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‘The Discord Is The Church:’ A Place For Gamers To Worship

A few months ago, I was watching streamer Matt Souza play Fortnite on a custom server while I played along with his community, GodSquad Church. With a laptop earbud in one ear and my PC headset over another, I landed randomly on a hilltop near Polar Peak, only to immediately be killed by a player I didn’t see. As my screen swerved to spectate my killer, I saw their screen name: PastorSouzy, the handle of Souza. Instead of basking in his victory, as another streamer might, Souza thanked me via stream for joining the chat, adding, “I appreciate you.” Moments later, he killed another player and thanked them for playing too, throwing in a “God bless.”

It’s not the response I’d expect from a streamer or a Fortnite player, but this wasn’t exactly a regular stream. GodSquad is an online church, and the custom server was their version of a real-life church’s spaghetti dinner. GodSquad’s congregation plays games together a lot, but they also hang out on Discord or chat with each other during Souza’s near-daily personal stream. On weekends they have services, which take place on Twitch.

Over Discord voice call, Souza tells me, “I asked myself, if I’m a gamer, which I am, and I hardly ever leave my house, which I don’t, how am I gonna get the story of Jesus to people who don’t leave their house? And that’s when I found Twitch.”

Souza, 29, is the founder and lead pastor of GodSquad Church, which calls itself “the world’s first church for gamers.” The church’s values statement acknowledges issues that gamers tend to face, such as trolling and toxicity, as well as the mental health struggles or social isolation that can come from or drive people to game excessively. In my time observing the church, congregants seem to talk to each other as much about gaming as they do about religion. GodSquad has a Discord of about 2860 members, and while Souza and his wife Amanda Lee, the church’s executive and music director, are based in Virginia, the church’s other staff and congregants are scattered across the world. “The Discord is the church,” Souza says, since it’s the place “where people are doing life together,” but they also have services, streams, and occasional in-person meetups.

The Discord server is separated into different rooms where people coordinate playing video games together, discuss movies and books, and share memes, as well as make prayer requests or meet in private rooms or video chat for one-on-one prayer or pastoral counseling. I’ve spent a month observing the Discord on weeknights and after GodSquad’s services. It’s a lot more lively than your average physical church, with at least a handful of people around all the time. The server gets especially active after a service, when Souza or another worship leader invites regular viewers and newcomers to join them to chat or play games.

Services happen every Saturday evening on GodSquad’s Twitch channel, with a second service having just been added on Saturday afternoons. Besides the fact that no one’s in the same room, it’s a lot like any other church service. Amanda performs modern praise music with the lyrics shown on-screen. Prayer requests are offered up in chat or via the Discord. While it can be funny to hear people referred to by their Twitch handle, the prayers sound familiar to anyone who’s been to physical worship: jobs, relationships, health. Financial offerings are requested through Streamlabs, text, or via GodSquad’s website. The most incongruous parts of the GodSquad services I’ve attended involve giveaways, where staff members raffle off gaming swag and console shop gift cards via “Penguin points,” a personalized Twitch currency that subscribers accrue from watching Souza’s streams. There’s also a reel of top five gaming clips that the community can vote on, which is a way for congregants to share the best of their gaming moments with each other.

Music at a recent GodSquad service
Screenshot: Twitch

The sermons are usually rooted in gaming or other geeky metaphors. They’re delivered by Souza from his home office, with nerdy toys and art in the background, or from the home of one of the church’s other staff members. Sermons I’ve watched include using the idea of video game delays as a lesson in spiritual patience, completionism as a metaphor for the story of Easter, or how God’s promises relate to Avengers Endgame, complete with an assurance that there won’t be any spoilers. A recent series of talks uses the console wars as a jumping off point for discussing diversity. Souza skirted theological specifics but said “Jesus is calling you and I to deal with diversity, whether it’s racial, whether it’s political, whether it’s preferential, whether it’s philosophical, whether it’s simply Xbox versus PS4.” The sermon came down firmly on the side of diversity being a good thing, while drawing a distinction between “sin and holiness,” between ideological differences and what Souza believes God thinks is right, leaving the latter vague. I haven’t heard specific hot-button issues like homosexuality or abortion in GodSquad sermons, though a recent video stood in favor of women preaching, a progressive stance in some denominations. GodSquad seems more focused on the issues viewers face in their lives and how they relate to one’s personal relationship with God than ecclesiastical tensions that might arise in physical churches or those more firmly rooted in a specific denomination.

Sermons shift in topic between gaming and religion, surprisingly, without tipping over into cool youth pastor parody. Gaming is acknowledged as what brought people to GodSquad, but it’s never made overly important or more serious than other aspects of congregants’ lives. While the sound effects and graphics could feel a little hokey to me at times, in sermons gaming largely serves as a rhetorical anchor or a model of a bigger theological concept. Souza in particular shifts between gaming and God well, and he’s especially compelling as a preacher. He’s conversational and intellectually approachable, quick to laugh and to implicate himself in the struggles and spiritual pitfalls he explores. He comes across as warm and passionate about both the message and the people hearing it; even when I’ve been dubious about a certain message or suspicious of a turn of phrase, it’s hard not to hear him out.

Souza gets a lot of public speaking practice since he streams seven hours a day most weekdays on his personal channel. He plays Fortnite and a lot of Old School Runescape. Sometimes the community raids other channels, often other Runescape streamers, filling their chat with messages of love and support. On Fridays, he hosts a segment called Real Talk where he invites viewers to ask him anything, whether that’s deep theological questions or advice about streaming. Christianity occasionally comes up in the chat, the day often begins with a prayer, and Souza falls naturally into talk of faith or Jesus from time to time. But other than that, Souza’s personal channel is a lot like any other streamer’s.

Souza has been streaming video games since 2014, but it wasn’t always as part of GodSquad. He and Amanda met while studying theology at a Pentecostal school in Massachusetts. Later, Souza worked in a brick-and-mortar Assemblies of God church in Oxford, Connecticut while gaming on the side.

At that time, Souza wasn’t public about his love of gaming, seeing it instead as an “almost secret lifestyle.” He’d played games since he was young, but as an adult, he felt it would be considered a shameful pastime, especially in contrast to his public role as a mature pastor. “I worked at a local church, suit and tie on Sunday mornings, I was Pastor Matt,” he explains. “It might sound silly, but it was almost a fear I had, if people found out I played video games… Are people going to think I’m going to be 35 and live in my mama’s basement without a job?”

In the summer of 2014, something happened that changed Souza’s mind. He was watching Twitch streamer Summit1g, not realizing at first what Twitch was, seeing it as “like a website where everyone can get together and, like, watch a YouTube video.” But then, he says, someone in chat asked a question, and Summit answered. “My mind was blown,” says Souza. “I was like, ‘He’s live, this is happening now?’” Summit’s stream in that moment had 25,000 people in it, and Souza couldn’t help but notice: “That is bigger than 99% of the churches in the world. I was like, it’s Tuesday morning!”

Souza was inspired. “I just had the thought: What if we were able to use this to influence people in a positive way, to teach them good principles about how video games and responsibilities do not need to be enemies, and also sharing with them what we have found to be life-changing, which is the power of Jesus, with other people who wanted to hear it?”

In the early days, Souza was more or less like any other new streamer. He got an Xbox, a “crappy” camera, and a “headset mic that was awful.” He made his Twitch title “A Pastor Playing Halo” and started streaming. He describes it as “literally while I’m shooting people in the face I’m telling them, ‘Hey man, God loves you.’” His early clips are incongruous—switching between talking about God’s love to cheering over a particularly good kill—but the casual chatter feels familiar, even if the subject matter might be unusual for Twitch. The channel started with three viewers, but more people started tuning in over the next year, with many of them accepting Jesus into their lives over stream.

A clip from an early stream

After over a year of streaming and gathering more viewers, Souza launched a GoFundMe to start turning GodSquad from a personal project into an actual organization. Due to various difficulties around becoming an officially-recognized church that didn’t have a physical location, GodSquad eventually came to operate under the umbrella of the church Souza had worked for in Connecticut. Souza’s home church was excited about the project—Souza tells me the response to GodSquad from the church world is “either one or the other extreme” between enthusiasm for their methods or disdain for “encouraging even more teenagers to waste their lives.” Luckily, his home church fell in the former camp rather than the latter. In March of 2016, GodSquad became a non-profit, “as real a church as any church you’ve ever walked into,” motivated by “the desire to reach people no one else was reaching, connecting with people no one else was connecting with:” gamers.

These days, when I watch, Souza’s personal streams have averaged between 70 and 100 viewers, with over 100 tuning in for GodSquad services. Souza tells me that his streams average about 7000 people every week, with about three-fourths of them being return viewers. The church has five core staff members: Souza; Amanda, who, in addition to music, manages the ins and outs of the church’s volunteers; media director Dylan “UnworthySeraph” Hoelz, who makes graphics and runs GodSquad’s website and social media; Community Care Pastor Raymond “Pastor Bos” Bosworth; and Joey “Pastor Joey” Simon, who leads the church’s small group studies under the title Level Up Pastor. Many of them stream from their own personal Twitch channels as well. Hoelz is a full-time paid staff member of the church, and Bosworth and Simon receive stipends. Souza and Amanda make money via Souza’s personal stream: “Technically my broadcast is how my wife and I make a living, and both of us just volunteer our time at the church,” Souza says. “Especially with the negative stigma of pastors and money and everything, we want to be above reproach in that area.”

There are also about 75 volunteers. Some moderate the Discord and Twitch chat. Others lead “ministry” guilds in games like World of Warcraft, where they attract other players through their behavior and high level of play and then introduce faith. If these players aren’t interested in learning more, Souza explains, they can just keep playing with the church’s guild. Volunteers must be members of the church for at least three months, and they’re interviewed over video before being accepted.

