Hoooo boy. I continue to learn so much about the Smash community every single week. Coming from a MOBA background, there are so many things I just take as a given. One of these things was the existence of pot bonuses. In MOBAs, prize pools are a given. There’s no other way for players to get paid by a tournament because there are never any entry fees. Imagine such a world! Now, obviously this isn’t a viable model in fighting games for a wide range of reasons, but it helps you understand the existing relationship I have with what the Smash community calls a “pot bonus”. Today, I want to explore a few tweets we’ve seen, the discussion on this week’s episode of The Set Count, and just some general thoughts on the sustainability of Smash.
Clear Point of View
Before we get too deep into this, I want to dispel a couple viewpoints that won’t be helpful to the discussion. I saw a few tweets over the week saying things like “pot bonuses are toxic” or “every pot bonus is a waste of money”. I think one of the most important things to understand before we get into a practical discussion is this: there is absolutely nothing inherently evil about a pot bonus. Just like any tool in a marketing or tournament organizing arsenal, the pot bonus is just one of many resources that help create a successful tournament.
The fact that a pot bonus exists does not necessarily mean that money was taken from other aspects of the tournament, and we’ll explore that in a bit. In short, I think we need to understand that at their core, pot bonuses are inherently a good thing. We want our players to make money! We want exposure and credibility for Smash in the esports space. We want players to get signed to teams. Pot bonuses provide all of these things. In a perfect world, every single tournament would have several thousand dollars in pot bonuses. So, before we get into this discussion, let’s adjust where we’re coming from. Rather than debating whether pot bonuses should or should not exist, we need to discuss how they are useful, can that money be better allocated, and what is each member of the community’s responsibility in shaping the economics of Smash tournaments?
Attracting Top Players
The primary argument in favor of pot bonuses is that they help a tournament attract top players. This is absolutely provably true. If a new organization wants to enter Smash, all the other topics discussed for those resources won’t help. If your goal is to bring in as many PGR players as possible, the most effective way to do that is a pot bonus of several thousand dollars. Ally and Nairo aren’t going to be nearly as influenced by 24-hour venues, big amounts of setups, cool panels, or side events. They won’t attend a tournament because you’re paying your commentators and streamers more money. They will attend because tournaments are how they make a large portion of their income, and you are offering them a raise in their annual salary.
Dreamhack and GameTyrant are perfect examples of this. The Smash community should have been honored to be included at Dreamhack, but few people in Smash even understood what Dreamhack was, or what it meant to esports. With so many tournaments this year, there’s no way all these top pros would have attended all the Dreamhack events without the pot bonus. So, if your goal with your event is to attract top players, you absolutely must include a pot bonus to remain competitive (unless you’re a legacy prestige tournament like Evo or Genesis). Heck, just to get Armada to the US you’ve got to offer him something worthwhile.
When The Set Count discussed pot bonuses, I think the approach was flawed. They began the discussion based on a tweet from Pereden saying “pot bonuses are a myopic way to grow the community.” She’s 100% true. Pot bonuses really don’t help grow the community. Sure, a huge pot bonus will get some play on ESPN and attract some eyes to the stream, but she’s absolutely right that a pot bonus isn’t really going to convince a bunch of people to stop playing Counterstrike and start playing Melee. Suar and Sage were totally right that pot bonuses don’t provide a better experience to 95% of tournament attendees. If your goal is to grow the scene, there are way better uses of that money. However, that’s not the goal of most organizations that have a pot bonus.
GameTyrant and Dreamhack don’t care about growing the Smash community. Nor should they. At the end of the day, these are businesses attempting to turn a profit. They have no existing credibility with the Smash community, there’s no way for them to penetrate an already crowded market by just offering yet another tournament. They have to buy that prestige. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to get a bunch of top players at their event. I think the main problem with the argument is that it’s short-sighted. GameTyrant and Dreamhack are not expecting to turn a profit this year from these events. They probably won’t even break even. They are using pot bonuses so that top players will attend the first version of their events. They will tweet about it, they’ll come, they’ll boost stream viewership. If the event is well run and everybody who comes has a good time, the event will grow next year. It will have established credibility. Attendance numbers will grow, they can attract better sponsors, and they can grow their influence within the community. There is no other way to use that money which can accomplish that goal. The problem we see with things like the 2GGC, UGC, and other events is that they are trying to fly out players and pay out pot bonuses to make a profit on their event next month. It just simply does not work that way. Pot bonuses are a long-term play, and can only be used effectively by companies with vision for the future and enough resources to cover the losses in their first few years of operation.
