It’s getting very close to the end of the year, and that means there’s a lot of activity going on in the fighting game community. Of that flurry of activity, I was most looking forward to the finals of the Injustice Pro Series, the 7-month long tournament series that would award a prize pool of $150,000 to the 16 best Injustice 2 players in the world. I’m a big fan of the game and I was glad that the game’s highest possible level of play was going to be on display for big money. Evo is obviously the biggest tournament of the year as far as attendants, but the prestige and cash coming from the IPS was nothing to sneeze at, and it made the competitors in the running hungry, which is always a necessary fuel in order to push any competitive game to its limits. Man, I couldn’t wait to see the conclusion of this series!
And I say that not only because I was sure the finals was going to be a clinic for the game, but also because the IPS had been an absolute clusterfuck, with very late announcements and just general poor communication. What was supposed to be the sequel to a somewhat shaky first run turned out to be even poorer than the last, and it seemed as if very few lessons were learned in the process.
Before I get too deep into this, I suppose I should issue a disclaimer, of sorts. I don’t think there is any one company, entity, or person that you can point to and say “Hey, it’s [blank]’s fault!” This was a big operation from many different corporations, who I’m sure all had a hand in adding to the confusion that was going on here. Having said that, I also don’t necessarily think the people involved are in any way just absolute doofuses who should be fired from their jobs. What I do believe, sincerely, is that these are competent people out of their depth, trying to throw something together because it seems like a good idea and not because they know how to effectively run it. I’m sure there’s a lot of nice people working on this, regardless of how I feel about the end product.
So, with that out of the way, what the hell happened here? To get to the bottom of this, I think it’s important to start at the beginning. All the way back, to the 2017 IPS.
Given their success with E-Sports ventures in Mortal Kombat X, it was no surprise that ESL, the oldest and biggest E-Sports organization around, would be back for Injustice 2. This time, Warner Interactive Entertainment (WIE), the parent company of developer Netherrealm Studios (NRS), had the intent to go even bigger. In a press release, WIE announced a SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLAR series, spread out over three continents, that would take the 16 best players in the world and pack them into LA for a September finals. North American players would be able to use the regionally-based, Gamestop-sponsored Hometown Heroes to qualify for the finals if they weren’t able to travel far, and European and Latin American players got their own series of events in the Path To Pro and Liga Latina series that also lead to the finals. Aside from ESL, Gamelta E-Sports, a subsidiary of Intel, would be helping to run the Latin American events, but for the most part, this was pretty much all ESL. It wasn’t advertised largely, but the Pro Series finals were going to be produced by a marketing firm out of Chicago called Intersport. Remember that name, there’ll be more on them later.
So this all sounds good on paper, especially since the press release was very clear on when all of this would be starting and the website had useful info on how to sign up for whichever tournament one wanted to enter. However, there was one piece of info in that press release, just one sentence, that seemed to confuse some folks:
The best players from these different programs will qualify for the Injustice 2 Championship Series grand finals that will take place this fall.
Injustice 2 Championship Series? If you look at the graphic I posted above, there is indeed a large logo for the Injustice 2 Championship Series above all the others, signifying that apparently this was the actual granddaddy-of-’em-all that was going to determine who won the lion’s share of that massive pot. However, given that it was only one sentence in the original press release and no date other than “this fall” was given, this piece of information seemed to go largely ignored by players and the press alike.
I think if we were to trace exactly the moment where I realized something was a little amiss, it was that nugget of information. Now to be fair, roughly a month after the initial press release, another one was circulated by Variety that confirmed that the Injustice 2 Championship Series would conclude in the fall on national television as a production put on by Turner’s E-League, an organization I’ve covered with some distaste in the past. But given that the prize payouts and structure were similar, I couldn’t help but compare it to the Capcom Pro Tour, which was Capcom’s championship series put together for Street Fighter titles.