One volunteer moderator, Chris, tells me over Discord message, “I help cultivate a family friendly atmosphere for the server and Twitch chat and help resolve any conflict that might emerge within members of our server and Twitch chat. As a moderator I am expected to be available at certain times throughout the week, but there are many times where I help out even when I am not expected to, to make sure the community is being looked after.”

Chris came to GodSquad via Souza’s channel. He tells me he grew up Southern Baptist but felt alienated from the church and from God. “I hated churches, because when I showed up to church in ripped jeans and a T-shirt with a heavy metal band on it, I never felt welcomed. A pastor at one church told me to call him if I ever needed anything but wouldn’t answer the phone if I called. I felt like everyone thought that they were better than myself because they went to church every Sunday. It felt like I was surrounded by hypocrites.”

After turning away from religion, Chris says he struggled with depression, turning to “nicotine, alcohol, and women.” In September of 2017, he came across Souza’s channel while on lunch break at work. Souza was streaming a newly-launched game, and Chris stuck around. “To be honest, I thought the guy was a fake pastor that was just using a clever name to get viewers on Twitch,” Chris says. “God knew what He was doing that day. He knew how bad I needed a positive influence in my life. I became a member of GodSquad Church that day, and looking back, I’m so glad that I didn’t leave that stream and that I decided to stay.” After a year of membership, he became a volunteer because he “wanted to help people the way this community helped me.”

People don’t always have the same positive reaction to GodSquad as Chris. Some viewers just leave once they realize the stream can be religious; I’ve seen people enter chat, say, “Oh this is about God, bye” and exit. Others stick around to troll. In a service in February, Souza acknowledged the challenge of trolls coming into the community, saying, “People can come in at any time from anywhere in the world and say anything they want, literally 24/7.” The most aggressive trolling I’ve seen was a viewer dramatically overreacting to the telling of the Easter story, but I’d certainly believe there’s worse.

Unlike other Twitch channels or Discord communities, GodSquad is hesitant to ban people. Souza tells me that on Twitch they’ll often issue people 10-minute timeouts, after which many trolls will just leave. Those who get repeated timeouts, he says, will sometimes get curious and stick around or, he claimed in February, even join the church. Dealing with trolls can be trickier on Discord, where the challenges of time zones can mean that when trolling or hateful messages are left “at 4:30 in the morning, those messages stay there until someone wakes up.”

In our conversation, Souza shares a sentiment common in some denominations that people today are hostile to Christians. He chalks this up in part to what he sees as judgmental Christians misrepresenting the faith. In a recent video, he said, “Twitch is not a God-loving website, it’s a website where people are far from God… It breaks my heart to think that people hate God, but I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that truth.” Whether the people trolling are doing so out of a distaste for religion specifically or just trolling for the sake of trolling, GodSquad faces a conflict of wanting to invite everyone in and then dealing with the consequences of that openness. The ease with which people can enter the church from their own homes means it’s easy for anyone to give church a shot, a strength GodSquad capitalizes on in its messaging. But it also means it’s easy for trolls to cause trouble, a situation most physical churches rarely face.

Recently, Souza has come to suspect the outward trappings of religiosity, especially on his personal channel, might hurt more than they help. He wants to reach people who aren’t Christians—one of GodSquad’s most prominent slogans is “You don’t need to believe to belong”—but most non-trolls willing to enter or stick around a stream titled “Pastor” are likely to be Christian already, or at least curious about religion. In our conversation, he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be seen as a Christian streamer just looking for other Christians to hang out with. To further clarify this image, recently he changed the name of his Twitch channel and other social media and gaming handles from PastorSouzy to SouzyLive.

“I can’t share God’s love with people who refuse to enter my stream,” he said in a video describing the reasons behind the name changes. He compared his old Twitch name to starting a conversation with a friend by bringing up something they hate: “If I want to build common ground with people, it’s unwise for me to say, ‘Hey my name is Pastor Souzy and I love the thing you hate, let’s be friends.’” Whether people who pop into his streams unawares will be more likely to stick around, or whether the change will inadvertently invite more trolls, remains to be seen.

GodSquad faces other challenges unique to being an online-only church. During Saturday services I’ve watched, moderators have had to turn the chat away from games and back to the sermon more than once, like a digital version of hushing the kids in the back pews. During Runescape and Fortnite streams on Souza’s personal channel, viewers will hit him with complicated theological questions or personal issues when he’s trying to focus on gaming. Sometimes he’ll ask them to come back for Real Talk or head to the Discord. Other times, I’ve seen someone fill the chat with the story of an intense personal struggle—a heart attack, a miscarriage—and look for pastoral care a gaming-focused stream can’t necessarily provide. I’ve watched the chat fumble to respond to a person’s repeated requests for help while moderators direct them to one-on-one conversations or the Discord.

The church, in one form or another, is available to everyone all the time, which means people expect Souza to be available, too. Many streamers try to keep their viewers away from their personal lives, but Souza, by virtue of his job and unique community, has to invite it all in. Most streamers don’t go from entertaining viewers with a Fortnite stream to counseling people through their marriage or rallying the community to record a video for a congregant who’s just woken up from surgery.

Souza says, “Our church offers something that I don’t think I can say any other church on the entire planet does, which is that if you want, you can spend all day, every day, with your pastor.” The result sometimes looks to me like the internet version of The SimpsonsNed Flanders calling Reverend Lovejoy too often. Souza says, “No one’s going to knock on their pastor’s door at three o’clock in the morning, but people will definitely send us a Discord message at three o’clock in the morning and expect us to answer.”

The work can be “difficult and exhausting,” says Souza. “I’m definitely a small streamer, but I think I carry a weight that most streamers don’t carry.” When GodSquad was first taking off, he tried to respond to all his messages himself, but that quickly got out of hand, with people waiting too long for a response. “They’re reaching out, looking for help, and two months later their problem is over,” he laughs. “They’re no longer in need of care. I’ve made all these promises—we want to be there for you, we love you—but then they’ve waited over two months for a response.”

It’s a struggle too, Souza says, because he wants to keep his personal Twitch channel and the church separate. “To me, when you’re watching my stream, you’re hanging out with Matt. I’m not preaching a sermon, you’re just hanging out with me and who I am. In those moments when I’m talking about faith or praying for people, I’m not doing those because I’m a pastor, I’m doing those because that’s who I am.”

Souza streaming Fortnite
Screenshot: Twitch

But even making that separation clear, by trying to keep his personal streams focused on gaming or changing his name on Twitch, can’t undo the fact that people are still hanging out with their pastor. They want his attention, like any fan might, but they bring their personal and faith issues with them. Souza plays a greater role in their lives than just an entertainer, regardless of the focus of a day’s stream. “It can be difficult at times to try to live up to the expectations that everyone has,” he says. “I think people can put pastors on a pedestal and think that we are perfect and all-knowing and all-mighty, and the reality is that I’m not… Everyone has bad days, streamers have bad days. On the days you feel like you need encouragement, you’re still the one responsible to be giving out encouragement.”

Souza has methods for balancing life with streaming and with the business side of GodSquad, much of which has to be conducted in the evenings after he streams. He and Amanda have a date night on Wednesdays, and they don’t work on Sundays. “It doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done, we just don’t do it.” He hangs out with friends. He makes sure to pray, read the Bible, and keep his own faith life strong—“If I don’t truly love God it’s not going to be coming out of a place of passion, it’s going to be coming out of a place of obligation.” It’s the usual streamer stuff, as well as the usual ministry stuff, rolled into one. “That’s just leadership,” Souza says, “learning to deal with the pressures and unrealistic expectations. It’s never going to change. It’s not going to get better, it’s only going to get worse… The reality is that this is what I’ve signed up for and this is what I believe that God has called me to do.”

The pressures, as well as the opportunities, are made possible by the unique nature of Twitch. Even so, GodSquad is looking to move beyond the internet and into the physical world. This summer, they’ll have their second SquadCon, an in-person gathering at a church in Richmond, Virginia. They’ve also recently moved forward on a dream Souza has had since before they even started GodSquad: to build a LAN center. It won’t be an explicitly Christian LAN center, but it will nonetheless be a place to establish outreach for people who aren’t in the church and a place for members of the church to gather.

Through fundraising, GodSquad has raised $26,000 for the LAN center—specifically, that money is to put a down payment on some land and clear the trees off it, though they’re still closing on the property itself. The process has been difficult, with GodSquad’s current lack of a physical meeting place making it hard to secure loans as a church. In a sermon about the LAN center in April, Souza spun these challenges into a lesson in patience he could share with congregants. He has dreams of having these LAN centers around the country, “a vision and a plan I hope will outlive me,” but that dream is a long way off.

Souza skydiving as part of the fundraising goals for the LAN center

This project raises the question of why a church with such a strong virtual presence would need land, especially when so many members of the community are unlikely to ever visit it. Souza says GodSquad’s community was happy to give to the effort so that other people could have what they would want: a place to game with their friends. “Gamers growing up, we all sit alone in our rooms. I believe life is better when we do it together, and I believe video games are more fun when we do it together… I think God wants us to have a desire to be together and to have a place to be together.”

GodSquad is a small Twitch channel but a large and lively church, with an active attendance few physical churches can likely boast. Subcultural churches are nothing new: There are churches for runners and cowboys, churches where dinners replace standard worship. Organizations like Game Church and the Christian Game Developers Conference have combined Christianity and gaming before. I’m not sure if GodSquad would be as effective without the gaming angle, if it were something more akin to an online-focused church like Life.Church. Sharing the common interest of gaming seems to help GodSquad’s community cohere in a way physical churches, sharing only the commonality of geography, can struggle to do.

GodSquad’s gaming metaphors might seem corny in a service, but they aren’t a gimmick, and Souza’s passion for the topic is genuine. He wants to entertain viewers in his streams, and he wants to share his passion for Jesus with them, and these two goals are united by a desire to connect with other gamers on the internet. He tells me, “There’s a quote: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care…That’s what I try to do every day on Twitch: build a relationship with them. ‘Hey man, I’m so glad you’re here. You’re a real-life person, you matter and have value. We’d love to play some games together.’”

