Esports events tend to emulate the setup of something like the FIFA World Cup. You might some group stages at the beginning before getting into an elimination tournament. But what if professional gaming looked more like mixed martial arts or boxing? Well, you’d end up with Body Count Fighting.
On Tuesday, The CW Network will air the five-party documentary series Chasing The Cup: Injustice 2. The episodes are available online, and they tell the story of multiple pro fighters trying to dominate the DC super hero fighting game. This is part of Machinma’s wider effort to shift its esports focus away from the tournaments and back on the big names in the scene. That initiative also includes Body Count Fighting, which doesn’t use a tournament structure at all. Instead, each event has a fight card like UFC and players compete for control of a belt that goes to the current, reigning champion.
“As far as competition goes, starting in the fighting game community — figuring out how to promote fights is not a new thing,” Machinima head of programming Jason Dimberg told GamesBeat. “Why is this any different from how you would construct a UFC, boxing, or even WWE style fight card? In the format we’ve developed, I think it really puts the players first. It’s not about a tournament. It’s about this guy or gal versus that guy or gal.”
Esports is a $696 million business, and a lot of that is due to the biggest events and games drawing in huge viewership numbers. But Machinima built Body Count to stand out from the established tournaments.
“A lot of esports got in the news because League of Legends and Dota 2 have million-dollar cups and arenas full of fans,” Machinima general manager Russell Arons said. “That’s great, and it definitely became what people started to hear and think about when it comes to esports. [But] what I like is on the other side. What we’ve gone back to is an old-fashioned fighting competition where the people really know each other.”
The docu-series helps promote that. While the story follows pros like SonicFox and HoneyBee as they compete for Warner Bros. official Injustice 2 cup, many of the same players are also in Body Count Fighting. By establishing their stories and making people care about them, Body Count is expecting that many fans will tune into a livestream just to see their favorite player in a grudge match.
And Machinima says it is getting interest from publishers that make games about this format.
“Distribution-wise we’re seeing the publishers get behind it,” said Dimberg. “I just got confirmation that we’ll be streaming the Tekken portions of the show to Bandai Namco’s Twitch, and the Injustice portions to NetherRealm’s Twitch. The publishers themselves are getting behind the format in addition to the players [who] love it. They carry their belts around sometimes at other tournaments. They like that this format puts them and their rivalries, so to speak, front and center.”
You can read my full interview with Machinima below.
GamesBeat: Tell me about your esports program.
Russell Arons: Body Count Fighting is part of a overall approach that Machinima is taking to esports. I feel like esports is one of the hottest terminologies you can put out there, but we’ve tried to put a new spin on it in that we want to be closer to the gamer community, closer to the players’ stories, and we have a couple of different ways we’re doing this. Body Count Fighting—what I love about what’s been created is it’s bringing the game to the players. It’s celebrating what these fighting game enthusiasts especially—we love the fighting game genre for a lot of reasons. It’s one on one, intense, the most intimate, I’d say, of all esports.
Body Count Fighting, by creating these live streamed events, creating our own belt, and a lot of the good stuff Jason will go into, is us making it a personal in-depth experience around esports for the fans of this genre. We also have another way we’re doing this, which is around what we’re doing in a broadcast way, with the CW channel. We have our franchise called Chasing the Cup. We first had a Chasing the Cup with Mortal Kombat, also a fighting game, and just yesterday we started airing our digital episodes of Chasing the Cup on the CW feed and our Machinima channel.
Then we have a one-hour broadcast coming up on October 3. What’s cool about Chasing the Cup is it’s the stories of the players, their human drama, and what happens when the top-seeded player loses in an event, what happens when mom is saying a player has to go to college, and it’s great that he’s earning money as an esports athlete. Between these two approaches to esports, we feel like we’re making sure it’s not just this giant arena experience. It’s personal, a fun way to approach esports that isn’t just gameplay only. That’s the higher view. But Body Count Fighting especially, which was Jason’s brainchild, is something that’s unique and different to any other esport and how it’s being shown. We’ll talk about what we’ve done in the first episode and what’s coming up.
Jason Dimberg: Russell hit it on the head. We knew we wanted to be in the esports space, but I also knew we wanted to be a bit different than what you’re seeing, both online and on TV through general esports competitions. Obviously, as Russell alluded to, we do our follow doc series that gets behind the scenes, but as far as competition goes, starting in the fighting game community–how to promote fights is not a new thing. What I thought was, why is this any different from how you would construct a UFC, boxing, or even WWE style fight card? In the format we’ve developed, I think it really puts the players first. It’s not about a tournament. It’s about this guy or gal versus that guy or gal.
We worked with the players on developing their personas. We worked on ring entrances. We allow them to call their own shots on social media. If they want to challenge someone, if they have a runback they want to do. Runback means playing someone again they might have lost to. It allows the fans to pick rivalries. It allows to put a series of show matches into a card where both the players and fans get to see fights they want to see. It allows us to promote based around those players and their relationships with other players in their community. We’re very excited. We’ve planted a little seed, back in May or June, and it’s taken root and starting to show some good growth. We had our first event in June. We did our second event in August.
