Responding to “Blizzard’s crowdfunding campaign is exploiting its best players (and an insult to the community)”

Hey folks,

I’m brownbear. Today’s piece responds to an article accusing Blizzard of exploiting its best players and community through Warchest. You can read this article here.

2017-07-26_warchestSC2_titleCard

Cap on Rewards

First, the author explains crowdfunding and how Blizzard’s approach is corrupting.

“Not only is this a sustainable business model in esports, it’s a way for the community to reward its own top players. This is the community value Blizzard is corrupting. Their $200k cap on community reward happens at the expense of its best players, a species already dangerously close to extinction.”

This statement is wrong. First, here’s a direct quote from the Warchest announcement video:

“25% of all Warchest purchases go directly to StarCraft II esports. The first $200k will be added to the $500k Blizzcon 2017 Prize Pool. Any additional contributions beyond that will be invested into operational support for the 2017 / 2018 seasons.”

There is no cap on total community reward.

The aforementioned $200k cap is on the amount of money dedicated to the Blizzcon prize pool. Blizzcon is an annual event put on by Blizzard celebrating Blizzard games. At this event the year-long StarCraft professional circuit – the World Championship Series – holds its final tournament. Players gain entry to this tournament by winning tournaments and/or accumulating enough high placings to be at the top of a points scoreboard (the qualification process is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist).

The $200k cap applies to the amount of money dedicated to this tournament’s prize pool. In other words, it is not a cap on total community reward – it is a cap on the amount of money dedicated to a single tournament in which only sixteen players participate.

If the reward on Blizzcon were left uncapped, all of the money raised through Warchest would go only to the best sixteen players in the world. So, Blizzard capped it to make sure it gets put into the entire scene – “operational support for the 2017 / 2018 seasons” – and not just one tournament. In other words, Blizzard is doing the opposite of what the author is criticizing them for doing.

In case you think I’m misreading, the author states this once again later in the article:

“When Blizzard puts a $200k limit on the communitys ability to reward its best players, understand what is being limited.”

It’s not a $200k limit on the community’s ability to reward its best players.

Note that you can take a very cynical interpretation of “operational support” if you’d like and assume that StarCraft players will never see a dime beyond that $200k – perhaps it’ll just line the pockets of casters and commentators – but that’s your interpretation and your opinion. It’s not fair to call it a cap on community reward.

Viability of Professional StarCraft

Next, the author explains how professional StarCraft players are “dangerously close to extinction”:

“How close are they to extinction?

The annual earnings for a full-time minimum-wage worker in America is $15,080, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Full-time work means working 2,080 hours each year, which is 40 hours each week.

Total number of StarCraft II players who won $15,080 in prize money in 2016: 52, worldwide. Only 10 players won more than $60k last year. On the top100 most winning players in esports history, there are only three SC2 players – at rank #86, #91 and #97.”

First, StarCraft is a global profession. It does not make sense to take the cost of living and income standards of the United States and apply them to the entire world. Most high-earning StarCraft professionals live in South Korea.

Second, prize money is only one source of income. It does not include team salary, streaming, or individual sponsorships (income) or travel (cost). Prize money is not an accurate way of determining a player’s overall take-home pay.

Third, even if players only earned money from tournament winnings and even if every StarCraft professional were American, this analysis misses basic aspects of earning money in the United States – that cost of living differs widely between regions, that low-income earners are topped up by EITC, the different tax and healthcare situations self-employed people face, etc.

My point here is not even to disagree with the author about the viability of working as a StarCraft professional – rather, it’s to point out how the author justifies their argument using data they don’t understand. Expected average earnings (and, more broadly, career viability) for a StarCraft professional are essentially unknowable except to those actually doing it (and they typically don’t share out their tax returns). This article not only claims to know them, but goes further and tries to draw conclusions about them. That doesn’t make sense.

Activision

Finally, the author closes by tying this back to Activision:

“Activision Blizzard, a Billion-Dollar company, is asking its most loyal fans to fund its event production. It’s almost comical and I don’t know how not to regard this entire campaign as an insult to the SC2 community. Blizzard is telling you how little they value their own community and how much they don’t care about players who devote themselves to mastering their products.

This is the Real-Money Auction House (RMAH), new and improved for StarCraft II, with a new revolutionary rev share model capped at $200k. If the SC2 community doesn’t attack this issue loud and clear, this new low for publisher greed will become the new normal.”

This is misleading. Noting that Activision Blizzard is a billion dollar company says nothing about the business situation of StarCraft II specifically. You can see this for yourself by looking at their Q1 earnings report – StarCraft does not even get its own “details” section, in contrast with most other Blizzard IPs.

I don’t know how much money Blizzard makes from StarCraft. I can infer based on its age (seven years), its membership in a niche genre, and that it no longer appears on earnings reports that it’s not very much, at least relative to their other properties. That Blizzard continues to nonetheless invest money into the scene – it’s the sole or primary sponsor of virtually every major tournament, with more than two million dollars invested in WCS alone in 2017 – makes the “greed” argument unpersuasive at best. I don’t doubt that there’s a profit motive involved, but the nefariousness implied by this article is neither logical nor likely.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the source article misunderstands basic facts about Warchest and professional StarCraft. This is not a reasonable basis on which to accuse Blizzard of “exploitation”.

I don’t think Warchest is above criticism – I recommend this one from TotalBiscuit, which is much fairer and aligned with the facts. As for my own take, I’m still researching and thinking – I’ll put something together later on.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter or Facebook and checked out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. Thanks and all the best.

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