When they first announced this thing, the finals weren’t officially set in stone, but they at least had a month that it would definitely occur in. That was given to us in the second press release, but again, it only listed the starting date for the last chance qualifier, and not the actual E-League event. So we have a Championship series finals airing at a TBD date on TBS, not to be confused with the Pro series finals in September, and only a vague assurance that “the best players from these programs” will head to the Championship finals, which is, again, not the same criteria as the Pro finals, I guess?
I understand how this could come across as pedantry, but I do think it creates an unnecessary confusion for people eager to follow the tournament series. We know that the Pro finals will be a big deal, but an even bigger deal is the Championship finals, but we don’t really know when it is, only that it will be televised, and we don’t know how you qualify for it beyond the last chance qualifier. In terms of building excitement, it seems very backwards; Capcom lists their finals at a specific time, so you know when to expect it, and makes it clear that players will have to earn points to be in the top spots on a global rankings board in order to be granted entry. If there’s no definable end goal, why does the chase matter?
This bizarre lack of information for arguably the biggest event of the tour continued throughout the year, too. While we had a date for the LCQ, we didn’t have a location or time! In fact, the news as to when the LCQ was going to start wasn’t announced until September 26, less than a month before the damn thing started! Many in the FGC are not high rollers, and usually plan their travel weeks in advance to help cut costs or prepare some PTO from work. Less than a month’s notice, though? It just makes it difficult to attend unless you have the immense privilege of paid sponsorship or the fortune of living in the area.
But you know what? Aside from the odd blunders with almost everything regarding the Turner portion of the series, I actually think it went decently well! ESL has done a lot of good work for NRS games in the past and it continued to show here, helping to keep tournaments running smoothly online and in other countries and making the Pro finals a fun show to watch. Although the community was left with the immense confusion at who was better between Pro finals winner Dominique “SonicFox” McLean and Championship finals winner Ryan “Dragon” Walker, both players made lots of money and the game was pushed to competitive highs thanks to the stakes. There were usual hiccups with what regions had more opportunities and how the payout structure could have been better, but overall, the blueprint looked okay for a second round in 2018. Maybe whatever hangups prevented Turner from announcing things in a timely manner would be solved along with the other kinks, and soon we’d have a tournament series to really rival Capcom’s own pro tour.
I wish I were able to say that, at any rate. In April of this year, the press release for the next IPS dropped, and while it’s clear that there’s no longer any Championship series nonsense muddying up the water, there’s been some other new developments. For starters, there was far less money on the line: 150k overall pot as opposed to the astronomical 600k of the first. Turner was no longer involved, which hopefully meant the weirdly late announcements were out with them. Hometown Heroes was also gone, which was a shame for the more scattered US regions. These things didn’t concern me as much as the other news: ELS was no longer attached, which was probably the first big mistake. As much as I ran on E-Sports, I do think ESL and their team does a helluva job with what they’re given, and half the reason the first tour got along in spite of its flaws was ESL’s good work. Instead, someone new was stepping up to the plate:
“This year’s Pro Series will be managed and executed by the esports team at Intersport, a Chicago-based marketing and consulting firm that is teaming up with Samsung and SIMPLE Mobile as the competition’s presenting sponsor.”
Remember how I said to keep Intersport in mind? This is why. Intersport is a firm largely responsible for making marketing campaigns for a bunch of big corporations, but their biggest claim to fame is that they are the guys who were rolling film when American figure skating sensation Nancy Kerrigan got whacked on the leg by Shane Stant in the lead-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. 22 years later, they’ve now made the natural pivot over to E-Sports, starting up a venture in 2016. Evidently someone liked their work on the Pro series finals enough to pass them the keys to the kingdom.
That wasn’t all there was to raise an eyebrow at in the press release, either. The 2017 tour had enlisted ESL, Gamestop, and the Latin America-based Gamelta E-Sports to help run some events. Joining Gamestop and Gamelta in being partners on this pro series were Samsung, SIMPLE Mobile, Intersport, and Northern Arena, a Canadian E-Sports organizer. That’s a lot of businesses with their hands in the pot, and you have to wonder if having all these companies as collaborators was a sign of the times to come.