Stop Flying Out Frogs
Mr. R caught some heavy flack on Twitter yesterday for a series of tweets discussing the misuse of compendiums. Right now, the primary use of smashgg’s compendium system is to get players flown out to events. We’re especially seeing this with the 2GGC saga compendiums. They are burning through community resources to fly out weak players who play bad characters, and a lot of people (myself included) are getting fed up with it. To me, most compendiums have the exact same flaws that many people attach to pot bonuses. They don’t help grow the scene, they don’t provide a better tournament experience for attendees, and there are better uses of that money.
Now, compendiums are tricky because there are actually cases where they are really important. Without compendiums many talented players would never get the opportunity to get enough exposure to become pro players. We wouldn’t get to see Japanese competitors nearly as often. Players like Locus wouldn’t get to attend nearly as many events. You need to attend events to remain relevant and court a sponsor. Compendiums are crucial for that process. However, the 2GG compendiums are no longer being used for that purpose. Obviously, if people choose to spend their money flying out Texas’ best Ryu so he can buster out in pools, that’s their choice. However, Mr. R is completely right that there are better ways to use the community’s desire to support the scene monetarily.
However, I think there’s also a flaw in the argument for doing a compendium to improve the tournament. Most compendium funding is going to come from people who aren’t attending the event. If I want to see my region’s best Greninja compete against Dabuz, I can benefit from that compendium even if I don’t go to the tournament. If I’m not going, there’s no reason to fund a compendium for a 24-hour venue. There’s no reason to fund a compendium for more setups if I’m not going to the event.
So to Mr. R’s point, yes, compendiums can absolutely be used better. There is absolutely an argument for allocating those funds to pot bonuses, because pot bonuses do have value. However, I think the conversation about compendiums needs to first be how to use them better for their intended purpose, before we start discussing putting some of those funds to pot bonuses. To me, as it stands right now, that’s a separate discussion from the fundamental economics of Smash, and whether or not pot bonuses should exist. I’ll talk way more about compendiums another time. For now, I think the first step there is to just stop burning through community good will and resources on these ridiculous saga compendiums that really don’t help the scene, the players, or the tournament.
Pay People Better
So, while a pot bonus may help your tournament attract top players, there are many who argue that pot bonus money could be better allocated to the running of the tournament. This is a really tough subject, so I’m going to try my best to approach every point. For me, I sympathize heavily with every TO, streamer, commentator, and other event staff working a tournament. My primary work and source of income in esports comes from contracts for writing. There are still so many people willing to write for nothing more than “exposure” that many places still don’t pay their writers. Top organizations like Dignitas, major news outlets, they all either hire volunteer writers or pay writers a fraction of what they are worth. It hurt to see Dignitas put out a call for writers, only to find out the position was unpaid. I know what it’s like to do professional, high-quality work for little to no pay. I get it.
That said, I think there’s a fundamental flaw in this argument as it pertains to Smash. First, it’s problematic to say that money allocated for a pot bonus is money taken away from the compensation of talent and staff. The pot bonus usually comes from sponsors or investors, and comes out of the event’s marketing and prizing budget. It’s a whole separate line item. We’ll address the problems in how events budget and plan in a bit, but for now let’s talk specifically to and about staff.
Money was put into that pot bonus to accomplish very different tasks from the money used to pay staff. As we said before, that money is helping buy prestige, and attract top players. That money is being spent to make a tournament competitive in the market. Nothing about the event staff will do that, especially for a newer tournament. Hiring GIMR instead of a local streamer won’t boost attendance by top players if there’s no pot bonus. As long as your tournament is best of 5 after pools, ZeRo and Dabuz won’t care who’s running the pools, or how much they are being paid. To say that the money can be spent better depends entirely on the goal that money is trying to accomplish. If a tournament decided to not have a pot bonus, they would likely invest that money in marketing, or just put it back in their pocket.
I think it’s problematic any time you tell a business that they should pay people more. Businesses have a responsibility to turn a profit and reduce cost wherever possible. I have no interest in getting political here, so let’s avoid talking about minimum wage or anything like that. When it comes to event staff and talent, we’re talking about contract work. As a contractor, it is your responsibility to know your worth and negotiate accordingly. You have to decide the value of exposure, the satisfaction of getting to do your work, and how much your time and talent is worth.