Source: Kotaku.com

Shady Numbers And Bad Business: Inside The Esports Bubble

The mainstream narrative of esports has been lovingly crafted by those who benefit from its success. There’s big money in esports, they say. You’ve heard the stories. Teenaged gamers flown overseas to sunny mansions with live-in chefs. The erection of $50 million arenas for Enders Game-esque sci-fi battles. League of Legends pros pulling down seven-figure salaries. Yet there’s a reason why these narratives are provocative enough to attract lip-licking headlines in business news and have accrued colossal amounts of venture capital. More and more, esports is looking like a bubble ready to pop.

“I feel like esports is almost running a Ponzi scheme at this point,” Frank Fields, Corsair’s sponsorship manager, told an audience at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference last March. He smirked. The crowd laughed uncomfortably. The smile dropped from Fields’ face as he continued. “Everyone I talk to in this industry kind of acknowledges the fact that there is value in esports, but it is not nearly the value that is getting hyped these days.” Later, Fields would clarify that this value, and future value, “as of now, is optimistic at best and fraudulent at worst.”

Fields is not the only longtime esports veteran who is worried the industry is a bubble, or more accurately, an industry comprised of several bubbles. Seventeen other experts on the North American esports industry shared similar concerns with Kotaku, some describing it merely as “inflated” and others as “completely unsustainable.” Several spoke on the controversial topic because they love esports and want to see it succeed organically, in a sustainable way. There is, of course, a genuine love shared by thousands of people for playing games competitively. Right now, many who spoke to us for this story said, the stuff that makes the esports industry seem like a tantalizing investment rests on unsubstantiated claims—or blunt-force lies.

As investors pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the ballooning esports industry, many feel their way forward with statistics that indicate that paydirt is just around the corner. “League of Legends Gets More Viewers Than Super Bowl,” reads one 2019 headline from CNBC, glossing over the fact that they’re comparing apple viewership metrics to coconut viewership metrics. A 2017 Morgan Stanley report leaked to Kotaku claimed that, in its first year, the Overwatch League could conceivably generate $720 million in revenue, about the same as World Wrestling Entertainment. By 2022, says Goldman Sachs, viewership of pros playing competitive games like League of Legends, Dota 2, Overwatch or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive may be on par with the National Football League’s viewership today. But according to many people Kotaku spoke to with knowledge of the industry, a lot of these statistics are at best rosy-eyed and, at worst, inflated, unverified, or misleading.

For 12 years, Twitter never posted a profit, and until it went public, Uber lost $4.5 billion in one year. One quirk of the world of startups is that investors love investing in unprofitable companies or industries. Yet longtime esports professionals don’t want to see their beloved livelihood go the way of the dotcom bubble. The esports industry is held together with wax and string, which, sources say, hasn’t stopped it from flying too close to the sun.

Frank Fields is, to put it lightly, skeptical of the numbers that supposedly show how big the esports industry is. With an increasing sense of unease, Fields has seen stranger and stranger numbers come across his desk at the hardware manufacturer Corsair, where he handles several million dollars’ worth of outbound sponsorships. As he watched investors dump tens or hundreds of millions at once into the esports organization du jour, Fields has become concerned they’re “jumping the gun.”

“It doesn’t make sense to put that much money into an industry that’s not making that much,” he said. “The sooner we recognize that we’re fooling a bunch of non-endemic people, the better off we’ll be long-term. We’ll be able to fix this bubble before it pops.”

He’s already seen an esports bubble inflate—and burst. At 32 years old, Fields has been in esports for over half of his life, which is most of the history of esports’ existence. Speaking over the phone after GDC, Fields recalled hauling his gaming rig on a 17-hour drive from Ohio to Dallas for a Dota side event at a 2006 Counter-Strike tournament. The prize pool was $1,000, a pittance compared to last year’s $25.5 million prize pool for Dota 2’s biggest tournament, The International. It was at that event, however, that Fields noticed that entire hotels had been rented out to house Counter-Strike pros. For the first time, he could fathom the growing infrastructure of the esports industry. Prior to that, esports events were empowering conferences of high-skill fans, but undoubtedly smaller in scope. Tournaments for PC games like Quake and Starcraft were held in computer cafes in North America and Asia, especially South Korea; fighting game tournaments for games like Street Fighter were largely held in arcades.

It was also around the mid-2000s that the first bubble of esports began to bloat. David Hill, a former president of Fox Sports, had caught a whiff of competitive gaming fever after noticing his grandson’s fierce fandom for it, according to a Dot Esports feature. Two years after joining DirectTV in 2005, Hill launched the Championship Gaming Series. It was a worldwide sports league, but for video games—a pretty cutting-edge idea at the time. This level of organization for esports was unprecedented, as was its tremendous funding. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. injected it with a huge $50 million investment in 2007, Dot Esports reported.

As it turns out, it was a little too huge. According to Dot Esports, one commentator for the first-person shooter Quake received a $300,000 salary in exchange for live commentary that was poorly received. Counter-Strike players received a reported $2,500 a month plus housing in Marina Del Rey. That added up to about $1.8 million in salaries per year. “I know from firsthand experience running a team that a lot of these teams have never even made that much in revenue,” Fields said.

The Championship Gaming Series burned bright and fast, only lasting until 2008, around the financial crisis. “We invested wholeheartedly in the venture and presented viewers with a top-notch production, but the economics just didn’t add up for us at this time,” it said in an announcement posted to its website. Investor confidence in esports plummeted.

“This was the first bubble of esports,” Fields says. “Players couldn’t get jobs, because the companies supporting them went bankrupt.”

A view of the crowd during Overwatch League Grand Finals at Barclays Center on July 27, 2018 in New York City.
Photo: Matthew Eisman (Getty Images)

Fields’ career took him to jobs at Blizzard and Riot Games, the companies that publish Starcraft and League of Legends respectively. These games revitalized esports as an industry around 2011 with their championship series, their sails catching the winds of millions of registered players. He’s watched on as bigger and more mainstream sponsors have pushed their stacks of chips into the esports industry, which, since Twitch launched its streaming service in 2011, has ballooned. Twitch solved the big issue that caused the last wave of investor enthusiasm to come crashing down: reaching viewers. According to data from NewZoo—which Kotaku cannot independently verify—the global esports market will reach $1.1 billion in 2019. (Kotaku cites NewZoo several times in this report in lieu of other data, although it is difficult to trust much public data on the esports industry, and several of our sources have issues with NewZoo’s numbers, with some saying that NewZoo’s calculations are too opaque to be reliable.)

Fields said we’re in a different era of esports, which he calls the franchise era. Following the lead of traditional sports leagues like the NFL and the NBA, game publishers like Riot (League of Legends) and Activision Blizzard (Call of Duty, Overwatch) are offering team slots for their official leagues to well-moneyed investors. In some cases, these team slots reportedly cost up to $60 million. Last year, again according to NewZoo, angel investors, venture capitalists and sponsors—including those from traditional sports—injected $682 million into esports. A lot of that money filters up to game publishers, who own the IP and receive chunky franchise fees. The ecosystem of esports organisms vying for resources consists of esports teams and tournament organizers, who shell out money for player salaries and flashy events with cash from investors and sponsors.

Kotaku asked sources with knowledge of esports teams’ revenue about what sort of deficits they run, but most seemed reluctant to answer. One, speaking anonymously, believes a lot of teams are operating on million-dollar yearly deficits. The CFO of Complexity Gaming, one of the only team representatives to respond to Kotaku’s inquiries, declined to say if the team is profitable. Although it’s early on in the industry’s new life as a sexy investment, there’s only so long organizations can remain unprofitable before they’re deemed duds.

NewZoo analyst Jurre Pannekeet, who sees the revenues for 14 esports teams, says the majority of teams are operating at a loss, but declined to say how much on average, citing nondisclosure agreements. When pressed whether that majority was closer to 51 percent or 90 percent of teams operating at a loss, he said: “If you looked into it, it’s probably closer to 89 percent than 50 percent.”

Much of that is likely due to players’ salaries, which Fields describes as being “at completely unsustainable levels.” Some reports indicate that North American League of Legends pros earned $105,000 a year on average in 2017. After the league franchised in 2018, the average went up to $320,000. Some players have made closer to a million dollars per year. “The revenue has not yet equaled what the salaries demand,” Fields said. Esports organizations have to pay those salaries, on top of the $10 to $13 million that they pay to Riot Games to be in the league at all. [Correction—5:00 pm: A previous version of this article misstated the franchise fee for the North American LCS, which is flat and not annual.]

For Overwatch, teams are paying between $30 and $60 million to participate, ESPN reports. And a lot of these organizations have teams for multiple games at one time. In other instances, like Dota 2, player salaries are on the lower end, but tournament organizers must compile hundreds of thousands of dollars for prize pools in order to put on “official” tournaments.

“There’s a lot of money going in,” said Fields, “and not a lot of money going out.”

Kotaku asked over a dozen esports professionals if they believe there is a path towards making money that is on par with the level of investment going into esports right now. Most of them said they really don’t know. “No one’s solved it yet,” said Daniel Herz, the chief revenue officer of Complexity Gaming. “We’re all racing to figure out how we can solve it.” (Complexity is funded by a large investment from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.)

One Riot employee with knowledge of League of Legends’ esports revenue, when asked whether the League Championship Series makes money, laughed. Its current goal, they said, is to prevent it from losing money indefinitely.

Despite the huge amounts of cash pouring into the industry from sponsors and investors of all types, the hard truth is this: investment is not revenue, nor is it earnings. If an esports org does make profit, according to Fields and others interviewed, it’s on a thin margin. Most appear to be burning through their main source of cash—their investors’ capital.

