Noah Whinston describes how 'Dota 2' needs to change, why franchising is good for 'Overwatch', and the importance of rookie talent
Noah Whinston describes how 'Dota 2' needs to change, why franchising is good for 'Overwatch', and the importance of rookie talent
Noah Whinston, the 22-year-old CEO of Immortals, is on a roll. After dropping out of Northwestern University before his senior year, Whinston secured several million dollars in venture funding to launch a "next generation" esports organization in October 2015. Within a year of the team's successful debut in the League Championship Series, in which they ended the spring split with a 17-1 record, Immortals had also acquired winning teams in Counter-Strike, Overwatch, and Super Smash Bros. Driven above all by Whinston's vision for what an esports organization can and should look like, Immortals has quickly become one of North America's most valuable esports brands.
Last week, in the wake of my article on the state and future (or fate) of Dota 2, I spoke to Whinston about some of its key themes, including the "ideal" model for an esports ecosystem, the role teams and organizations play, and the looming spectre of franchising. Like many CEOs of venture-backed teams, Whinston is an advocate for franchising in esports (most of the time, at least). But with Activision Blizzard's gargantuan Overwatch League on the horizon, the possibilities and perils for franchising in esports have never been more apparent. Talking over Skype, I asked Whinston about many of the common criticisms of franchising, as well as his thoughts on the state of Dota 2.
I want to start by addressing some of the common criticisms of franchising, one of which is that it squelches the ability of, say, SG-esports, the Brazilian team who placed unexpectedly well at the Dota 2 Kiev Major, to get recognized and rewarded. The worry here is that franchising is inherently less meritocratic.
Well, you need to look at in shades of grey. Franchising makes it harder for these unknown, amateur teams to rise up and compete against the best in the world. It's less meritocratic. On the other hand, a good franchising system still allows pathways for talent to find their way into the ecosystem. Teams should be rewarded for scouting and identifying previously unknown talent and succeeding with it.
In the context of Dota 2, I'm not advocating for franchising. We're talking about Overwatch League and League of Legends, which are pursuing these more locked-in models. It's weird to say given the age discrepancy between the two, but I think the ecosystem in League is significantly more mature than Dota 2. You have talent being scouted from every corner of the world, massive waves of immigration from region to region, and much more established and stable professional organizations that make good, long term, permanent partners for publishers. In the context of League of Legends or Overwatch, franchising makes a lot more sense. In Dota 2, I don't think we're anywhere near where we would need to be to justify franchising.
When I think about Dota 2, I think about changes being made toward a more stable ecosystem. Some of those changes have already been made by Valve, like the Major system and specific roster add/drop dates. But I think more needs to be done.
I think there needs to be an attitude shift among players, teams, and fans as to what Valve's role should be. Players don't realize the cost that happens when they blow up rosters every year, and then they try to rebuild from scratch.
So what would "more" look like in the context of Dota 2?
It would not necessarily look like top down control from Valve. I think Counter-Strike is a well-structured ecosystem, even without Valve playing a powerful role. But I think there needs to be an attitude shift among players, teams, and fans as to what Valve's role should be. Players don't realize the cost that happens when they blow up rosters every year, and then they try to rebuild from scratch. And though a lot of Dota 2 fans still say that the only thing they care about is competition – because that's what makes Dota 2 great – my own experience shows that Dota 2 fans really value Dota 2 and Counter-Strike content like the Valve-produced documentary series True Sight and Evil Geniuses' content.
So I think players and fans also lack the context to know the situations in which that type of content becomes possible. How can you create a True Sight without needing to rely on Valve to do it? What if you had a True Sight that lasted for more than a few Valve sponsored tournaments? What if you were able to have the type of player profiles that people love to see at the Kiev Major and the Boston Major, except you could have it all the time? High quality content is so prevalent in League of Legends that people start to take it for granted, but it's so scarce in Dota 2 that I don't think people realize how valuable it is and how much they enjoy it.
