GO don't. Fighting games legend Justin Wong points out that Street Fighter specifically has name cache among a casual audience that CS:GO and Overwatch haven't been around long enough to have.

"I think a lot of the casual audience will know what Street Fighter in general is," Wong told theScore esports. "Many people probably don't keep up to date but they know who Ryu and Ken are. They used to play at their local arcades or even a candy store that had some arcade cabinets. I get approached all the time at airports when I take out my fightstick and people always say, 'You use that for Street Fighter II?' and I reply with, 'Yes but I use it for Street Fighter V.' They are always surprised because they never knew that there was something past Street Fighter II."

On top of that, the fighting game viewing experience doesn't require a spectator mode or trained observers, just exactly what the players see on screen. Overwatch was stuck with a subpar spectator mode during the Overwatch Open, and CS:GO can be confusing to a first time viewer who doesn't know the rules — the exact kind of person who might accidentally stumble across the tournament on TV.

"I think fighting games in general look good on TV if you have to choose a competitive video game genre," Wong said. "You can put Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Injustice, Marvel Vs. Series or Tekken 7 and it would look good because people would understand that it is a fight and one side has to win."

There is, however, the issue of the level of competition. ELEAGUE's SFV invitational comes at a weird time in terms of scheduling, since it's going to be falling right in the middle of the Capcom Pro Tour. Combo Breaker organizer Rick Thiher pointed out on Twitter that with their multi-week format, ELEAGUE could easily have filled out the post-EVO lull in the FGC calendar. Instead, it's taking place over several weekends during other events, including the final weekend which will coincide with Combo Breaker and Red Bull Kumite.

So, it's not guaranteed the full attention of its audience, and ELEAGUE isn't a proven system to get your game noticed by whoever the esports tastemaker Illuminati are. So, we have to ask, what's the point of putting all this on TV? Will it actually do anything for the FGC?

To be fair to ELEAGUE, they're going to have significantly higher production values than most FGC events, if only because there's more money floating around Turner Sports than in your local TO's bank account. Plus, that $250,000 prize pool makes competitive SFV even more exciting this year, since there's more than just the CPT prize pool on the line. It's hard to imagine it won't be an exciting event, it's just equally hard to imagine that it will significantly change the FGC in some miraculous way.

So what does it take to make a game into a premier esport? I wish I knew, but I don't think that ELEAGUE putting Street Fighter V on TV is going to do it.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. He hopes one day, he can be on TV for being great at Windjammers. You can follow him on Twitter.