Investors believe esports could be the next NBA or, optimistically, NFL, and they’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars into realizing that vision, even while esports businesses are struggling to stay out of the red. Over the last couple of years, a slew of esports organizations have run clean out of money and slunk off with their tails between their legs: Circa Esports, Allegiance, the Moviestar Esports Channel, and Millenium, not to mention a huge number of journalistic publications covering esports. Layoffs are relatively common, including at organizations like Echo Fox, the ESL, and Infinite. Entire leagues have shuttered, too, including Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm esports and the H1Z1 Pro League, which suffered from delayed payments and, in the end, owed 15 teams a reported $200,000 each. Several professionals interviewed by Kotaku privy to the financials of esports organizations say they do not know what their organizations’ long-term revenue plans are. (Several top teams declined Kotaku’s request for an interview about the sustainability of the industry.)

Team Liquid competes against Cloud9 during the 2018 North American League of Legends Championship Series Summer Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.
Photo: Robert Reiners (Getty Images)

“When you’re seeing teams right now raising over $300 million valuations on revenues under $25 [million], you’re kind of like, what?” said Complexity Gaming founder Jason Lake in an interview with Sports Business Journal. Like Fields, Jason Lake has been a part of esports for a long time. Complexity Gaming was founded in 2003, and the esport organization’s Counter-Strike team competed in the ill-fated Championship Gaming Series. In other words, Lake has seen the bubble blow up before, too. (A “valuation” is not typically what is raised. Business owners raise capital, which allow them to calculate a valuation.)

“I try to choose my words carefully, because no one’s more bullish about esports than I am,” he said. “I just think good, old-fashioned common sense would go a long way here, because the revenue has still not caught up to the size of the demographic and eyeballs.”

How does esports actually make money? There are several channels. The smaller-scale ones include tickets for live events, tipping players money through Twitch’s software, or purchasing team merchandise. The portion for “merchandise and tickets” in NewZoo’s bar graph of esports revenue in 2018 is just a small, thin layer, like the foam on a latte. Esports diehards spent $5.00 each last year on esports, according to NewZoo, with mid-level fans generally spending half of that. Compared to traditional sports fans, that’s paltry; CNBC reported in 2017 that American fans spent an average of $710 per year attending traditional sporting events.

There are also prize pools. In theory, teams can win millions in prizes at tournaments if they pick their players right and invest in their growth. But those millions in prize dollars come from investment in tournament organizers, and would evaporate if the bubble burst. Also, there are media rights, which Newzoo says are the “fastest-growing revenue stream in esports.” Companies like Facebook, Twitch and YouTube gaming are paying millions for exclusive rights to air certain esports tournaments. For exclusive rights to air the Overwatch League for two years, Twitch paid a reported $90 million. Disney inked a deal with publisher Blizzard, too, and has aired the league on ESPN, Disney XD and ABC. Mainstream exposure could bring in new audiences—if normies can wrap their head around the incomprehensible video game showing up on cable.

For game publishers, esports might have a benefit beyond the bottom line of the league itself. Often referenced is the immaterial value of generating enough hype around a game that keeps players continually interested and, potentially, spending more on the game, thus making up for the expense of the league. The idea is that a person would, say, watch enough professional League of Legends that they’d then be excited to play the game more themselves, maybe even buy some additional content for the game. But two sources with knowledge of League of Legends esports’ operations told Kotaku that there has never been a study proving that players who regularly tune in to watch their favorite LoL esports team will play LoL longer than non-esports fans because they follow the league, a claim a Riot representative denied. “We have done studies in this area, and we have models towards how engaging with esports impacts a players’ in-game experience,” they said.

The biggest channel is advertising and sponsorship, the latter of which forms the majority of money flooding into esports, which totaled $337 million in 2018 according to NewZoo (and is predicted to climb to $460 million in 2019). Contracts for esports team sponsorships range from about $100,000 to $3 million per year. And who’s investing? Gaming companies like Red Bull, Logitech, Corsair, and Intel appear in Twitch commercials during esports broadcasts, on stage at tournaments, and all over players’ merchandise. These tournaments supposedly pull in hundreds of thousands of engaged viewers who, advertisers hope, might go on to buy a $2,000 gaming PC and/or a Red Bull from the checkout line mini-fridge at Best Buy.

Coca-Cola, T-Mobile, and Toyota are all sponsoring the Overwatch League this year. The partnership announcement included this quote from Blizzard’s chief marketing officer: “Imagine doing a deal with a league, and that deal includes Lebron James, basketball, and courts. That’s the case with Overwatch League.” The comparison, to put it mildly, reads as a little pompous.

When investors are transferring their millions over to esports organizations, it’s unlikely they’re thinking about making money in the short term. “The best VC companies are wrong 95 percent of the time,” said Sebastian Park, who runs the esports division of the Houston Rockets and previously worked at a venture capital firm. “They might make 30 bets over the course of two to three years. What they’re hoping is that one or two of those bets returns 100 or 1,000 times.”

For team owners, the risk-reward assessment is just as Darwinian. “If esports is the next big thing, they don’t want to miss out on it,” said Sabina Hemmi, the CEO of esports analytics firm ELO Entertainment. “And paying $10 or $20 million for a team isn’t that much to ensure you’re there in a growing industry.”

To sponsors, advertisers, team owners, and the rest of the investors pouring money into esports, the industry has a great thing going for it: those supposedly massive viewership numbers, which are said to be packed with a hyper-specific and highly attractive consumer group: 16- to 24-year-old men. When Sebastian Park got into the industry after working in tech, he was excited about one thing in particular: “We were like, ‘We don’t even have to do targeting!’ Everyone is male and 18-34 in this community!”

The millennial and Gen-Z audience also has its own exploitable idiosyncrasies. They don’t watch as much television as their predecessors, and therefore, a lot of them aren’t watching the NFL or the NBA with the same gusto as their parents. For investors frantically looking for the next big thing that will replace dying traditions, esports seems like an obvious next step. But it’s not going to be such a simple transition.

For investors hoping for a return—with angel investors hoping for three to eight-year returns, private equity firms hoping for five-year returns and venture groups hoping for seven to 10-year returns—esports as an industry may fall short of expectations, in part, because the unbelievable numbers holding it up may simply be unbelievable.

Let’s look at this commonly-cited factoid: Last year’s League of Legends World Championship drew in more viewers than the Super Bowl. According to one publication, 200 million people watched the LCS last year from China alone. Meanwhile, 103 million people watched the Super Bowl. “LoL World Championship draws more viewers than the Super Bowl,” went the headline It’s a good headline, if true. But it turns out that the original numbers, which were drawn in part from Chinese streaming platforms, were unverifiable. Also, a Super Bowl viewer needs to watch for six minutes to register with Nielsen’s tracking. For esports, someone can be briefly browsing Twitch’s front page, where the livestream is playing, and count toward its viewership. League publisher Riot Games later published the real numbers: 99.6 million unique viewers.

Call Of Duty World League at Copper Box Arena on May 03, 2019 in London, England.
Photo: Luke Walker (Getty Images)

In an email to Kotaku, Riot said that it is “actively working with a number of entities in the esports and measurement industries to establish standardized data and measurement systems,” including Nielsen. Beginning last year, Riot started reporting a figure called Average Minute Audience, or AMA—the average viewers at any minute of programming—and “can be accurately compared to traditional sports.” Blizzard is using this stat now, too.

On television, the NFL and the NBA aren’t responsible for telling people how many people watched a given game. A third party like Nielsen is, and those third parties have built decades’ worth of trust. Yet in esports, those numbers are reported either by the game publishers, the esports teams, or the streaming platform. That’s a pretty huge conflict of interest, especially since each of those organizations has something to gain from reporting attention-grabbing numbers.

The promise of future payout is strung along by the numbers, which are immaterial, delicious extrapolations. The clerics who channel those numbers are analytics firms like NewZoo. These companies’ methods are black boxes. Speaking with Kotaku, Jurre Pannekeet, who puts together NewZoo’s annual reports on the industry, gave some insight on his methods. He says he receives revenue data from 14 teams and surveys 70,000 people across 30 countries about esports, which he balances against historical data. Pannekeet says he cannot fact-check the data sent to him by teams to one hundred percent accuracy, but he can compare it against other teams’ data. NewZoo does not have visibility into the data of game publishers, which, crucially, makes it difficult to discern the financial realities of the esports industry from the gaming industry at large. If esports will be worth $1 billion in 2019, as NewZoo has forecast, players buying in-game cosmetics rooting for their favorite esports team might look the same to NewZoo as players buying a run-of-the-mill loot box.

One Fortnite esports insider referred to reports from these companies as “pure speculation” and “an educated guess.”

“Most of this stuff is based on speculation and a mixture of publicly available information and guesswork. Sometimes pulled from thin air, sometimes based on trying to come to conclusions about the unknown based on precedent,” they said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re a private company that doesn’t share any financial details and few details on player counts, so almost everything you see out there is guesswork.” A Blizzard representative told Kotaku that it only shares its viewership data with Nielsen.

Although more and more game publishers are partnering with Nielsen, NewZoo remains the most-quoted analytics firm in the esports space. It is unclear how NewZoo gets some of its funding; they say they get it from sales of their reports to esports industry hopefuls.

“Our esports numbers have previously been criticized as overinflated, as we have seen the $1 billion figure taken out of context without diving into the region and business model splits to understand how we come to that number,” a NewZoo representative told Kotaku. “Inflating the market would be counterproductive to our own interests, as our core business depends on deeper data services from these key industry stakeholders—we would risk our reputation and client base by publishing numbers we can’t defend.”

“When I read a lot of these papers, especially the NewZoo papers—great headlines, picked up basically by everyone—I don’t know where they derive 50 percent of those numbers,” said the Houston Rockets’ Sebastian Park, speaking at a sports analytics conference held in 2019 at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “How are you separating one thing from another? It’s just thinking critically.”

