Changing of the guard: Dota 2, Evil Geniuses and the next eSports upheaval

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When I talked to Colin DeShong, Evil Geniuses’ chief operating officer, he was in the middle of a hectic week. They had just recently dismissed longtime team member and StarCraft 2 star Greg “Idra” Fields, and they were in the midst of a major promotion with the Papa John’s pizza chain. On top of all that, StarCraft 2 numbers haven’t been strong in a while, and Blizzard’s WCS has not yet proven to be the cure for what ails pro StarCraft.

So you might expect DeShong to be worried about what the future will bring. Instead, DeShong said he was actually feeling optimistic, maybe more than ever before. The reason surprised me: Dota 2 was about to release, and it might be the strongest foundation for an eSports team yet.

“Without a doubt, Dota 2 will be one of the most valuable games to EG in the coming year or two. There’s just no way it won’t be, and that’s true for every team,” he said. “There’s no reason why it won’t be a 10 year game. And if it’s a ten year game, that means it’s probably going to become one of the biggest focuses for EG.”

DeShong comes from Counter-Strike. He was in high school when he cold-called his way into a sponsorship deal for his Paragon of Virtue CS squad. Getting sponsored by a company called Hype Energy Drinks was a transformative moment for DeShong:

“That led me into having the idea that I could possibly pursue this as something serious,” DeShong said. “Be that in generic marketing or advertising — that maybe, I was actually good at selling e-sports. So, I decided to get more heavily involved in the scene.”

DeShong got involved with the ESEA and World Cyber Games, moving from competitive play and team management to production and other backstage roles. But most CS stories, particularly those from the mid and late 2000’s, have a way of ending in heartbreak, and DeShong’s is no different. He agreed to manage his old team again, who were riding a hot streak and wanted serious management and brand representation… and then the players promptly abandoned him for another team and sponsor.

It was the end for DeShong and Counter-Strike, a scene that was already starting to show terminal weakness in North America. But it did bring DeShong into touch with Alex Garfield, who offered him a job two years after DeShong graduated high school and kept him with EG throughout college.

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“So much has happened since working for EG as a kid right out of high school to now being the COO of a company with more full-time employees than I often can remember,” DeShong said. “EG was not big when I graduated high school.”

Together, he and Garfield have guided EG from a moderately successful Counter-Strike team into a major force in StarCraft and MOBAs, with a presence in other competitive communities like Street Fighter and World of WarCraft. But if this history and experience has taught them anything, it’s the importance of timing, and knowing where competitive gaming is headed next.

Writing on the wall

“What we’re seeing within MOBAs is that the communities seem a lot more receptive, a lot more eager to consume the content that we produce,” DeShong told me. “So we’re looking at [it] and thinking that we need to grab ahold of this now. Before you have the HuskyStarCrafts and the TotalBiscuits entering the scene. Because what we’ve seen in eSports is the people who are first, first to the game, first to produce content for anything, they’re the ones who are remembered through it all.”

The community and excitement building around Dota 2 reminds DeShong of Counter-Strike in its heyday. He pointed to the way the Dota 2 community already organizes itself by teams, encouraged toward competitions by the game itself.

“The team system within the game has thousands of teams on it already. Imagine what will happen when they have tournaments and ladders and rankings and so forth. It’s going to be so everyone’s competing. Everyone’s a part of it. And that was the case with CS. Everyone was competing in it. Because the game made it so you had to.”

More than that, Evil Geniuses are actually enjoying more success being an event organizer and content producer in Dota 2 than they’ve ever experienced with another game. Last year, their Dota 2 League (D2L) averaged 12-17 thousand concurrent viewers in its second season. This year, they’ve more than tripled those numbers.

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Even better for teams like Evil Geniuses, however, is the way Valve are trying to make Dota 2 more attractive for eSports organizations. They’re opening Dota 2 to pro gaming in a way that is nearly unprecedented. For instance, while crate drops in Dota 2 have almost always contained Valve items, crates may soon play host to team-items and gear. It’s a possibility Valve have left open, and EG are working to see if they can build and release an EG set for crate-drops.