We still have a grassroots mentality. There is always someone willing to do the position for cheaper, or even for free. That’s great for these tiny tournaments, but it becomes a problem when you never stop to consider your value and start to fight for what you’re worth. This is a shift I had to make in my own career. When I started writing for esports, I was nobody. I didn’t have a portfolio, there was no reason for someone to pay me. I did what everyone in Smash did to get their start–I got on the grind. I emailed websites asking them to let me write content for free, begging for exposure. Whenever I enter a new esport, I tend to start that process over again. I work for free to prove my talent. However, as soon as I have a portfolio, that free work stops. If a website or company isn’t willing to pay, they no longer get my content. For some, that is totally fine and we part ways. For others, that’s when the negotiation begins. I have to decide the value of my time, the value of the opportunity, and try to convince this organization to pay me what I think I’m worth. If they won’t pay me that rate, I have to choose whether to accept a cheaper rate, or walk away. There have been countless opportunities and jobs that I’ve turned down because the rate wasn’t high enough. If I choose to accept a low rate, that is 100% on me. It’s not that company’s responsibility to pay me better “because they should.” If I didn’t sell my value and negotiate well, I didn’t do my job properly, and don’t deserve a higher rate. At that point, I have to walk away to preserve my value.
The same is true of any staff or talent freelancing for events. If you’re an up-and-coming commentator, you need exposure. You should be jumping on the mic anywhere, and driving countless hours just to get another shot. However, once you have a following and some proven value as talent, you have to stop working for free. You have to stop accepting crappy rates and breaking even on events. You have to prove to tournament organizers that you are worth more money, or you have to walk away. Right now, there’s a set budget for streamers, TOs, staff, and commentary. That budget will never change until talented, valuable people start refusing jobs. You have to be able to prove that an event will suffer without you, and that paying you will yield a greater return. If you can’t do that, then you have to get back on that grind and build your value.
I guess the whole point of this section is just that we have to stop thinking of pot bonuses as taking money away from event staff. They are two completely separate issues. Staff have to start fighting for better pay, start proving their value, and start being willing to walk away. I’ve already spent too much time in this article on the subject, but there are lots of ways that you can do this, I’m living proof of it. I’ve created jobs for myself all over the place. Many articles you see online with my name attached came as a result of me convincing a company that a piece of writing would benefit them, and convincing them to pay me for that work rather than bring on a volunteer. I don’t care what your role in the community is, you can do the same. That said, in the short term, there’s still a fundamental problem with expecting money from Smash.
Not Enough Money
I spent a lot of the last paragraph arguing that staff pay and pot bonuses should be considered separate. To completely contradict that, we have to look at the practical state of Smash right this moment. I love you all, but you guys have really created a mess for yourselves. You’ve been grinding and building this community for over 15 years, but you never stopped to future-proof your esport. Of course, most of that is not your fault, it’s Nintendo’s. We all look at the production value for other esports and wonder why Smash can’t get there. The fact is, every other esport has a ton of money flowing in from the marketing department of that game’s developer. Games like League of Legends, Counterstrike, and DOTA are all using esports to advertise their game. They are spending their marketing dollars on paying event staff, offering pot bonuses, and increasing production value. Smash does not have any of that money coming from Nintendo, because they aren’t trying to sell a product. They can’t make money from Melee or Smash 4. Regardless of that, Nintendo just straight up does not understand internet culture. They don’t even understand how to design a modern online experience for their games.
As a result of this, we just flat out don’t have enough money flowing into our community. There’s not enough money to fund pot bonuses, pay staff, get great venues, and buy tons of extra setups. Something has to give. As it stands right now, I don’t fault any event for offering a pot bonus. The players have used their influence for their personal gain, which is absolutely what they should be doing! There are too many events, and top players have to choose what to attend. If you want top players at your event and you aren’t a legacy event (or one in Mexico where you can get ANTi for free) you have to put up a pot bonus. There’s always someone willing to run a pool, run a stream, and commentate either for free or super cheap, so there’s no incentive for an event to allocate those resources there. If they did, they’d have to find more money, because they cannot sacrifice the pot bonus entirely and remain competitive to top players.
As a community, we have to stop talking about where the existing money should go, and start talking about how to get more money in to begin with! We have to get aggressive and reach out to advertisers to sponsor events. We have to market outside of the existing community and grow the market. We must find ways to grow viewership, and turn that into a value proposition for more sponsors and advertisements. We’ve gotta become NASCAR. The days of grassroots are over. The world has changed, and we are behind, plain and simple. It’s time for every TO, commentator, attendee, streamer, and top player to start looking at Smash for what it is–a business. Stop using attendance as your only source of revenue. Don’t only market by tweeting out to existing smashers about your event. Announce your event more than three weeks in advance. Figure out how to make your event more attractive than everything else happening that month. Be a professional. Work for the career you want, not the volunteer position you have right now. In general–grow up, be better, and don’t just work harder: work smarter.