One Riot Games insider with access to League of Legends’ esports data referred to reports from organizations like NewZoo as “garbage,” saying that the analytics firms are “all in a giant inflationary dance with each other to make esports seem big.”

An Overwatch League insider put it more bluntly: “Fuck NewZoo. We all know NewZoo is bullshit.”

The esports industry’s revenue has fallen short of NewZoo’s estimates by NewZoo’s own measures for several years now, although those guesses are still within prediction parameters that are common for new industries. In 2017, they predicted the industry would make $696 million in revenue in 2018, when in fact, they measured $655 million that year; in 2018, those same numbers were $906 million and $865 million. “Despite a slew of non-endemic brands entering the industry, sponsorships grew slower than expected, especially for esports teams. We adjusted numbers downwards to correct for this reality,” NewZoo said in an email to Kotaku.

On top of all this, there’s the Chinese esports economy, which, according to NewZoo, will be made up of 75 million “enthusiasts” in 2019—over a quarter of the entire U.S. population. Although it’s a huge portion of the industry’s total supposed fans, analysts say it’s difficult to gather insight on them since Chinese streaming platforms are opaque about viewership data, too. Much of China’s esports fandom is attached to mobile games, which a typical North American esports fan might consider completely distinct from their hobby.

Nielsen, the company that has been measuring television viewership since the 1950s, said it recently saw a big opening to deliver better tallies on the esports industry. “We knew there was interest and an active reason to be involved,” said Nicole Pike, who manages a new division, Nielsen Esports, launched by the company in 2017. Since then, Pike, who calls esports revenue “a big question mark,” has been grappling with the many unknowns of esports data, including revenue measurement.

Nielsen Esports hasn’t put out any revenue data yet because of this. “It can be really hard to know if an incremental dollar is going to the esports bottom line or the general gaming bottom line and what the origin of it was in the first place,” Pike said. “My overall impression is that a lot that have put out data have erred on the side of being overly aggressive, putting things toward the esports side of things. There’s an overstatement.”

Esports viewership metrics are even messier. A television view won’t register for Nielsen unless the viewer has been watching a show for six minutes, but for esports livestreams, Pike said that a view “can be counted multiple times across multiple people if their browser gets closed or their session restarts.” As a result, viewership numbers for these tournaments’ unique viewers now are bigger than what Nielsen might calculate, although Pike demurred when I asked by how much. She was clear on this, though: “When there’s a standardization around esports viewership, those numbers will be brought down.”

“It’s beneficial for organizations on the sponsorship and team front to say, ‘Hey, we’re destroying the Super Bowl. We’re destroying the World Series in terms of viewership,’” said Sebastian Park. “And that creates an expectation that may not hold up when we go back and drill into the numbers.”

“We’re not comparing the right things to each other,” he said. “In our industry, the reporting numbers generally come from publishers themselves or from teams or organizations who are self-interested. Those incentives may cause issues.” Last year, he said, one analytics organization was reporting that the Houston Rockets’ mid-season invitational viewership numbers were 126 million at their peak, which was 6.5 times higher than what they actually were. “We had to immediately go out there and refute that. That’s 6.5 times higher than what we actually saw. The number we saw at peak. We were proud of it. We went up 22 percent every year.”

“A lot of people who want a sustainable, healthy esports environment want it to be an honest one where we aren’t using fake numbers,” said Sabina Hemmi, the CEO of the esports analytics firm ELO Entertainment. Hemmi counts herself as a member of that group, as an esports enthusiast for the past 20 years. With unsure numbers to bet on, who can say whether esports ventures will return on hopefuls’ investments? And if they don’t, surely some portion of savvy investors will pull out, directly impacting those organizations’ finances.

The 2018 Call of Duty World League Championship at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Photo: Jamie Sabau (Getty Images)

Andreas Thorstensson feels similarly, and he’s had every vantage point on esports: he’s a former Counter-Strike pro who has run the esports team SK Gaming, worked in venture capital and esports analytics, and also co-founded esports tech company Popdog. He told Kotaku that when he was working in venture capital he looked into a lot of esports investments but didn’t end up putting his money in there despite his personal history in the field. He didn’t see any revenue models he found solid enough to invest in, and on top of that, he couldn’t trust the data he was receiving, especially the data about viewership numbers.

“I saw a lot of hype and not a lot of substance,” Thorstensson said.. “The biggest red flag I saw was that many of those pitch decks had the same vanity metrics when it came to viewership. I think many people understand those numbers are inflated.”

“I’m confident that esports as a whole is going to be bigger than traditional sports longer down the line, but when you read some of the headlines today, when you see that the LoL finals are bigger than the NBA finals, that is not true,” he said. “If we use the inflated numbers over and over, investors are going to be deterred.”

He added, “I think it’s gonna be hard to hit those VC expectations.”

When better numbers surface and filter down to investors, said Nielsen’s Pike, there may be a market correction. “The biggest impact of a correction is going to be the trust factor,” she said—if the investors keeping this industry afloat decide its biggest actors and platforms aren’t trustworthy, they might look for the next NFL somewhere else.

On the other hand, as better standards begin to roll out, there will always be loopholes for desperate actors. Last month, Magic: The Gathering put on its biggest esports event yet to debut its brand new pro league: a $1 million tournament at Boston’s PAX East convention. At first, viewership on Twitch hovered at around 20,000—a pretty typical amount of viewers for a pro Magic tournament on a weekday. Suddenly, in the afternoon, something miraculous happened: viewership quadrupled to a remarkable 88,000.

According to a source with knowledge of publisher Wizards of the Coast’s sponsorship strategy, that huge jump in viewership wasn’t a surprise. “Wizards has been pitching the Mythic Championship to potential sponsors for the future and was very confident they would get close to 100,000 viewers,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, told Kotaku. “We thought it was weird given the historical viewership of the game.”

It was weird. Weirder still, the number of people logged into Twitch chat did not meaningfully increase, according to stats obtained by software from TidyXgamer. What accounted for the enormous boon in “viewership”—a boon that Magic itself advertised in its post-mortem blog on the event—was not a stadium’s worth of people suddenly realizing that the tournament was live. It was something a little sketchier.

The tournament’s stream could have been embedded in hundreds of websites across the internet affiliated with the company Curse, a network of websites that also sells ad tools, data from Dhruv Mehrotra, a technologist at Kotaku’s parent company, G/O Media, indicates. Curse’s websites, including the gaming wiki Gamepedia, receive one billion views a month, according to internet software company CloudFlare. Users scrolling through a wiki about video game weapons or browsing a gaming forum might suddenly be confronted with an embed of the livestream, which would play when they view it, even briefly.

Once Curse turned on the embedded stream service for Magic: The Gathering’s recent tournament, viewership skyrocketed, according to data reviewed by Kotaku and Mehrotra, resulting in what the game publisher described as “the biggest Magic event ever—it’s not even close. There were over 8.1 million views of Magic content on Twitch over the weekend and we hit a peak of 157,000 people tuning in on Finals day.” It’s questionable whether tens of thousands of those views truly represent engaged humans watching the stream. Publisher Wizards of the Coast did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment.

Kotaku has attempted several times to verify how exactly Curse’s technology contributes to view inflation. Five sources who have worked with Curse, Twitch (who previously owned Curse Media), or an esports org using Curse’s services confirm that Curse offers reach for livestreams through its network and ad technology that guarantees views. Last year, Kotaku reported on what looked like a furtive view inflation method born of Curse’s ad tech. We found that some of these embedded livestreams lived on the very bottom of long, encyclopedic wiki entries on the website Gamepedia, where they were not immediately visible. One theory is that this contributed to hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of views that looked illegitimate, or, generously, questionable. Embedded livestreams on Gamepedia seemed to have disproportionately inactive chats, indicating that the viewers weren’t as engaged as viewers intentionally seeking the livestream might be. It looked like a lot of those viewers may not have known they were looking at the stream.

It has been impossible for Kotaku and a G/O Media technologist to definitively confirm that these views are junk. One former Twitch employee with knowledge of Curse’s operations told me that “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that a ton of that is junk views,” which he defined as “someone who’s logged in but not engaged with the content,” a view that “only exists to increase a metric for somebody in sales or business development.”

Three other Twitch experts or former employees interviewed by Kotaku were pretty sure the views are junk, too—an allegation Curse and a former Curse employee have previously denied. One former Curse employee who worked closely with this technology says that there are, in fact, real people behind those views. He thinks that the people stumbling upon these embedded livestreams clicked through and watched the stream. When I asked why those viewers weren’t participating in Twitch chat, he responded, “The only opinion I have on that is you just have spectators who are checking something out but don’t want to participate on that level.” The former employee then said that anyone who believes the views are artificially inflated has been misled by how confusing the measurement of online viewership actually is, a claim that doesn’t line up with what the viewership data for these embedded streams indicates.

Magic: The Gathering’s Mythic Invitational embedded in a Gamepedia page.
Magic: The Gathering’s Mythic Invitational embedded in a Gamepedia page.

Esports organizations have been inflating viewer counts ever since the beginning of big money in esports. A source with knowledge of the IGN ProLeague told Kotaku that in 2012, operations officers would take the number of tickets sold and multiply it by the number of tournament days. That was the “live viewer” count they gave to sponsors.

“At IPL 4 in Vegas,” he said over the phone, “we reported that live viewership—attendees—was over 10,000. There weren’t even that many seats.” Laughing, he continued, “Over three days, we had 10,000 people. You’re just counting the same people multiple times.” It wasn’t an explicit instruction, he said. “It was understood.”

“We were teetering on the edge of whether or not we would work, which is why we inflated our numbers,” he said. Every event’s marketing goal was to justify a press release afterward reporting bigger, better numbers than anything they’d done before or whatever their competitors were doing, he said. If they didn’t, they’d look paltry compared to their competitors, whom he also said were counting attendees in the same way.