“That completely changes the conversation,” DeShong said. “Because not only have I exposed my brand to upwards of maybe even millions someday, but I’ve now allowed my sponsors to be a part of the conversation.”

EG aren’t just thinking about crate items, and Valve have left the door open for more custom options. One example is the HUD. DeShong imagines a future where people watching the D2L through the Dota 2 client will be looking at the game through a bespoke Evil Geniuses interactive display. They could make their branding a part of the presentation, and run sponsor ads that players could even interact with.

This is all blue-sky thinking at the moment, but what has struck DeShong is that Valve are actually taking the initiative in starting these discussions. It’s unlike anything he’s seen before.

“That fact they’re even willing to consider that is mind-blowing,” he said. “The limitlessness of the conversation — that open-endedness is just so attractive. And the fact that we can now have a presence within the game? And actually make money through it? And actually substantial money? That’s huge. No game has ever done that. At least, nothing that teams could take advantage of.”

Players of games

What DeShong is describing implies a massive change in how successful eSports organizations can operate. Traditionally, they are on the outside looking in. They are at arm’s length from tournament organizers, and even more remote from the developers behind the games they play.

So they market their stars. A team like Evil Geniuses has thrived on marketing using some of the biggest personalities in eSports. When I talked to CEO Alex Garfield last year, he was candid about the way EG weigh potential players in terms of fanbase, personality, and results. EG have cultivated some flashier and more controversial players over the last few years. Outspoken personalities were able to hold an audience’s attention more effectively than quiet ones, and EG made that a part of their marketing pitch. It was largely a successful strategy over the past few years, but one that carried the constant threat of backlash.

“Throughout [the StarCraft 2] years, the player who is well spoken — the player who presents himself in an outgoing manner — was elevated. And we grabbed onto that,” DeShong said. “But when you associate yourself so closely with people like that, their every move moves the entire company. And that’s actually a big problem. You can’t be so heavily weighed down by an individual. Especially when we have five to ten other divisions, practically. We have a league of Legends team that sets an entirely different impression than when people would tune into IdrA.”

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But if Dota 2 can bring teams inside the game, as broadcasters or just as content producers putting out eSports-themed Dota drops, it could accelerate a transition to a slightly more professionalized, less personality-driven footing.

“That illusion of personality is not nearly as strong as it once was. I think now we can have players who are honestly I think a little bit more professional overall. More reserved. And not necessarily be giving their opinion all the time. And still have the exact same value, while being more results-oriented overall.”

What DeShong and Evil Geniuses want, and what’s the hardest thing to come by in an often boom-then-bust area like eSports, is consistency. Players who work hard and respect their fans, teammates, and the games they love. Games that can hold an audience’s interest for years, not months. Dota 2 isn’t a panacea, but it holds a ton of potential for EG and it arrives at a time when the team is trying to evolve from slightly “bad boys” reputation it embraced after StarCraft 2 came out.

“Anytime an opportunity comes up like Dota 2, we get really excited at EG, because it’s showing itself as being reliable. And that’s always the argument,” DeShong said. “We gotta find something that’s consistent. A revenue stream that is actually a stream, not a puddle that just gets absorbed.”

But as much as Dota 2 represents an opportunity for Evil Geniuses to take its experience in tournament production and broadcasting, DeShong thinks it offers even more to small teams and aspiring eSports professionals. The release of Dota 2, he thinks, is a rising tide for everyone in eSports.

“For all aspiring team owners who are out there? Look to Dota 2 for starting [your organization],” he said. “If you want to create a team and want to find a way to add value to your sponsors, why not focus on a game that actually supports it? Why not start with that? Especially when there’s so many people that are hungry for it.”

Credit:Second photo on this page by Hampus Andersson, hampusandersson.se