Lastly, the tradition of vagueness continued, although this time they added more of it! In addition to using “this fall” again for the grand finals of the series, the press release talks about “a European program with more details to come,” and “a last chance qualifier spot.” The website, which has since been updated, had a listing date for “EU Online,” which was presumed to the European program, but no date for anything other than that singular online event. This would cause yet another headache, more on that later.
You can imagine that at this point, I was a little worried. The announcements were more vague than ever, and the prize pool was significantly reduced, which are usually not very good signs, but I held my breath, hoping things would work out. And at first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Tournaments came and went, points were allotted, and the actual competitive play was better than ever. But pretty soon, there were problems: players talking about the lengthy process necessary to receive their tournament winnings, goofy typographical errors on the official website regarding names and placings, and a reveal in the fine print of some Samsung contest that the grand finals were alleged to be held in Chicago. This was the first any of the players had heard about it, and there was uproar on social media about what exactly was going on. Luckily, someone stepped up to the plate to explain…kinda.
This was tweeted by Travis Hezel, who is related in some way to the E-Sports team at Intersport. In there is a minor confirmation on the location of the finals (still no date!) and a firm commitment to cutting checks as quickly as possible. And for what it’s worth, I believe they did end up doing that. But still, how long were they were going to wait for the payouts to happen if players hadn’t brought it up first? If being “direct” was their intent, then I do agree with his statement that they were “completely wrong.”
But there some other bumps along the road as well. In a return to form from the previous year, late announcements terrorized this pro series, most notably with regards to how European players were going to qualify. At first, up until mid-August, it seemed as if the only event in the supposed “European Program” was going to be the EU Online event. In the planning of that, there was a bit of a snafu:
“Those who traveled to Turkey” were in fact Sayed “Tekken Master” Hashem and Baraa “Shark Teeth” Aljaadi, players from Bahrain and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, respectively. Both countries are West Asian, but in the absence of, at the time, any event specific to the Asian (or African) continent, these two wanted to compete in the EU Online event. Naturally, concerns of lag and the fact that they are from Asiatic countries was raised, which lead to them being ineligible, before an apparent behind-the-scenes deal was struck to allow them to compete in a EU event by traveling to Turkey, which straddles both continents.
What makes this decision all the more baffling is that at the end of August, the IPS Intercontinental Championship was revealed to be the long veiled European program, although it now extended to the Middle East and Australia (sorry Africa!). If that was the case, what was with all the rigamarole with the EU event?
If there was going to be an opportunity for those guys, why not just say that and not do something like make up rules for the online events? People rightfully brought up that if that was the case, then could other players fly to eligible regions and compete in the online events? It created a bizarre scenario for no reason other than the damn thing wasn’t announced until very late in the pro series cycle. I’m sure there were some reasons why they couldn’t announce it for a while (I hope…), but the response was just inconceivably convoluted.
What bothers me the most, however, is that this seems like a pretty blatant example of top player privilege. You know if it was just a random guy from any place outside the original boundaries of the EU, no one would have blinked an eye. But a 2-time Evo finalist and his main training partner? Fly on over! The playing ground is supposed to be fair for everyone, and I understand that the rules were hokey, but why these guys were given extra preference to have two different chances to compete for points when everyone else playing online was going to have the one, I have no idea.
You got that right, brother!
So after months of slow payouts, lack of communication from Intersport and everyone involved, late announcements (The last chance qualifier was revealed to be the tournament East Coast Throwdown, 4 months after the initial press release) and bizarre rule exceptions, the IPS limped to its finale, which was taking place in Chicago on a…Tuesday night?