“The whole industry needed these numbers,” he said. “We were starting out from a position of disadvantage and having to show we were real and we were worth investing in.” Reached for comment, IGN says it divested in the IPL six years ago and no one who worked on it remains at IGN. “The records and memories that remain don’t indicate such practice,” a representative told Kotaku. “IGN’s policy today, as it was six years ago, is to provide accurate audience reporting to sponsors.”

Last year, the Overwatch League grand finals sold out New York’s Barclays Center, a 19,000-seat venue. It was a good sign for the culminating event of Blizzard’s international, multi-million-dollar esports league’s first season. I attended the show myself, and I did notice that the seats were mostly occupied by enthusiastic fans. Online, however, something else was happening. Across the internet, the Overwatch League grand finals’ livestream was embedded across the internet on Reddit, IMDB, Gamepedia, and other sites. A source familiar with Curse’s sales operations told Kotaku that the company was behind it. “We had never done a tournament that size,” he told me. “We did some Gwent tournaments, Madden, Fortnite,” he said over the phone. “When we turned that on, we saw the livestream go from 100,000 to 300,000.” He noted that it was one of the most heavily promoted events in esports, even airing on ESPN, which could account for the substantial interest.

Blizzard did not comment on the record for this story.

Two sources confirmed that Curse charged $15,000 an hour to embed streams across their network of sites. In the past, that number was $10,000 per esports tournament. Until late last year, Curse was owned by Twitch. Now, Curse has been split into Curse LLC, which Twitch still owns, and Curse Media, the umbrella for Curse’s network of sites. A gaming content company called Fandom, which has its own gaming wiki network, now owns Curse Media. Twitch and Curse were each sent point-by-point synopses of this article’s references to their business practices as well as several questions. Twitch had a short response: “Twitch has been the go-to destination for esports content for years. We’ve been at the forefront of the industry’s growth and success, and we will continue to invest in esports and competitive gaming as a component of our overall content strategy.”

“We believe the rapidly growing popularity of esports is the natural result of technological progress,” Curse responded. “The relationships and communities that have formed as a result are genuine and passionate, and we are proud to support them.”

Curse advertises “livestreaming & influencer units”—“attention-grabbing billboards with live streaming content embedded into unit” for “guaranteed video views” on their sites. Lots of esports organizations seem to have indulged. An individual with knowledge of Red Bull’s operations told Kotaku that it was something they did in 2016: “We’re all competing for the same small group of sponsors. How do you show the competitive advantage? By showing your inflated view numbers are bigger than their inflated view numbers.” Late last year at a Red Bull Tekken and Street Fighter tournament, weirdly high viewership metrics struck viewers as confusing. According to data published by esports reporter Rod Breslau, hours into broadcasting, the Tekken event’s Twitch viewership spiked from 6,000 to over 50,000 within the course of thirty minutes. Red Bull did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment.

Twitch too offers paid promotion for livestreams on its front page, says a former Twitch employee familiar with how its front page works. Employees organizing the much-viewed front page were given directions to place the Overwatch League’s livestreams in a prominent location to boost viewership and match a sales directive, he said.

As esports professionals scramble to find the foundation for an industry that, on paper, is looking like a mid-construction skyscraper, many are looking toward business models for traditional sports. It makes sense to take inspiration from a preceding industry when searching for one’s footing. There’s competition, there are fans, there are branding opportunities and merchandise. Yet for all the reasons it’s an intuitive line of thinking, esports experts say, it might not work out all that well in the long run.

Supporters watch the semifinal match of 2018 The League of Legends World Championship in Gwangju, South Korea.
Photo: Woohae Cho (Getty Images)

In addition to a robust, third-party system evaluating and publishing sports viewership data, traditional sports have built-in audiences of people who have grown up with the games that athletes pursue professionally. Anyone stumbling into a bar could pick out who’s on what baseball team or what a home run looks like. But strategy games like League of Legends and Dota 2, two of the biggest esports games, are hugely difficult for newcomers and even seasoned gamers to comprehend when they’re being played on a pro level. To less trained eyes, they appear to be a blur of characters and colors, moving at a more rapid clip than any traditional sport.

Sports also take a long time to go out of fashion. Nobody’s made a league for Soccer 2. Professional baseball has been popular for well over a century. By contrast, gamers can tire of a game, no matter how new and shiny and addictive it may seem at first, in a matter of weeks or months. Games are a commodity; soccer is not. (Cleats, balls and nets are.) The gaming market is constantly flooded with top-tier entertainment. It’s enormously optimistic, in a way, to take the time to build a league around any competitive game. In a matter of two years, the survival shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the most popular games of all time, got its own league, filled it out with pros and big-money tournaments, and then lost much of its momentum. Last year, a PUBG esports tournament run by ESP Gaming was embedded in Curse’s network, too. One day’s concurrent viewership was around 5-10,000; the next spiked to 88,000. (Reached for comment, PUBG reiterated that they were not involved in the tournament. ESP Gaming declined to comment.)

In a race to discern stable sources of profit, esports leagues and orgs are investing in physical arenas. These churches of competition will be furnished with stands, top-of-the-line screens, and a stage on which pros will sit behind computers and battle it out. The thrill is seeing the players in real life and celebrating the esport together with like-minded fans in person. That thrill shouldn’t be underestimated, either. Since a lot of esports fans are accustomed to watching their heroes game in isolation from their bedrooms, the novelty of seeing these beacons of e-athleticism up close is a huge pull. Hearing other fans cheer in person is a whole new level of hype that goes way beyond spamming emotes in chat.

Esports stadiums are cropping up around the country, the most notable of which is Philadelphia’s $50 million arena for its Overwatch team, the Fusion. By 2020, all Overwatch League teams will be playing from their hometowns, where team owners will presumably be constructing, renting or repurposing venues. Hopefully, fans will flock to see their esports heroes game right before their eyes. Last month, the Overwatch League had its first game in Dallas, home of the Dallas Fuel. 4,500 fans showed up, selling out the Allen Event Center. It was a good sign that the League’s optimistic vision for itself could come to fruition. On the other hand, the already-existent Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California regularly fails to fill its 450 seats. Overwatch’s popularity in 2020 is still an open question. According to data from NewZoo, merch and ticket sales will form a smaller and smaller piece of the revenue pie for the next four years.

To understand the potential value of esports’ leagues forays into brick-and-mortar atria, Kotaku spoke with Neil Demause, a watchdog sports journalist who has written a lot about the financials of traditional sports stadiums. He said that, until the 1980s, it wasn’t expected for traditional sports teams to have their own stadiums. Baseball and football teams would share a field, as would basketball and hockey. When Kotaku asked him how today’s stadiums made money, he responded, “They don’t.”

“When you factor in construction costs, they absolutely don’t” turn a profit, he said. “A few of them do—you cobble as many revenues together as you can. You sell tickets, access to clubs, advertising, naming rights. If you put that all together in a big enough city, maybe you’ll make enough to pay off the construction costs, but most of them never do and barely even break even on operating costs. Construction costs are never touched.” A lot of the time, state and local governments subsidize these fields. Will they do the same for esports?

“It’s expensive to build a space. I’m gonna rent in my first year. I’m not gonna buy,” said one esports professional who works with the Overwatch League. “But as someone who is an expert in running esports events, probably the only way you’ll make money is if you own the venue.” On top of that, he said, it’s expensive to go into an already-existing space to run an esports event. You need power, exceptional internet, seats, and screens, which a lot of big spaces don’t have.

Andreas Thorstensson of SK Gaming has spent a lot of time analyzing the differences between traditional sports teams’ business models and esports teams’ models. He thinks that, contrary to intuition, it isn’t a good comparison. Esports are online. They don’t need a stadium. “You spend a lot of money on tickets with traditional sports,” he said. “That’s why you’re creating arenas in esports. I don’t think growth lies in traditional spaces to get incomes on the fan side. I think you can do a lot of other interesting things to get to that number, but its not mimicking traditional sports.” Thorstensson is confident that, one day, esports will be bigger than traditional sports. People in the business just need to figure out how to grow it organically and capitalize on Twitch, YouTube and other huge platforms to monetize fandoms, he said.

With questionable numbers and hazy revenue models, it can seem as if the esports industry is built on simple hope and immaterial money. Underneath all this is something more concrete: the fact that people love to play games and love to watch players who are better than they are. The esports industry experts who spoke to Kotaku don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. However, the market may be in the process of making a swerve toward another form of entertainment that scratches the same itch.

“Streamers and influencers have short-circuited esports,” says ELO Entertainment’s Sabina Hemmi. Twitch celebrities like Ninja seem able to get more viewership than entire esports tournaments, with significantly lower costs, streaming their favorite video game from their bedrooms. A relatable, attractive, and charismatic gamer taking a sip of a Red Bull between Fortnite matches might have more impact on Red Bull as a company than a couple of esports pros wearing a jersey with the company’s logo.

“With esports as a whole, a significant portion of revenue is sponsorships,” Hemmi continued. “But influencers looked at that and said, ‘Let’s make a better sponsorship package.’”

“Esports may be a bubble, but it’s correcting itself toward influencers,” said one longtime esports professional, who spoke anonymously for fear of career repercussions, and who now works in the influencer industry. Fans prefer to follow their favorite pro player rather than a whole esports team, another deviation from the traditional team sports model. And successful streamers can make a lot more money from fans and sponsorships on Twitch than they can grinding away for an esports team. “I’m sure [League of Legends streamers] Tyler1 or Yassuo make more money than a pro,” he said. “That’s a reason why LoL salaries are so high.”

Inflation, optimism, whatever you call it—it’s a structural problem that’s coursing through the veins of the esports industry. Whether poison or steroids, sources say, these injections of money, data and viewers are altering the industry’s growth in a big way.