Could you say more about the apparent cost of making and remaking new organizations in Dota 2? The volatility of the scene is one of the things that worries me most about Dota 2's professional ecosystem.
It's self-interested to say this, but I view sustainable fandom as fandom that attaches itself to organizations, because they are less likely to change. But that means that organizations need to be able to show consistency in terms of results, brand, and identity, which I don't think many do right now, including us. But if we can, then it's a lot more sustainable to have fandom based on organizations the same way it is in traditional sports. It's starting to be a little more in League of Legends. I'm sure that Dota 2 fans aren't going to be fans of that idea – just because it's done in traditional sports, why do we have to do it here? – but I think this is how you create fandom that isn't swinging up and down based on who happens to win The International. And if you talk to professional players, it's not a great environment; players often have swings in mood based on what their fans feel when they perform well or poorly. That can do a number on your mental state.
So with respect to Valve's documentary series True Sight, I know a lot of Dota 2 players are wary of participating in that kind of production. Episode two of True Sight, for example, documented the collapse of Fnatic and reflected poorly on the team's captain, Mushi, whose image was tarnished in many fans' eyes as a result.
I think it's actually a cultural adjustment, but also an adjustment of the kinds of content that gets created. There are certainly things that go on inside a team that you're going to shoot footage of that you should never release, because the goal isn't, "How do you tell the complete truth?" – it's "How do you make something entertaining without actually ruining people's careers?"
But I do think that more behind-the-scenes content than we have now is important. I don't think that fans in Dota 2 get much exposure to their favorite players other than when they appear at LAN tournaments. Even then, the content isn't especially robust. I think that there is a big desire and need for more of that kind of content in Dota 2, even as you mention that the number of premier events is decreasing.
Dota 2 has a lot of competitive content, but it doesn't have a lot of non-competitive content, especially compared to different ecosystems like Counter-Strike. I'm not here to tell Dota 2 fans that they need to like that kind of content. If Dota 2 fans are like, "We only care about tournaments," and not profiles, behind-the-scenes stuff, or, say, "Cooking with Fly," then fine. You should enjoy the type of content that you want to enjoy. On the other hand, I see the excitement and the viewer numbers around this type of non-competitive content, so I know that there's a desire for it. And I think both players and fans need to get their heads around the tradeoff that's inherent to that. It's like building an RPG character – are you willing to sacrifice one point in Dota 2 practice time for 10 points into connecting with fans and content creation?
I would say that there's a decent chance that we sign a Dota 2 team before The International, but it's not going to be signing them just through the end of The International.
I think that answer should be "yes." There needs to be more of a balance in the Dota 2 ecosystem, at least for us to be a part of it. And we don't need to be a part of it, but I think for us, and our philosophy as an organization, would bring with it things fans of Dota 2 have proven that they like. I would say that there's a decent chance that we sign a Dota 2 team before The International, but it's not going to be signing them just through the end of The International. We'll have a long term plan, too. We're not approaching this from the perspective of "we have to find a Dota 2 team" but the perspective of "I like Dota 2 as a game, Dota 2 fans are great, they support teams and players in an incredible way, and I'd like to be part of that ecosystem." But I'm not going to compromise my values to do that. If I can find a team that fits them, fantastic, I look forward to being a part of it. But if I can't, then it's not for me.
I think a lot of Dota 2 professionals would still be skeptical when there's so much money to be made at top tournaments. How are you supposed to tell a pro that they shouldn't be putting every point into practice when there's $20 million on the line?
That's true. I'd say that the presence of The International and the massive prize pools in Dota 2 heavily emphasize competitive success more than personal branding. But it's also important to remember that you have a very long life ahead of you beyond potentially winning The International. If you want to be involved in the esports ecosystem for longer than you can play professional Dota 2, then you have to be able to build a brand, or a fan base, or a skill in something, like casting or content creation, so that you don't need to just hope that you win The International for retirement money.