For reasons I can only assume were budgetary, the lion’s share of the finals of the biggest Injustice 2 event took place on an early Tuesday afternoon. Again, the play was amazing, the best we’ve seen to date, but what audience, even a diehard audience, was going to be around for 8 AM PST on a Tuesday? The top 4 was going to be simulcast on Twitch.TV Disney XD, and ESPN3, which is a good get, but you do feel bad for the rest of the players slumping it through the afternoon. I know a lot of E-Sports talking heads would tell you that being on TV is important for non-endemic sponsors and to get eyes on the product, but I’m just not sure that audience is really the staying-up-late-on-a-Tuesday type, you know?
Being on TV did have one other big downside: time, or the lack of it. The matches were very good, but appeared to be going a little less than an hour heading into 9:00. In the grand finals, SonicFox took it in a 3-2 pressure cooker against reigning Evolution Injustice 2 champion Curtis “Rewind” McCall. Afterwards, McLean, a known member of the Furry community and decked out in his full fursuit, was handed the mic by host Joshua Gray. McLean said he was elated to win, but that to him, the 100k prize was just money, and he’d rather use some of that money to help than keep it. McCall’s father has been having a bout with cancer, and in a pledge of loyalty to his friend and training partner, McLean said he was going to make a $10,000 donation to McCall’s family in order to help pay for the medical care. It was awesome, a great moment showing how the FGC can truly be a brotherhood.
And they cut him off.
Josh is a great host for anything he does, and he was just doing his job, but I have to wonder if they were going that strict on the time that he had to be cut off to give the announcers time to give their thoughts and close the show out. What if the grand finals had been a bracket reset, which it was dangerously close to being? Were they going to cut it off early? I couldn’t think of a more TV-ready and interesting character to show the audience than McClean, and the TV crew just treated him like some geek. It was disappointing to watch on an otherwise solid, if early, broadcast.
And that, as they say, is that. The second season of the IPS had a chance to be a very big improvement on a solid-but-flawed first season, and if that was the goal, then I can’t see it as anything but a step in the wrong direction. Maybe it was because there was less money put into it overall, but everything about just felt like a downgrade: worse communication, worse length of payouts, and ultimately, a worse structure for non-pros to take advantage of the system. With little notice and less ways to compete from home, how could you keep up with the guys who could travel? Add to that the weird ruleset changes for two guys who are known names in the community, and I can’t help but wonder how a non-sponsored player had a chance beyond the last chance qualifier. It wasn’t as blatant as Capcom’s horrendous 2018 changes, but still pretty rough.
Again, I want to reiterate that I’m not really laying all the blame on Intersport necessarily, or any of the other entities involved. With corporate E-Sports, who the hell knows what could possibly be the reason for the holdups in announcements or the other general lack of communication; I can imagine it’s a lot of open channels where the orders and plans are getting fouled up. But this is just not acceptable: not for the players, and not for the audience. The play is as good as ever, but when you throw money around and try to make a pro series, it’s only as good as it’s managed. I imagine there are a lot of players who liked the money but felt disappointed by the lack of attention paid to it, largely due to nonsensical delays on announcements a general lack of advertising. Intersport was “manag[ing] and execut[ing]” this tour, but did we ever get an official mouthpiece? Most of the feedback was players yelling at NRS, which is understandable, but if they aren’t managing and executing the tour, what announcements are theirs to say? And if Intersport couldn’t give answers, why not? These are rhetorical questions, since I know there will never be an answer because it’s not really our business, but it’s frustrating to think about.
Well, I think I’ve done enough ranting, as this is shaping up to be my longest article ever! In the end, I do want to say that adding prestige to a game via a big money tournament series is a great idea, and there were some high spots during the tour, but if it’s going to be half-assed, it’s not going to get over. The NRS scene is small, and this pro tour was something that got people to focus and play for the grand prize, which is something that has been a pilot light for the scene’s flickering enthusiasm. All that is left after that is the Stream.Me tournaments, which are great, except Stream.Me is slowly becoming an alt-right hellscape with trolls shouting about the Jews in the chats. If Injustice 2 is going to be an active game for the next year, I pray that the IPS is sorted out, because we don’t have much left.
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