[Here, Zoran Cunningham interviews Collegiate StarLeague head administrator Aston Mack for insight into how his organization promotes positive change in the world of competitive gaming.]
"We will be the amateur league, we will be the youth academy, we will be the future of eSports." Aston Mack, Head Administrator, Collegiate StarLeague.
They may be bold words, but they're fitting for an organization whose humble beginnings of just a few regional colleges looking to settle school rivalries in StarCraft grew into an international league of 700+ participating universities across North America, Asia, and Europe. The Collegiate StarLeague (CSL) has become one of the most important forces in eSports in just a few short years and CSL head administrator Aston Mack is always willing to spare some time to elaborate on how the CSL developed and what it's goals are for shaping the future of eSports.
The future of eSports is something that has consistently been on shaky ground. The path that eSports is taking with single big-money events from Major League Gaming (MLG) and the IGN Pro League (IPL) is similar to the state of eSports in the mid-2000s before the entire scene inevitably crashed and burned. The release of StarCraft II in 2010 played a significant role in the resurgence of eSports and the Collegiate StarLeague looks to be the first true step towards healthy and more responsible growth of eSports as a whole.
Mack knows it will be a difficult road but he remains confident nonetheless. "That's why the CSL exists," he insists. "We want to be that catalyst for change. If nobody else is going to do it, we're going to be the ones who save eSports."
It won't be an easy road. Behind all the hype and large online viewership numbers tossed around there is still a question of financial stability within the eSports community. While the strides that MLG, IGN and so many tournament organizers others have made in elevating eSports in the past few years are admirable, the current state of eSports is hardly invincible.
Most major tournaments prefer to hype up individual players and glorify the spectacle to drum up advertising and sponsorship. And while the hype is a great attention getter, it doesn't foster genuine growth when the organizers of these events often blow through tens of millions of dollars for one event and have to practically start from scratch in obtaining capital for their next tournament. Having to constantly shore up capital from investors for every single event can make it a see-saw effort for organizers and it hardly speaks to the stability of the sport. It's even less certain for the teams and players who work hard to make a living in eSports.
A longtime player and member of the StarCraft: Brood War scene since 2004, Mack is a perfect consultant in this regard, so much so that he's been labeled the 'event guy' for the CSL; coordinating and planning event locations, staffing, hotels, and everything in between. He's very candid in his opinion on how most eSports events are run.
"I honestly do not believe that the current format that so many tournaments adhere to is fiscally suitable for eSports," Mack said. "It's not as stable or consistent as a self-perpetuating league. When you have an event that glorifies the individual, you run into situations where hundreds of fans won't show up to the event or watch the stream because their favorite player doesn't show up. That's the danger of hyping the individual over the sport as a whole.
"The way it's currently run, you have to the be absolute top 1% best in order to make a living in eSports. You have to be winning top tournaments consistently. The whole thing starts falling in on itself unless tournaments can pay out at least to the top eight finishers and even then players need the money to travel, eat, and practice at these events."
It's something that keeps a lot of players from entering the sport simply out of the need to survive and make a living. When tournaments only pay out to the top three finishers and there's a competitor pool of over a hundred at the event, the return on time investment for budding players can be discouraging. Mack uses Korea, home to the biggest market and arguably most of the best players in StarCraft, as a blueprint for building a healthier eSport.
"What happened in Korea that saved StarCraft and their respective KeSPA League is that it became a team league," he recalls. "As a team sport, players can be recruited to fill certain roles and be sponsored to the point that they can at least make a living on the most modest means and have a chance to work their way up. Once on a team, players can contribute as training partners and serve as strong anchor positions knowing they are under contract and not have to go to sleep every night thinking they have to win a major tournament just to survive."