We saw a really good growth from event one to event two, so we continue to expand into three and tied it to the Socal regionals, which take place over this weekend. Literally every top fighter in the globe will be here competing in Socal regionals. We’re going to roll right from the end of that event into Body Count Fighting as the after party, but the nice part about is it allows us to have what is our biggest card to date. There are nine announced fights, and I’ll leak here a bit, there will be one unannounced secret fight we just confirmed today. We’ll announce it at the top of the broadcast. It’s two top-five players you’ve probably seen on TV before.
We’re very excited to add that to the card and give a bit of extra oomph to the fans who tune in. The card itself is great. We’re expanding to four. We had two house title belts in Injustice and Street Fighter. We’re adding two more champions/belt-holders for Marvel Vs. Capcom Infinite, which just came out this week, and Tekken 7. We’ll have at least a title fight, a feature or undercard match, in four of those games, and doubled up in Marvel Vs. Capcom on the undercard.
The players represent a pretty good swath of what’s going on in the space. You have LPN, who’s our house title belt holder in Street Fighter. He’s a Norcal resident. He took it off our first ever Street Fighter V title holder, Commander Jesse, at BCF2. He’s taking on Chris Tatarian, who’s also from Socal, trying to bring the belt back. You have a little Socal/Norcal rivalry going on. Ryan LV versus Ray Ray, that’s a matchup of two top five global Marvel Vs. Capcom players. Theo and Slayer, both of them just came off a finish in the Injustice 2 pro series finale, and Slayer a top 16 finish. Slayer is the reigning title holder for Body Count Fighting. He’s been on a bit of a down slide and Theo is on his way up. We think that’s going to be an interesting match. That also pits Team Echo Fox versus Team Rogue, with Theo being Echo Fox and Slayer being Rogue.
In the feature matches, we have an interesting one up top. Low Tier God, who everyone considers a streamer, not a pro player, but he’s won his first two fights at Body Count one and two. So we’ve increased his competiton. We’re throwing him against Nick Tanella. This is one where if he wins, he might be due a title shot, which might be interesting for a guy everyone considered more of an influencer or streamer than a pro player. And then Nubcakes against Crazy on the Injustice 2 side, he just took number two this week at a stacked Wednesday night fight card, because all of the players are in Socal.
He went up in Injustice against the best of the best and came out second. I won’t say it’s out of nowhere, because he’s a good player, but it’s a little bit out of nowhere. He’s on the undercard as well. It should be a good night of fights. Logistically we’re running buses from the Anaheim Convention Center to the esports arena to put fans and players in the building. This is the first time we’re doing it somewhere that’s not in our studio, so we have more capacity for seating. We’ve added food and beverage to the night.
GamesBeat: I like the setup you have with the fight card and the belts and things like that. Do you know if any other esports organizations are working this way? Or is it typically a team system and tournaments and competitions like that?
Dimberg: By and large what you have in any of the esports are tournament-based systems. The ESL obviously puts on a lot of tournaments and they do a great job of that. This is a different take on the esports equation from us. I think we’re unique in that format. Distribution-wise we’re seeing the publishers get behind it. We just got in—we’re obviously going to be streaming to our own channels for Body Count Fighting, and also our partners at Level Up Series, but also just got confirmation that we’ll be streaming the Tekken portions of the show to Bandai Namco’s Twitch, and the Injustice portions to NetherRealm’s Twitch.
The publishers themselves are getting behind the format in addition to the players themselves. Again, the players love it. They carry their belts around sometimes at other tournaments. They like that this format puts them and their rivalries, so to speak, front and center.
They’re frenemies, sometimes minus the “fre” part – just enemies – but it’s all in the spirit of good competitions. It allows us to showcase those people who—they say in traditional fighting that styles make fights. In some cases that’s true on the FGC side as well. It’s who they play as, their fighting style, a zoner versus a body fighter. It allows us to tee this up so we have an entertaining night for the fans.
Arons: I feel like something interesting is happening, which is that a lot of esports got in the news because League of Legends and Dota 2 have million-dollar cups and arenas full of fans. That’s great, and it definitely became what people started to hear and think about when it comes to esports. [But] what I like is on the other side. What we’ve gone back to is an old-fashioned fighting competition where the people really know each other.They’re in this circuit together.
At any given time there’s two opposite trends happening – more people are dieting than ever but ice cream sales have never been higher, things like that. I feel like that’s happening with esports. These massive events are getting bigger, but there’s also this other side of the competition that we’re supporting, which is back to how video games began in the arcades. Guys standing around playing each other.
