Player Development Pipeline: Sports vs. Esports

by Fabio

Talent doesn’t just grow on trees. That is why it usually takes years for players to become superstars in sports and esports. Every once in a while, a young talent comes along and just races to the top. For instance, Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut jumped from playing Counter Strike in small leagues as a part-time job to being the best player in the world within just one year. Most of the time, however, players need to grow from amateurs to professionals over a longer period of time.

For that process to take place, they need a support structure. This is commonly referred to as the player development pipeline. This pipeline, like a metaphorical factory line, is supposed to take in a raw resource and produce high-quality output. The future of any sport or esport depends on this structure. Without new top talent, the competition severely suffers and the scene will never be able to grow. So how do regular sports approach this? 

Player Development in Traditional Sports

We all know how player development works, because most children have unknowingly been part of the pipeline already. When you played in youth clubs and joined your local football or basketball team, you probably didn’t think of becoming a world-famous sports star. But unknowingly, you already took the first steps in that direction. Granted, most children playing in those clubs are doing it for fun. Still, this is where the player development pipeline begins. 

At a very young age, parents introduce children to a sport. In a learning environment, they are slowly taught the fundamentals of the game. Coaches and teachers give them the right tools to develop their skill set and as they progress, they receive more opportunities and have to face more challenging obstacles. 

Scouting

These clubs serve a very specific purpose within the pipeline. Experts flock out to search for upcoming players within these organizations already. The scouting process kicks off at a very young age. If players are found to be promising, they are accompanied through various stages of developmental clubs and leagues. Eventually, they’ll be drafted into the junior teams of bigger clubs, where they eventually get the chance to play with the best athletes. 

It is important to recognize every stage as part of this process. That starts with these early opportunities. This entire system of youth clubs and talent scouts exists to identify potential talent and produce world-class players. In the United States, colleges have even monetized the player development pipeline in almost every aspect.

College sports are a major industry in the U.S.
College sports are a major industry in the U.S. (via A Sea Of Blue)

College Athletics and Scholarships

In the U.S., college sports play an critical role. Talented athletes can enter into universities and receive scholarships for their sportive endeavors. While many universities across the world offer sports programmes to their students, U.S. colleges actively support athletes in an unprecedented fashion. 

Because of this, college sports have grown into an industry of their own. Games are played in front of large audiences and broadcast on television to millions of fans. Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods are examples for international stars who have all found their way into the spotlight via college sports. This kind of exposure and support structure allowed them to fully pursue these competitive disciplines without having to fear for their futures. Starting with those amateur youth clubs, they were accompanied by knowledgeable people and lead through a chain of increasingly larger competitions. 

The Player Development Pipeline of Esports

Esports doesn’t have a similar kind of pipeline. Most activities take place online anyways, so it might appear as if those structures aren’t really necessary in the first place. As a player, you can start off by playing matchmaking and ranked games. If you feel that you’ve hit the ceiling there, you can transition to specialized platforms like Bitspawn and start playing against stronger opponents. There, you can find teammates and join amateur leagues. Winning these leagues will grant you access to bigger competitions until you eventually hit the world stage with your gameplay.

In CSGO, for instance, there are numerous open leagues at the national and international level. Players can start off in ESEA Open and advance through the Intermediate, Main, Advanced and Premier leagues. If they win the relegation portion of that last stage, they progress to ESL Pro League, one of CSGO’s highest competitions. This pipeline is entirely open to the public. In that regard, esports are actually ahead of traditional sports. As long as you boast a stable internet connection, you are able and eligible to compete in these leagues. There are no local or regional barriers preventing you from accessing these opportunities. 

Unfortunately, there is more to the player development pipeline than just providing leagues. In many ways, esports still lack a real support structure for upcoming players.

Youth Clubs in Esports

This is arguably the least developed aspect of the esports pipeline. Clubs are hugely important for young and aspiring players. There, they are given the chance to socialise and to compete in a controlled environment. So many important aspects of player development are entirely forgotten because there is no explicit support structure at the lower end. Sure, gamers can compete in amateur leagues, but they are never taught the basics of how to actually learn and grow. 

Competitive aspects like discipline, nutrition, physical exercise, even the correct posture for hour-long playing are hugely important. Usually, teaching these things falls to youth clubs. In that regard, gamers are mostly left on their own. Without trainers, gamers largely avoid these kinds of topics. This massively impacts their chances of getting to the top. 

But there is a promising development taking place. In Germany, for instance, many amateur and non-profit organizations are spawning. While they can’t yet take the same place as sports clubs (because of German law), they are giving more and more opportunities for amateur esports players to organize themselves. The German Esports Federation has set out to provide coaching courses and has established its own national amateur league. In the United States, we can see a similar development on college campuses.

Collegiate Starleague Finals in Quake (via CatCountry)
Collegiate Starleague Finals in Quake (via CatCountry)

College Esports

The concept of college sports is ingrained into American culture. Millions of fans watch these leagues and follow the players. A whole system is set in place to allow these athletes to compete, while still receiving their education. Finally, esports has reached this space as well.

Collegiate Starleague, for instance, host a wide network of esports leagues for hundreds of universities. They offer tournaments in 15 different games. This gives universities and colleges the necessary incentive to start supporting their esports talent. The players are given dedicated facilities. Trained staff help them grow and improve. 

There, we can observe the player development pipeline form. While university and college may be a bit late for some players to grow into actual stars, at least they provide additional opportunities and visibility for esports. The competition is normalized and introduced into mainstream society. As acceptance grows, more and more families will start to look for ways to enter their children into esports programs. This sets the foundations for an actual, comprehensive player development pipeline. 

Why the Developers Have to Act

Molding fresh talent does not only fall to these aforementioned support structures. In esports, the game developers are hugely involved in the entire process. What they decide to do with their game is just as important. So if a developer decides to create a closed-off league for the best teams, it is imperative to provide opportunities to those looking to break into the top levels of their game. 

Unfortunately, failing to do so can have catastrophic consequences. For instance, Overwatch League is an Esports franchise. This means that there is a set number of teams in the league. Those teams will never be relegated. So for talent to move out of and into the tournaments, the existing teams have to scout for new players. For that purpose, Blizzard, the game’s developers, have installed the Contenders league. The second division of sorts, this structure aims to provide opportunities to the semi-professional portion of their players. There, they can prove themselves and become visible to the top teams. Unfortunately, this league is severely lacking in multiple ways. 

For one, the viewership isn’t nearly high enough to justify large investments by teams. Most OWL organizations don’t field any academy rosters because it’s not financially viable to do so. No team in their right mind would pay players full-time to compete in Contenders, meaning that most competitors won’t have the time or means to fully dedicate to the game. Additionally, the prize purse is way too small to “feed” all – or even just some – of the competing teams. If you’re not a part of Overwatch League, the system essentially fails you. In the long run, this will lead to the scene drying out. There are so many other games with better functioning support structures. 

A Proper Pipeline Is Vital to Survival in Esports

Players have realized this. Jay “sinatraa” Won, who has recently become the most valuable player of Overwatch League, has left the game to pursue a career in VALORANT. This isn’t just an issue with younger esports titles. Ubisoft have done it right with Rainbow Six: Siege, where a variety of national and regional leagues feed into a growing circuit of international events. Despite lower viewing numbers and less financial support, the pipeline of R6 esports is much more stable. 

So there are two sides to the coin. Developers have to ensure that there is a competitive structure that starts from the very bottom of the scene. But external factors influence the pipeline just as much. Youth clubs can give players the right tools and experience to really make it to the top of esports. If both of these sides work together, hand in hand, esports can grow into a sustainable, worldwide competition for all people. 

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