Even if the bubble bursts, esports isn’t going away. “I don’t fucking care about the bubble topic,” said one source deeply involved with Overwatch League. “Let’s say its a huge bubble and it’s gonna burst and all the money goes away tomorrow. Will people still play games? Fuck yeah they will. Will people still get together to compete? Fuck yeah they will. Will people watch? Fuck yeah they will! If there’s a bubble, let it pop, and let’s get back to a place of sustainability and build from there.”

[Update—5:00 pm ET]: A previous version of this article stated that teams paid yearly fees to be a part of the North American LCS. The fee is actually flat.

Source: Kotaku.com

Red Dead Redemption 2’s Vaudeville Shows Are More Than Just An Impressive Diversion

Red Dead Redemption 2 is full of distractions. There’s poker, blackjack, and dominos to play. There are animals to hunt and collectibles to find. Many of these activities seem like ways to take your mind off the main story, and you can easily ignore them to focus on the game’s more pressing matters. But one piece of side content, the vaudeville show in Saint Denis, is more than just a distraction, and it’s worth stopping to watch.

Saint Denis is a city in Red Dead 2 modelled after New Orleans. It’s a contrast to the rest of the game’s wilderness, both visually—with its crowded streets and belching smokestacks—and narratively, symbolizing the changing world that’s making the lives of the game’s main ensemble, Dutch’s gang, obsolete. One of the city’s many landmarks is the Theatre Raleur, where protagonist Arthur Morgan can see a series of vaudeville acts over the course of several nights.

For a couple dollars, you can watch a magician catch a bullet in his teeth, a woman dance with a giant snake, a honky-tonk quartet, some can-can dancers, and more. Each act is beautifully animated, with motion-capture some professional performers. The night’s lineup lasts around 15 minutes, and the performers or the content of their acts change each time you go. On occasion the show also features special acts related to stranger missions you might encounter in the world.

The evening’s entertainment is hosted by a charming but self-effacing emcee who calls himself Aldridge T. Abbington. Though the acts themselves are engaging and dramatic, through Abbington’s framing and the personality of the performers, they become something more than a night on the town. In one act, simple magician’s trick becomes a story about far-off lands, fatherhood, and survival.

Red Dead 2’s vaudeville shows address many of the same themes as the game’s story, weaving the shows into the movements of the world outside the theater. They explore how hope and imagination can transform the drudgery and dangers of daily life into something worth savoring.

The stage shows are accurate for vaudeville acts at the time. In 1899, the year the game takes place, vaudeville was reinventing itself around the country as a classy form of entertainment, separate from burlesque shows or circus acts. The acts reached for theatrical legitimacy while still trying to appeal to a broad audience, so they often skirted the line between bawdy and high-minded. This shift changed things a lot for magicians. As author Jim Steinmeyer points out in his history of magic, <a rel="nofollow" data-amazonasin="B001O5CYJA" data-amazonsubtag="[t|link[p|1833099462[a|B001O5CYJA[au|5876237249236363128[b|kotaku[lt|text" onclick="window.ga('send', 'event', 'Commerce', 'kotaku – Red Dead Redemption 2’s Vaudeville Shows Are More Than Just An Impressive Diversion‘, ‘B001O5CYJA’);window.ga(‘unique.send’, ‘event’, ‘Commerce’, ‘kotaku – Red Dead Redemption 2’s Vaudeville Shows Are More Than Just An Impressive Diversion‘, ‘B001O5CYJA’);” data-amazontag=”kotakuamzn-20″ href=”https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001O5CYJA/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1&tag=kotakuamzn-20&ascsubtag=535fa9a66a7523d1d64771564a1ee98408652ddc”>Hiding the Elephant, vaudeville turned magicians from personalities with long acts into performers with a single hook, like card tricks or escapes. Vaudeville was meant to be at once elegant and refined, while also titillating and affordable enough to bring in someone as rough and tumble as Arthur Morgan.

The game’s vaudeville show features one magician, the escape artist Benjamin Lazarus. In his shows, Lazarus catches bullets in his teeth, vanishes from a locked box to reappear in the audience, and attempts to escape a straightjacket while he has a noose around his neck. Lazarus is a Houdini-esque figure—in fact, some of the specific feats Lazarus brags of, such as demanding the police lock him up so he can escape, are things Houdini was attempting in 1899 in an effort to transform himself from a minor theater performer into a legitimate star. While Houdini eventually became interested in grander magical pursuits than shocking audiences with escapes, Lazarus is singularly focused throwing himself against the boundaries of death. At the same time, he pushes his act away from the purely macabre by framing his feats as being about mortality itself. Lazarus spins stories that are chilling in their specificity:

Death. Madness. It is all around us. A beautiful wife of 14 years old suddenly dies of colic and pleurisy. A wealthy man goes mad and hacks his family to bits. Why? The mind is weak and yet it imprisons us all. Tonics and liquors keep the spirit buoyant as we all suffer all kinds of maladies in this life. These days you are just as likely to die as a man of 12 years old as you are a man of 42 or more.

This framing connects Lazarus’ feats to the audience’s lives beyond the theater. His stories touch on things that his audience knows well. Arthur (and the player) do, too: Lazarus’ act features bullets and nooses, objects Arthur is all too familiar with. He defies these objects by catching the bullets, by escaping confinement. He uses them to show how, as he says at one point, “I, the great Benjamin Lazarus, will do what no man has ever done and cheat death! As if it were nothing.”

Despite his braggadocio, Lazarus’ tricks aren’t about his personal greatness. They’re about fear and agency, things Arthur and the rest of the audience struggle with daily. This is the promise of magic: familiar objects like cards and coins—or in this case, guns and steamer trunks—become vessels through which the performer tells an impossible story. Death is all around the show’s viewers, and though Lazarus claims to be the only one capable of cheating death, each of his spectators does it too, through money, power, community, or luck. Dutch’s gang cheats death through every complicated heist and ill-fated move to a new home. Dutch’s plans and Lazarus’ tricks both promise a transcendence of the ugly limits of the violence and death of Red Dead 2’s world. They don’t always succeed—Lazarus fails one of his tricks, and many members of Dutch’s gang die—but the effort feels transporting, even when it’s not successful.

Other acts also reinvent daily dangers. Abbington’s vaudeville show features a fire dancer named Antoinette Sanseverino and a snake charmer called The Mysterious Maya. Antoinette spins lit torches and swallows flames. Maya dances seductively with a huge snake or balances a sword on various parts of her body as she twirls. Both performers’ acts are set to winding, sensual music, and they wear revealing outfits. Antoinette, Abbington tells us, is from Colombia, “where they do not wear clothes,” and he says that he “can attest that she does emit fire from almost every orifice in her body.” Maya’s backstory is less clear: In one show Abbington says he met her on a steamer to Morocco, but he also says she’s from Lagras, a small town in the bayou not far from Saint Denis. Despite being more or less local, Maya’s backstory is sold as exotic: Abbington spins tales about her seducing alligators into pots and says, “If only Eve danced so well with her devil, maybe humanity would still live in a garden of innocent grandeur, rather than a pit of depravity and despair.” These stories are condescending and fetishistic, but they seem to be in service of adding some romance and mystery to the everyday dangers the performers flirt with. Fire and swamp predators are pretty familiar to Arthur and the rest of the audience. Getting attacked by an alligator in the swamp is a terrifying annoyance; Maya coming too close to a snake is breathtaking. Placed on a stage, wrapped in sexuality and an international backstory, these encounters become daring and romantic, even desirable.

Women aren’t just sexualized objects in the show, just as they play more complex roles in Red Dead 2’s society. The vaudeville show has a strongwoman, Hortensia, who rips phone books in half and has cement blocks broken over her stomach. She undermines gendered expectations of the time through her tattoos and boots, her grunts and flexing. Women play an awkward role in Dutch’s gang; they’re subservient in many instances, often tending to the daily needs of the men around them. In other moments, such as when Sadie proves herself against the Lemoyne Raiders after a fight with camp cook Pearson, or when Susan goes with Arthur to rescue Tilley, they prove themselves against the odds and against the expectations of their male companions. In the course of Arthur’s daily life, these moments are notable but fairly regular; the gang seems to have an understanding that women are just as capable as men, even if it sometimes causes clashes among gang members. Hortensia’s act both elevates and perverts this position—Hortensia’s strength is a spectacle, and she’s framed as an oddity whom Abbington says he found in Bavaria pulling a cart of manure. It also points out the game world’s gender gap specifically, turning women’s strength into something worth paying for. “What grand entertainment watching a reversal of the sexes,” Abbington says at the end of one of Hortensia’s acts, when she defeats a male challenger from the audience in a fight.

Abbington himself is perhaps the strongest force for the show’s elevation into more than just entertainment. His patter and presentation predisposes the audience to like the acts and to see them as more meaningful than they are. He’s unremarkable-looking, but he dresses in a bright red tuxedo jacket and top hat that would look gaudy but not out of place at a high society party. Abbington sells himself as a worldy rogue, spinning tales of the far-flung origins of his acts. He also shares stories of his lifelong love of the theater, which make him sound earnest, if not exactly professional. He tells us he’s “travelled the world seeking delights and amusements,” but these amusements also have uplifting qualities for the audience’s “emotional, spiritual, and psychological enhancement.” He introduces one evening’s acts with a benevolent explanation:

In an effort to bring this entertainment to even the poorest dreamer of dreams, I have determined the ticket price should be very low, and the show held without a profit to me… For it is blessing enough to bring these gifted artists to you.

Obviously Abbington isn’t actually providing these shows at a fiscal loss, and if he is it’s certainly not on purpose. But his patter frames the show as a meaningful experience earned through sacrifice for which the audience should feel grateful. This patina of sacrificing for others doesn’t feel all that different than gang leader Dutch’s air of put-upon dedication to his people. In Red Dead 2’s opening scenes, when Dutch praises the people the gang has lost, he says, “Now, if I could throw myself on the ground in their stead, I’d do it gladly.” It’s the same flair with which he offers himself up to the Pinkertons when they first come for the gang outside of Valentine. It’s a trick that predisposes his listeners to like him.

