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Devon Johnson Talks Splyce and eSports

Splyce made a huge splash at the 2017 Dreamhack Atlanta Halo Championship Series by punching a hole in the green wall that is Optic Gaming. Since then they have been on my radar and as luck would have it, I was able to make contact with their swing dancing community manager Devon Johnson. Devon was kind enough to allow me to pick at his brain and get a little inside perspective from the esports industry. Devon balances his game fandom with a very objective view of the industry and I find his perspective very informative.

I managed to find Devon in the chaos that was Dreamhack Denver 2017

 

Rebecca Rothschild: Can you describe your journey into your current position at Splyce?

Devon Johnson: My career in esports began when I transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2012. I was a big fan of StarCraft 2 at the time and found the university’s esports club, the UTSA Esports Community (now Roadrunner Gaming), which at the time consisted of less than 15 members. The club ran tournaments, LANs, viewing parties and online game nights. Eventually I offered to volunteer. By my junior year, I was a member of the executive board and helped officially run the club. When the founding members of the club all graduated at the same time, the president mantle was passed to me for my senior year.

One of my goals when I was president of the club was to establish the university as a pillar of the San Antonio esports scene. When I graduated, I still liked to run tournaments, so I transitioned my efforts from the collegiate scene into the greater San Antonio scene. I started my own organization, Uplift Esports, with some other members of the UTSA Esports Community. Our primary focus was the city’s Super Smash Bros. scene. We ran two different tournament series for about a year, with some other one-off events sprinkled throughout.At the time, I was working my first “real” job at my alma mater. It was not a job I liked. I worked with kind people, but it just wasn’t the job for me. As we put more effort into the work at Uplift, the monotony of that office job became too much. So I quit. I figured that if I was unemployed, I’d have to find a job I liked.A little company called Splyce posted a listing on the old Esports Career website. I went through the interview process with Marty, then a brief trial period, and I’ve been full time ever since.

RR: In your opinion, how has esports evolved in recent years and what do you think inspired that change?

DJ: The craziest thing is the growth. I started watching StarCraft 2 tournaments in 2011, when you had to purchase tickets on mlg.tv on gom.tv, use the GOM player and stuff like that. Dark times. Now everything is centralized around Twitch, which happened around 2012/2013 (?) and you get to watch the viewer counts continue to climb for tournament after tournament.

Esports went from using small studios, to hotels and ballrooms, to huge stadiums. The International 3 was in a gorgeous venue, the Benaroya Hall, and now they pack the Key Arena every year. EVO filled the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The crowd for this year’s League of Legends World Championship was a sea of faces.A major part of that is sponsors with bigger pockets investing in the industry, both endemic and non-endemic. The Overwatch League teams are getting sponsors like Jack in the Box. That kind of money allows organizers to put on better events and attract more fans.The other half is just passion. The organizers want to put on better events, the fans want better events. They’re united by this love to share their game with each other and the rest of the world. The Super Smash Bros. Melee scene is a great example of that. They’ve gone from packing themselves into garage and house tournaments to massive events in casinos, the EVO stage and theatres.

People, including investors and the greater public, are finally starting to realize that esports is a real thing. It’s not going anywhere because the people behind it love it too much to let it fail.

RR: What are your hopes for the future of esports?

DJ: A huge challenge for esports right now is balancing the competitive and casual playerbases with developer intent. Usually, developers have an idea for their game and how they want it to be played. That succeeds or fails depending on the skill of the developers, the strength of their game and its systems, etc.
Problems start to arise when other people play the game. A common adage of game design is that players are great at identifying problems, but awful at coming up with solutions. Sometimes they even create the problems themselves, or the dominant strategy phenomenon reveals an unintended but more efficient way to play.Everyone has their favorite example of their beloved games that received a patch due to forum outcry. Sometimes it’s better for the game and sometimes it goes awry. The recent Mercy changes in Overwatch, for example. Based on the outcry, that looks like it did not turn out how the developers wanted at all. Some fans are happy, some are not. Most players feel like Mercy is now a must-pick, and her strength and prevalence in the competitive ladder and the esports scene backs that up.Games struggle with balancing for these burgeoning esports scenes, sometimes at the cost of the casual playerbase. A game can be perfectly balanced, but if it’s not fun, then no one is going to play it anyway. Some fans want a ton of patches to shake up the meta, others want their games to have time to breathe and let strategies develop instead of being forced. I don’t think there are blanket answers.

There are no easy solutions to this. It will vary based on each game and developer, and I hope the managing parties of these different esports scenes can solve it for themselves.I also hope that developers begin to realize they have a responsibility for these games. That doesn’t mean that I think developers should run leagues and tournaments for any game that happens to become an esports. But consider the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene. That game is 16 years old. It’s played on old CRT televisions with consoles from at least 2 generations ago. The physical discs, the consoles, the televisions, the controllers. Those are all physical commodities that might one day run out. The last TV breaks, the last disc is too scratched to play. What happens to the Melee scene then? There are answers that exist in the gray field of copyright law, .ISO files and emulators, but I can’t imagine that Nintendo (or any company – I’m not demonizing Nintendo here) would be happy with tournaments being ran on PCs with emulators.

So what happens if Nintendo does decide to re-release the game in some fashion. Which game do they release? The NTSC (North America/Japan) version, which is more beloved, or the PAL (Europe) which is more balanced? Do they release it as version 1.0, which has some minor different gameplay features that buffs certain characters, or 1.2, which is far more common? Do they patch and update the game, or only make a 1 to 1 port?

I don’t think this will happen any time soon, but the preservation of games is a huge weakness of the industry as a whole right now. It’s worth thinking about. I’m not asking for Melee HD. It’s just that great games will stick. Fans will want to play them for a long time. I hope that developers find a way to preserve them.

RR: What is Team Splyce doing different from any other esports organization out there?

DJ: What impresses me the most about Splyce is its agility. Part of that comes from being a small workplace compared to a corporate giant, but even as Splyce welcomes additional staff, the workflows only improve instead of stagnating.

When I first joined, almost everyone did a little bit of everything. Roles were much more amorphous as we worked across departments. More staff means that each employee can focus on their strengths more. But whenever a colleague needs help, or there’s an emergency to solve, everyone is still there to assist as efficiently as possible.
Splyce is also concerned with long-term growth and improvement instead of short-term gains. We’d rather trade one brief championship today for twenty down the line. Careers and dynasties are Splyce’s goal. Not short moments of glory.

RR: What are the games you’re currently hung up on?

DJ: Unfortunately I haven’t actually been playing many games lately. Too much time spent swing dancing.

Yeah, it’s no joke, Devon is an avid swing dancer, and now you wish you were too because it sounds awesome!

The last game that I devoted a ton of time to was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That game reminded me why I love games and why they’re important. It’s one of the most refreshing pieces of art I’ve ever experienced.Other than that, when I do play games, I usually try to stream them. I play Overwatch in brief bursts and return to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to continue different challenge runs.

I want to thank Devon for his time and talking to us here at Sugar Gamers. Devon is one of the many personalities I have met while covering esports that has convinced me that the scene is a much more open and inclusive place than ever before. You can find Devon on Twitter (@lectril) and to learn more about Splyce head over to Splyce.gg. I’ve got more interviews with eSports industry insiders to come so stay tuned.

 

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Rebecca Rothschild

Editor in Chief
Rebecca is a writer and narrative designer living in Chicago working on several animation, comic and game projects. She is the creator and writer for the sci-fi comic book series Warshiner as well as the free web comic Shero and Vex. She has worked on games like Mutant Football League.
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