Tom Bramwell, December 30, 2016

Five Esports Predictions for 2017

2016 was an exciting year in esports, as new teams, leagues and even games emerged to disrupt the established order, and while some things never change (SKT won Worlds? Tell me more!), we head into the New Year excited about the potential for even more dramatic change to come. So as 2017 starts to loom very visibly over the horizon, let's get specific. What do we expect to see next year? What are Unikrn's 2017 esports predictions?

1) Higher stakes means more excitement

Esports was catnip to investors throughout 2016, as everyone from venture capitalists and television networks to retired sports professionals and even the Qatari royal family (through the investment fund that owns the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team) caught the bug and started buying up teams and even forming leagues. That influx of new money through acquisitions and investments led to upward pressure on player salaries and increased efforts by game publishers to monetise their esports titles, most notably in Riot's recently announced broadcast rights deal with BAMtech, rumored to be worth $300m.

Rick Fox with the Echo Fox team

Some of those investors will want to start seeing a return this year, but most will be more patient and strategic, aware that there is still a lot of core work to be done to make esports profitable, but that the vast and growing audience is genuine and generally under-monetised compared to people who consume traditional sports. So rather than seeing this investment trend slow, we would expect to see the graphs continue to go up in 2017 (and 2018 for that matter) as more individuals and organisations jostle for position to take advantage of the industry's maturation towards the end of the decade. That will mean more teams being acquired, even crazier salaries and, realistically, more monetisation of the core esports product - more skins, more sprays and gloves, more "brought to you by".

Hopefully, the knock-on effect for the viewer will be more exciting competition. As more expensively assembled teams go head to head with marquee esports organisations (hastily recapitalised to remain competitive), the number of teams who have what it takes to win competitions will hopefully increase, and the quality of play across each week's matches will continue to improve. And, of course, not everyone can win, so the names we see falling short - even facing relegation - could start to feel more significant.

In other words, the stakes are going to get higher, which should make the action more exciting and more meaningful across the whole of esports. Probably.

2) But more money also means more problems

Of course, explosive growth can be a double-edged sword, and we've already seen plenty of that in 2016. The dramatic fallout between Riot and the team owners in its beloved League of Legends Championship Series felt like a sign of things to come, and we're already seeing similar things starting to happen in Counter-Strike, including this month's argument between CSGO players and PEA (the Professional Esports Association) about their right to play in next year's ESL Pro League competition.

This trend will definitely continue in 2017. All that new money has raised the stakes on Summoner's Rift, Dust2, et al, and created new opportunities all over the place, but it will also see increasingly fierce and complex confrontations between people trying to improve or control various aspects of the scene, whether it's clashes between aspiring regulators and national associations, between teams and game developers, or between players and fans/teams/leagues/casters/everyone. Hopefully things won't get too out of hand, but the outcome of these conflicts could determine the shape of esports for many years to come, so the identities of the winners and losers in 2017 will be more significant than ever.

Meanwhile, we are likely to see more bad actors trying to make money out of esports popularity through scams and dubious ethics. The fallout from this year's YouTuber CSGO skins betting controversy continues to this day through various legal actions, and unfortunately 2017 is likely to see more of that kind of activity and more resultant drama.

3) Developers will keep making bold game changes

One of the highlights or lowlights of 2016, depending on your fondness for popcorn, was the massive spat between Riot and LCS teams towards the end of the year, and while it will probably be remembered for the changes it led to in remuneration, it's worth remembering that it all started because TSM owner Andy Dinh was asked about sweeping changes to League of Legends made just prior to Worlds - for the second year running - and expressed his extreme frustration and displeasure about the impact this had on pros and orgs.

A lane-swap in League of Legends

League of Legends wasn't alone in that kind of thing in 2016, either. Far from it. Valve received widespread criticism from pros and analysts over the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive coaches ruling, which the developer said was designed to stop a coach acting as a de facto sixth player. And then right at the end of the year, Valve dropped Dota 2 patch 7.00, an immense reworking of numerous core elements of its phenomenally successful MOBA, which will have an as-yet unquantifiable impact on everybody playing the game professionally. Blizzard, less noisily but with no less impact, completely redefined the competitive calendar for Hearthstone, and announced plans to seize control of the nascent Overwatch esports scene rather than letting it grow organically as it was starting to do.

