Esports meets mainstream: Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite highlights balancing act between mainstream marketing and authenticity

by Daniel Rosen Aug 15 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Capcom, Marvel

Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is the latest esports example of a marketing dream with an identity crisis.

To an outside observer, MvC:I should be one of the biggest, most important games of the year. It's coming out at the height of the Marvel movie craze, is packed with characters from absurdly popular movies and TV shows, and is made by a developer with a good fighting game track record. On the surface, there's no reason why MvC:I shouldn't be an instant hit.

But something is holding it back among the dedicated fanbase that should be preaching it to the masses. MvC:I isn't getting buzz from Iron Man and Dr. Strange, it's earning complaints before the game even comes out, partially because it seems like Capcom isn't focused on making a great game.

That's not to say that Capcom isn't working hard on the game or that it's going to be a flop, but its outlook looks rough right now. Specifically, the game's art style looks more bland than previous MvC games, the gameplay is a pretty big change of pace and harder to show off in a trailer than other fighting games and the graphics look like a significant step down from Street Fighter V, a game that came out more than a year ago. All that to say that the the game looks like it's coming out too soon, especially considering the confusing messaging around its proposed esports presence.

Last week, a proposal for Capcom's plans for Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite's esports scene prematurely appeared online. The video detailed how Capcom could run a potential league for MvC:I, which is slated for a September release, and included projected revenue numbers, sponsorship packages, and even an online league structure.

The video was quickly taken down and Capcom's senior director of licensing and esports said that he had mistakenly uploaded the video to his YouTube channel and clarified that nothing in it was final. With that said, the video's contents cannot be unseen and they raise a number of concerns about the game's viability as an esport.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the video is that we more or less know the operational costs for Capcom's Pro Tour. Before the video was leaked, we had no way of knowing how much it cost to put on the CPT and while most people assumed it to be a loss-leading marketing strategy for their fighting games, it was impossible to guarantee it one way or the other.

Partway through the video though, the proposal suggests running the MvC:I part of the CPT with the same financials as SFV across internal staffing, live event production, online event production, tournament organizer fees, territory support, running the Capcom Cup, DLC development, travel coverage and shipping. Combining all those costs, the video states that Capcom would spend $975,000 on running the CPT itself.

On top of that, the proposal has a profit and loss forecast that says the MvC:I CPT will bring in $2.1 million in revenue, take on $1.47 million in expenses and make a $625,000 profit, with 20 percent each going to Capcom Japan and Marvel, leaving Capcom USA with $375,000. While these numbers have not been confirmed by anyone outside of this proposal, it's the first time we've ever seen hard numbers that tell us what it costs to graft esports onto an existing grassroots system.

It seems obvious that both Capcom and Marvel would want MvC:I to have a significant esports presence. According to those financials from the proposal, Capcom has a marketing system that actually makes money, and Marvel's movies are incredibly popular right now. On top of that, Marvel's parent company, Disney, has started airing esports events on ESPN and Disney XD. Even within esports the timing would suggest that MvC:I will be the next big thing.

The issue, though, is that MvC:I doesn't really have a grassroots system to graft esports onto.

Capcom was somewhat forced to stop supporting Marvel vs. Capcom 3's competitive scene when their rights to the Marvel license expired in 2014, as it stopped them from releasing extra content for the game as well as producing more copies of it. If esports is a marketing effort, why market a game you can't make a profit off of anymore? It makes sense that Capcom left MvC behind.

But you can't just make esports happen to a game, especially not in the fighting game community. We touched on this in the post-E3 edition of this column, but the competitive Street Fighter scene was built by the fans, like every other esport right now. To talk about MvC:I's esports presence a month before launch as if it's guaranteed is ignoring the fan efforts that went into giving MvC3 a long competitive shelf life after Capcom had to stop supporting it.

There are other concerns the proposal raises. One thing it mentions is holding an MvC:I tournament at Capcom Cup this year with qualifications primarily coming from the online ladder, which just sounds like a terrible idea. Not only is MvC:I's online infrastructure unproven, Street Figther V's netcode is, generously speaking, barely acceptable for low-level tournament play. Of course, this isn't confirmed to be the case, but it shows the problem with talking about MvC:I's esports presence this early — the game has yet to be released and the community is already expressing concern around it.

That concern is why people reacted negatively on Twitter to the proposal — it just felt insulting. The FGC felt like Capcom wasn't making a great game, they were packaging and selling them as part of a marketing tool for MvC:I. The FGC is the strongest thing fighting games have going for them in esports, and seeing the community put up next to those hard numbers, seeing the FGC talked about in profit and loss figures, made it all feel a little cheap.

I think the numbers shown in the video are the most interesting part because so many in the community ignored them and focused on how they felt about esports instead. The focus should be on how the proposal suggests that Capcom makes even a small profit on the CPT, a marketing effort that could easily be a write-off, and whether or not that's how they can keep justifying the CPT. The focus should be on how the proposal suggests that Capcom wants full distribution rights and revenue exploitation (shared with Marvel) on all tournament streams aside from EVO, and what that means for the community's streamers.

It's definitely too early to be talking about MvC:I esports, I don't think that's in question here. Capcom didn't even want to. This was a leaked video of a proposal, none of which was finalized. This is a conversation Capcom didn't want to have with their fans right now, and I appreciate that. But the proposal itself is both fascinating and worrisome.

The FGC is what make fighting games successful esports, and what can take them even further. The problem is that the FGC is also Capcom's best marketing tool, and it's extremely hard to retain the authentic nature of the FGC while still sticking to the kind of business plan outlined in the MvC:I esports proposal.

Grade C- — I don't know where the balance is between big esports, a marketing push and retaining FGC authenticity, but I hope MvC:I is a great game first and foremost, and I also hope it succeeds as an esport. The proposal doesn't actually look that bad (online tournaments aside), it's just too early in the relationship to propose.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. He wrote this whole column while listening to Nova's UMvC3 theme. You can follow him on Twitter.