That's part of what strikes me as so odd about Dota 2. Many see it as the most "player-friendly" game because of the huge prize pools, but those go to a small cadre of top players. Everyone else is left fighting for scraps, which doesn't exactly seem healthy.
Exactly. And Dota 2 fans like that because it's this obviously meritocratic system, but if you look at everyone's favorite sweetheart story – SG-esports – they're barely making enough to survive. I'm not going to use salaries as a substitute for total compensation, because once you include prize money, the top-earning teams are all in Dota 2. But the difference is that in League, you have hundreds of professional players across multiple regions who are able to sustain this as a full-time career. Not just because they love doing it but because it's actually a financially rewarding path.
But in Dota 2, unless you're on one of the top ten teams in the world, you are probably making close to nothing. A meritocratic system is OK, but to an extent it cannibalizes itself. You can only support these top teams if you have a rank-and-file of lower tier teams, because you need to develop talent from somewhere. You can't just keep swapping around the top talent in some incestuous cycle. In order to sustain those bottom scenes, you need to create a system where the players there can support themselves. Outside of a tremendous passion and love for the game, the Dota 2 ecosystem does a very poor job of incentivizing or sustaining those lower-tier teams.
That would have the added benefit of reducing the temptation to fix matches, which is especially bad in Dota 2 and especially bad in second-tier regional scenes, like South America and some of Southeast Asia.
Definitely. Look at the way it happened in Counter-Strike. iBuyPower was one of the best North American teams at the time, and yet they were still making so little money that it was in their financial interest to throw games. In an ecosystem in which you don't provide sufficient ways for teams to sustain themselves, they're going to turn to black market ways to do it. From my perspective, the easiest way to avoid match-fixing and to avoid cheating is to give people other ways to get what they need. Counter-Strike match fixing has disappeared because there's enough money in the scene now.
Another common criticism of franchising is that it's inherently anti-competitive. It leads to shitty situations where fans might root against their own team toward the end of the season in order to guarantee a better draft pick.
Well, there are always going to be bad owners, but people describing that as an epidemic trend across the industry are very misled. I was on a panel with David Stern (former NBA commissioner) and Bruce Beck, and I asked their opinions on salary caps, because I was curious about why that happened in traditional sports. The salary cap is not there to protect owners from the players, it is there to protect owners from themselves. Without a salary cap, owners would overspend and spend themselves into bankruptcy to get the best players.
You don't start running an esports team unless you a competitive person. The people who are buying into esports aren't just doing so because they view it as a good business. Much like sports owners, it's a bit of a vanity asset. You want to be able to brag about how well your team is performing. There's financial incentive, but ultimately, the reason that people are present in esports is not just to make the most profit and cash out – because, to be honest, there are different places you could put your money and do it with less risk, and probably do it faster. From our perspective, winning is an inherent motivation and there doesn't need to be a financial incentive to that.
A franchise system is going to be a little less meritocratic, but it's going to be a lot more stable and long term. I think, right now in Dota 2, there are poor incentives for developing talent. I can't remember the last time that a team carried a young player as a sub to help teach them the game, or brought in someone that was almost completely unknown and really needed time to develop and help their squad in the long term. Ultimately, these meritocratic systems overly incentivize short-term thinking, which means that newer talent has a harder time breaking into the scene – especially in Dota 2. If you are new talent, it's hard to exist on one of these lower-tier teams because there's just not the financial sustainability to do so. So, from my perspective, I think franchising actually helps competition in the long term because you are much more able to create structure to win sustainability forever, instead of just focusing on this current season to avoid relegation or win The International.
So how do you account for someone like Syed "SumaiL" Hassan, who was virtually unknown before Evil Geniuses drafted him in early 2015 but became one of the world's best players within a few months?
Well, compare the number of rookies on top teams in Dota 2 to the number on top teams in League of Legends to the number of rookies on top teams in traditional sports. I'm not saying it's impossible for new talent to arise; SumaiL is obviously a god, and if he hadn't ever had a chance, that would have been a tragedy for Dota 2. But how many SumaiLs are we never even going to know exist? It's not like every rookie who isn't on a team is the next SumaiL. I'm saying that you can't just look at these two examples and call that a counterexample to the main point.