The repercussions of some of those changes aren't clear yet, but the truth is there was no real downside for Riot about the game changes it made, or for Valve about the coaches ruling. They drew some criticism, but ultimately these changes are clearly not discouraging either the audience or investors - if anything, they attract more attention from other parts of the media and games industry - so while both companies probably took note of the reaction, we don't think they will stop doing what they think should be done with their games, even if it hits the same scale as killing laneswaps or booting coaches. They may be more careful about timing, but they know that mixing things up is part of the secret sauce for enduring esports, so don't expect them to hold back unless they sense a threat to the bottom line.

4) The Counter-Strike calendar needs to calm down, but won't

The Liquipedia pages for Counter-Strike suggest there were around 35 "premier" tournaments in 2016, each with a prize pool ranging from $75,000 to over $1m, along with dozens of lesser tournaments offering prizes ranging from $25,000 to $100,000. Right now, in the dregs of December, is probably the only time of the year you couldn't reliably find a current Counter-Strike tournament to watch, either live or recorded. Otherwise you pretty much always could. There were only two Majors in 2016, but given that the first of 2017 is the ELEAGUE Major in January, we can probably expect more next year.

SK Gaming

So far this volume of competition hasn't been an issue for spectators, mostly because 2016 was a very competitive year for the game. SK Gaming (or at least their roster) won both Majors, but over a dozen teams won tournaments with prize pools over $250,000, and the situation we encountered at the start of December, when Astralis and OpTic contested two major finals on consecutive weekends, was the exception rather than the rule.

But at some point something surely has to give. As some players and coaches have noted, one of the reasons we see so many different winners is that constantly competing without any time for training means the best teams get figured out, and are too exhausted - mentally and physically - by their crazy international schedules to adapt, and seldom have any time and space to do so anyway. Are we really seeing the best professional play as a result? Or are we just seeing teams go through lightning cycles of innovation and stagnation?

One response to this would be to reduce the number of premier tournaments, create clear offseason periods, and stuff like that. Some tournament organisers probably recognise this - ELEAGUE's huge prize pool is obviously designed to generate publicity to some extent, but in theory it could also mean that teams can rely on making decent money competing there and actually take time out between seasons. That would be healthy. The only problem is that it's counterintuitive for tournament organisers to behave this way - if they see a gap in the calendar, they know they can sell sponsorship and tickets, so why not fill it? What with so much new cash coming into esports, and the continuing rise of Asian Counter-Strike teams (among numerous other factors), it's unlikely to stop. Quite what this will mean for competitive Counter-Strike by the end of 2017 is anyone's guess.

5) Overwatch will grow, but won't threaten the big three

Overwatch is one of the best-selling PC games of the year. It has an astonishing number of active players. And despite only being out for a few months, it has quickly inspired multiple high-stakes tournaments that seemed to draw impressive audiences and generate fantastic competition. At the time of writing, the game remains the fifth most watched on Twitch behind League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Dota 2 and Hearthstone.

Onwards and upwards in 2017 then? Yes, but only up to a point. Blizzard's bold decision to create Overwatch League, which will involve establishing team franchises in different cities and states, rather than relying on traditional globally mobile organisations to move around competing for prizes, is an unusual and potentially revolutionary one. But while traditional sports point to a precedent for success with this model, that's no guarantee it will work in esports, which - as much as the nature of the competition deserves comparison - is culturally very different to traditional sport.

Tracer in Overwatch

Not only that, but Overwatch the game has a significant issue as an esport, which is that - let's be honest - it's bloody difficult to watch. Spectator options are poor and the intensity of on-screen action and machinegun commentary means it's currently pretty uninviting. Blizzard knows this and has pledged to do something about it, but again, that's not a slamdunk. It remains to be seen whether new spectator options for Overwatch turn it into a more watchable game. At the moment it feels less immediately readable even than League of Legends or Dota 2, which are often criticised for being comprehensively bewildering to anyone but the most dedicated players.

On the whole, we suspect Blizzard will do well tackling the challenge of growing Overwatch into a viable esport, but we do think any suggestion it will displace the bigger titles by the end of 2017 is wishful thinking. We would absolutely love to be proven wrong, because Overwatch is a fantastic game and its success in esports would be another huge boost to the industry - proof that it can continue to diversify rather than just consolidating around a small cluster of titles - but we can also imagine a few growing pains along the way.

Tom Bramwell

Tom is a British writer who used to work for Eurogamer and Riot Games. Increasingly obsessed with esports.