Abbington, like Dutch, needs the audience’s sympathy because he doesn’t have all that much to offer. Vaudeville isn’t high theater, and some of his acts don’t go well. To cover this up, he dresses the acts up in dreams and hope; he emphasizes their importance over what the audience might wish they were. He tells us “entertainment is a gift that will see you through the winter better than any packed larder or root cellar full of canned goods.” It’s the same as Dutch trying to feed the gang with plans, faith, and promises of a safe place somewhere out there in the wide world, even as things go increasingly wrong. “I’m nothing but a seeker,” Dutch explains himself at one point, and he constantly tries to recast the gang’s predicament as something more than the natural consequences for their crimes. At the end of the day, both Abbington and Dutch’s words are just showman’s flair to obscure reality, but they both dress up the mundane as something more transcendent.

Despite the liveliness and grandiosity with which Abbington introduces his shows, he bookends each night with a dark note. He tends to swerve dramatically into reminding the audience of their own mortality. “Each day is one less until our last, distraction is our greatest joy,” he says at one point. He ends another show by saying of the evening’s entertainments, “These are the bright spots in our lives, which often terminate without sense or meaning. We are deluded into assuming it was in any way interesting.” Yet another ends with him reminding us, “We flounder through the morass of humanity, with only bright moments like these before it all goes dim, and snuffs out in silence.”

The offhand aplomb with which these reminders are delivered seems to mock, or at least downplay, mortality. The contradiction between the seriousness and mundanity of death is reflected in Arthur’s life outside of the theater. A lot of people die in Red Dead 2, at Arthur’s hand or the hands of the game’s enemies. Arthur himself is an agent of life’s tendency to “terminate without sense or meaning,” as Abbington tells it. At any moment Arthur can massacre the occupants of a bank, train, or entire town. There are moments of levity, too. There are parties, romantic dates, fun drunken nights. The game’s grittiness and clunky survival mechanics emphasize these moments as bright spots against a dark backdrop. Abbington’s monologues, along with the vaudeville show’s acts, follow the same rhythm as Red Dead 2 itself: joy swerving into despair, then back again.

At one point in the game, Arthur can go on a date to the theater with Mary after helping her deal with her father’s gambling debts. The date is, as Abbington promises, a bright spot against an otherwise dark day, made all the more precious by Arthur and Mary’s awareness that their relationship is impossible. While watching The Mysterious Maya swirl around her snake, Arthur asks Mary, “Can you imagine doing that every day?” Mary replies, “I can’t think of anything worse.”

Maya’s act, like all the acts, are things Arthur can imagine doing every day, because he and his companions live them. He lives Benjamin Lazarus’ death-defying feats. He lives Maya and Antoinette’s flirtations with danger. He witnesses Hortensia’s strength.

And yet, with a bit of polish from Abbington and a spiffy costume, the vaudeville show makes life’s grim reality a thing of whimsy and surprise, far more successfully than Dutch ever manages to.

Source: Kotaku.com

How Peanuts Used Lucy and Schroeder To Explore Dysfunctional Relationships

Lucy’s relationship to Schroeder was unfulfilling. She craved emotional validation from the one character who was least equipped to provide it. It was both humorous and sad—a contradictory message that Charles Schulz’s Peanuts conveyed so well.

This piece originally appeared 5/2/18.

Lucy debuted as a toddler in 1952. Schulz declined to reprint these early strips for many years, though he relented before his death. Fantagraphics published all of them as part of its The Complete Peanuts anthology in 2004.

Many of these early Lucy strips concerned the self-centered nature of toddlers. Toddlers, as a matter of mental development, don’t place the needs and wants of others over their own. Their selfishness isn’t deliberate or malicious; it’s simply who they are. Thus, the humor of these toddler strips stemmed from attaching adult motivations to Lucy’s babyish actions.

Over the next two years, Schulz retconned Lucy to be the same age as her counterparts, though she kept her manipulative charm. But without her childish naïveté, her behavior was no longer cute. Lucy’s peers reacted to her boldness with a mixture of surprise and disgust.

Lucy’s behavior often read as malicious, especially since her younger brother Linus was wiser and more generous than she was. Physically, she had grown, but emotionally, she was stunted. She still craved attention and immediate gratification, and she went about fulfilling these cravings through bullying and disingenuousness.

Lucy developed a crush on Schroeder in May 1953, at the beginning of her post-toddler phase. Unlike her father, who doted upon her, or Linus, who looked up to her in spite of her behavior, Schroeder ignored Lucy entirely. So Lucy imposed herself upon him. She climbed on top of his piano and stared him in the face until she broke his focus.

A 1955 strip revisited the same themes. Again, Lucy was fascinated by Schroeder’s lack of acknowledgement and felt compelled to intrude upon his space. Everyone else in her social orbit—even Violet and Patty—accommodated or folded to her tantrums. Schroeder didn’t, and that’s exactly what Lucy liked about him.

Schroeder was one of Schulz’s least developed characters, despite his long tenure with the strip. Beethoven and classical music consumed him, taking precedence over his real life friends. This hindered his character development; when the punchline to every Schroeder strip was “Beethoven,” there was little room for Schulz to develop the character’s inner life.

Over time, as Snoopy rose in prominence and Linus and Sally got older Schroeder became increasingly peripheral to the strip’s world. Meanwhile, Peanuts evolved to be less reliant on the characters’ quirks and more reliant on their chemistry with one another. Through this, Schroeder remained mostly one-dimensional. Lucy interacted with him more than any other character, even though he ignored her. She was the only person who challenged him, albeit for selfish reasons, to do something other than obsess over Beethoven.

Lucy went about this in different ways. Sometimes she would distract him from his music by presenting herself as a more entertaining alternative. This invariably failed. Other times, she denigrated Beethoven’s importance and minimized Schroeder’s piano playing. This only caused him to dig his heels in deeper.

Lucy would also strategize in the other direction: She’d take an interest in Beethoven by reading up on him and making token, misplaced gestures of support. She’d inform the neighborhood about Beethoven’s birthday, for example, but mistakenly tell everyone his name was Karl instead of Ludwig. Finally, when she had exhausted all options, Lucy would physically destroy her competition, but that didn’t work either. The things she destroyed were symbols of Schroeder’s interests, not his actual interests, and he had plenty of them.

Despite her relentlessness, Lucy was never going to find the ‘real’ Schroeder beneath his artist persona because, from all indications, Schroeder never developed an identity beyond that persona. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: when it came to Schroeder, there was no “there” there.

And thus, Lucy’s fascination with Schroeder became the most interesting thing about him. He could have easily gone the way of Shermy and disappeared from the strip entirely, had Lucy not used him as a sounding board for her own neuroses and insecurities. Many times, Schroeder wouldn’t even speak, or he would sneak out of the room and leave Lucy talking to herself. Their strips became less about Lucy wooing Schroeder and more about Lucy exploring her own emotional landscape.

Over the years, the reader empathized less with Schroeder and more with Lucy, even though she was the initial aggressor in this dysfunctional dynamic. At least she had some skin in the game—she opened herself to rejection every time she leaned on Schroeder’s piano. Schroeder was never open, and at times, he even seemed to take pleasure in his cruel reactions to her flirtations.

By 1966, Lucy’s relationship with Schroeder bordered on masochistic. She persisted in her efforts to win him over, despite his indifference. During a multi-day, extended storyline during which Lucy and Linus moved away, Schroeder realized he missed her. He couldn’t play his piano without her there. Like Charlie Brown in the storyline, the reader is irritated at Schroeder for his prior callousness and emotional constipation.

The final line of the above strip is an allusion to the play Pygmalion and its subsequent musical adaption My Fair Lady. In both the play and the musical, an emotionally abusive linguistics professor, Henry Higgins, takes an unrefined flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, under his tutelage. By the end of the play, a newly empowered Eliza declares to Higgins, “I know I’m a common ignorant girl, and you a book-learned gentleman; but I’m not dirt under your feet.”

By casting Schroeder in the role of Higgins, Schulz offers the same cutting critique. Schroeder took Lucy for granted and felt his intellect could absolve him of emotional attachment and wrongdoing. It didn’t, but even after experiencing heartbreak, Schroeder learned nothing. When Lucy moved back home at the end of the storyline, she resumed her place at the foot of his piano. Schroeder didn’t even acknowledge her until, once again, she intruded on his space.

There was one notable occasion, in 1972, when Lucy found her dignity. The Peanuts gang was playing baseball, and Lucy was next up at bat. Schroeder insulted her by proposing what he considered an impossible bet: He had to kiss her at home plate if she hit a home run. Lo and behold, she did. Schroeder looked devastated. Lucy floated on air as she rounded the bases.

Lucy saw Schroeder waiting at home plate, lips puckered and eyes closed, clearly hating every moment. She realized that kissing him would be humiliating for her. So she walked right past him instead of giving everyone a show to gawk at or giving Schroeder the opportunity to “BLEAH!” and shame her.

The final line, where Lucy claimed her act as a triumph of women’s liberation, is humorous in its hyperbole. But for Lucy, this was a significant moment of victory and personal growth. For so many years, Lucy idealized a life of domestic bliss with Schroeder. Finally, she realized that it degraded her to cajole a reluctant participant. She deserved an equal partner—far more than than the sort of Higgins/Eliza dynamic that Schroeder would provide. The only way she could win, counterintuitively, was by walking away.

Lucy evolved. Once, she was an entitled child who felt that the world owed her something. She couldn’t handle rejection and settled for negative attention. Eventually, however, she found the strength to want better for herself.

Schulz rarely gave his characters everything they wanted. But the world of Peanuts was never completely hopeless. There were always small victories and glimmers of hope scattered amongst the setbacks.

Source: Kotaku.com