Dimberg: I think an unintended consequence of what we’re doing, long term—I do see the players really latching on to this format. I think they like it. But it changes the way they train a bit. Here you have one night, one opponent, and you know it well in advance usually. You know what their mains are, the characters they play with, so you can train and prepare for a specific opponent. As opposed to entering a tournament where you don’t know who you’re going to play from round to round necessarily. The winners of those tournaments, with some exception—I think of guys like Sonic Fox in Injustice 2, who just seem to win everything because they’re that good. But by and large players catch hot streaks just like any athlete.
Tournaments show who is hottest at the time. In this case what we hope to get to is—it’s me versus him or her. I know in advance. I’m going to train and prepare for that person. It raises the personal stakes for them a bit, because they put time and energy into training to meet this known opponent, who they pretty well know as far as who they’re going to play as and what their fighting style is. It changes the dynamic a bit. You spend a long period of time preparing for one fight. Which I think will raise some of the drama as we go on.
GamesBeat: I can see the value in that for sure. Can I ask, how do you make sure it doesn’t end up feeling like a gimmick? I don’t think the way you present it feels like a gimmick, but it can come across a bit like American Gladiators or WWE, something people don’t take too seriously. Are folks taking it seriously? What are you guys doing to facilitate that?
Dimberg: Absolutely. I think the players themselves absolutely take it seriously. They look at it as a pride thing, right? But the American Gladiators thing versus WWE—I’ll say very clearly that the competition is absolutely real. I’d say UFC is a better proxy. The competition is real. What I do talk to the fighters and the players about is that, to use the UFC analogy, Conor MacGregor is the biggest personality in that sport. He happens to be really good, but he also has a fiery personality that draws a lot of people to him who aren’t necessarily always UFC fans, but they just can’t take their eyes off this guy.
So there is something to be said for being good, but also being charismatic. We do work on those sorts of things. In terms of their fighting, again, we invite them on. We talk to them about how they train. We showcase, again, if you look at things like the Chasing the Cup series, we show the amount of time these players put into this. A lot of these guys, it’s not uncommon for them to practice 12-14 hours a day. I’m someone who’s very much an avid gamer, but I can’t imagine playing one game 12-14 hours a day.
There’s a mental fortitude that goes into that training that I don’t quite get. I can’t fathom it. We try, at every turn, to showcase that this just isn’t some guys who sat down and grabbed a controller while we threw spotlights on them. These guys work hard and train to perfect their craft. Most of them are sponsored. This is their profession. This is what they do for a living. In the format we’re providing we give them an opportunity to showcase their skills against someone else who’s probably training as hard and is as professional, to see who comes out on top.
Ultimately what we hope to gather from that is there’s more drama in this sort of format for the end viewer, while still maintaining the level of competition and need to train and prepare for the fighter. Again, it was just trying to see—I’ll use something I said earlier. To promote a good fight, to bring an audience into a fight, is obviously hitting the fans. What I hope to do with this is broaden the top of the funnel for the FGC. Build drama and story that pulls in people who don’t normally or wouldn’t necessarily give an esports competition a second look.
When we talk internally I talk a lot about the moneymaker effect in poker circa 2004. Unnamed, anonymous online player wins the World Series of Poker and ratings for ESPN explode. What I’m hoping is to put things in a format that can breed that sort of hope for the FGC. The bigger it gets, the better it gets for all of them: the more exposure they get, the more audiences watching their fights, the more prize money potentially at stake, the more sponsor dollars potentially at stake, it helps build the business for them too.
GamesBeat: Is that where the docu-series comes in? You can help these people build up themselves and the fights simultaneously. Telling the story isn’t just flavoring on top of the competition broadcast. It’s crucial to the way this works. Is that correct?
Dimberg: Yeah, absolutely. Again, most esports competitions come out of either long-standing tournaments, where you see things like EVO, where the most popular event is a 15-year-old Nintendo game, or on the FPS side it’s games like Counter-Strike and games that have been around for a long time.
It’s not necessarily about moving units of new games, although you see that happening more as we add to it. In the case of Street Fighter and Tekken and Marvel Vs. Capcom—Injustice is in its second iteration. These games have been around for a while. It’s maybe new versions of them, but these guys have been playing these games for in some cases–if you think about Street Fighter that goes back a long time. They’ve been playing for a long time, and there’s quite a community built up around fans, but again, how do I get—sometimes I think this is an odd statement, but how would I get my wife, who’s not a gamer, interested in watching one of these things?
Tapping into the players helps make it more accessible for someone like her, as an example, but insert anybody who doesn’t necessarily get into gaming or watch esports.
It’s something we’re committed to long term. I’m planning on doing 12 of these next year in 2018, one every month. They’ve been successful enough, and the fighters have been engaged enough, that I think we’re taking this from something–we were planting a seed and hoping it worked, and now it’s full-fledged, baked in our strategy for 2018. We’re looking to do many more of these over the course of the next 12 to 18 months, moving them to a monthly cadence.
Arons: And keep partnering with people who are really deep into this space.