Rookies get significantly more playing time and experience in traditional sports, and significantly more play time in other competitive esports titles with a more structured ecosystem. And I know it feels like the current crop of Dota 2 players can last forever, but some of these are going to face that fact eventually. If you don't have a pool of talent coming up to replace and supplement the pool of talent in the next five years, you're going to be in a tricky spot. I know that five years from now feels like a long time from the perspective of esports, and it is. But that doesn't mean that we don't need to think about it and cross our fingers and hope it all works out.
Changing topics – I'm assuming based on what you've said that joining Overwatch League is a huge priority for Immortals.
Absolutely. From our perspective, Activision-Blizzard are taking a the kind of approach that we like to see. It's a top-down structure with a big priority on building long-term partnerships with teams and of reorganizing teams as integral parts of the ecosystem. I'm not going to talk about the financial part of this, because numbers is ultimately where everyone gets tripped up. But it's well aligned with what we think are the effective, long-term ways to build sustainable esports ecosystems.
That said, there are a lot of concerns about Overwatch League. Overwatch hasn't proven itself as an esport and its competitive fanbase is a fraction of its overall fanbase, to name just two. Its commissioner, Nate Nanzer, only formally started working in esports in February 2016. Are these red flags?
Well, any structure can be bad if the numbers behind it are bad. You can have the best structured ecosystem in the world and if you're not really providing much revenue into the equation, or if you're expecting a lot from teams but not giving it to them, or if you're squeezing it with a chokehold because you're not introducing much digital promotion, then, yeah, it will fail. A lot of these things are TBD.
One of the reasons we're not pumping out a ton of Overwatch content just yet is that we don't know if we're even going to have an Overwatch team six months from now.
The structure of Overwatch League has been in the works for a very long time, and it's not as if they just picked one path and decided that that was the way they were going to do it. From my perspective, that in no way guarantees success. It can fail. 100 percent. But I also don't think that the current structure guarantees failure. I think that the current structure sets Overwatch League up well for success, giving it a higher expected value chance.
One of the things that strikes me as most lacking in Overwatch is the total absence of a mythology around its professional players. Outside of a small handful of high-profile players, there isn't very much storytelling going on that turns great players into bankable stars. Is that the responsibility of teams, Blizzard itself, or both?
100 percent both. Blizzard has always shown an ability to do that with the content they've created around World Cup. In Korea, APEX has done a fantastic job of making storylines, and I think some teams have done a good job, but I obviously think that there needs to be more stability and a better sense of where the whole thing is going before teams are going to invest heavily in content creation. One of the reasons we're not pumping out a ton of Overwatch content just yet is that we don't know if we're even going to have an Overwatch team six months from now. Once we're in a more stable position and we know if we're still going to be in Overwatch in five years, then we have a base to pump out a ton of content and build those storylines. As that exists right now, Overwatch content is pretty lacking and I think there are good reasons for that. I think there's a good path for it once things start to solidify and improve.
So Overwatch League is a priority, but you're also not sure if Immortals is going to be a part of it?
Nothing is guaranteed. We're a good organization, but there are going to be a lot of good organizations that aren't part of OWL.
You guys have had pretty good luck with the teams you've sponsored. How much more difficult do you think it would be to run Immortals if the team hadn't performed well in most of its divisions?
It would be much harder. So, the way I describe the lifecycle of an esports organization would be – you need to have a brand plant. You need to have a unique identity as a team that makes people want to root for you. Then winning is the thing that makes people pay attention and engage with your brand. That's how you can start to amplify and magnify those brand messages to the fans. So I'd say that, without winning, I'd still have a strong brand, and we'd still take a mature and sustainable view on the esports ecosystem. But it would be a lot harder to notice these teams, at least until people find a different reason to care about them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.