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EVE Online theorycrafting and history

Alliance Tournament participation and prize levels

CCP Fozzie recently made it public that they had a less than full signup for Alliance Tournament 12 — only sixty-three teams registered, so there will be no need for the typical lottery followed by silent auction that has been a mainstay of previous ATs.  A few bloggers have turned this into the usual “Eve is dying” screed; in my case, though, I’m actually quite happy.  It means that many alliances have started to figure out one of the nasty truths of AT: participating in the Alliance Tournament is generally nothing more than really expensive advertising.

This probably sounds strange, given that I run a tournament (the SCL) and I’ve been involved in every AT to date in some way.  But bear with me; I’ll explain!

Problem 1: The Prize Structure

The root problem with the AT is that it has a very strange prize structure: Only the first and second place finishes get prizes, in the form of BPCs for limited-edition tournament ships.  (And, in some cases, the prizes don’t really reflect the challenge; in all but one case, the tournament frigates have been in higher demand than the cruisers.)

Dear reader, imagine that we lived in an alternate universe where the AT was held on Singularity; all ships/setups were free, and that the sole cost of participation was the 5 PLEX for the entry fee.  Even under those conditions, the AT would still be a poor proposition for most alliances:

  • You pay 5 PLEX (~3.6B ISK) to enter into the tournament.
  • You spend 1-2 months of spare-time evenings practicing for this tournament.
  • When the tournament actually starts, you dedicate four weekends in a row, waking up early and spending most of the day playing Eve.  (Especially for players in the Americas, where the first matches of each day can be as early as 6am.)
  • The top two teams (~25 people) get massive prizes, and the other 60 teams (~750 people) in the tournament will get nothing and lose their entry fee.  At best, they might get an alliance commercial to run on the stream between matches, and if they reach the top eight, they might get a bit of buzz to help recruiting.

Definitely not a good return on time investment, nor money.  For contrast, most tournaments for other video games have no entry fee, and offer prizes for at least the top four or eight players, plus occasional smaller prizes — for example, the Fragbite SC2 tournaments allow spectators to vote on a “play of the day” that won a small prize.  AT doesn’t even give you a damned participation ribbon.

Besides being inherently discouraging, this prize structure also causes massive problems with talent migration.

Problem 2: Talent Migration

Speaking bluntly, I can tell you the outcome of AT12 without having to look at the rules in any way:

  • First place: Hydra Reloaded.
  • Second place: Either Pandemic Legion or Camel Empire(My money’s on Camel.)

In most cases, the third place team ends up being whoever Hydra’s practice partner was.

The vast majority of world-class, tournament-level players will quickly learn after an AT run or two that they cannot carry a lower-tier team into the top two finishes by themselves.  If they’re going to invest time and energy into practicing and participating in a tournament, they want a return on their investment, and the only way to do that… is to move to an alliance that’s also full of world-class players.

I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes: Rote Kapelle had most of its competent tournament guys leave for Hydra Reloaded shortly before AT11, and I don’t blame them at all.  Talent migration would be a problem even if the tournament was free to participate in… which it is not.  This problem is unique to Eve in eSports; you don’t see the same players (or the same teams) winning SC2/LoL/DOTA tourneys over and over.

These two issues, by far, are the biggest factors that discourage people from participating in AT.  Imagine what the World Series of Poker would look like if there were no side events, and the main event had no prizes for anything other than the final table, and that the final table would be nearly guaranteed to contain both Hellmuth and Nguyen.

However, there’s a third issue: On top of the entry fee, AT also requires you to pay for your ships.

Problem 3: Costs of Participation

A competent AT team not only needs to stockpile ships/modules/hardwires for the 12-man fleet compositions they’ll be flying, but they actually need to have multiple compositions ready to go at any given time, due to the banning mechanics.  (Or, at the minimum, compositions with interchangeable parts.)  These have to be stockpiled before-hand: depending on where you are in the bracket, you’ll have less than 15 minutes between matches, and you will not have time to run to Jita and buy new ships.  (And this is assuming that Jita has the parts you need; it’s not uncommon for people to buy Jita out entirely of certain drones, hardwires, and ships leading up to an AT.)

The consequence is that you need to have a fairly large bankroll at the start of the run to fund ship and module purchases.  Then, after the tournament is completed, you’ll recoup some of that bankroll by selling the ships that weren’t destroyed during matches.  With the current AT12 rules, a serious contender team needs ~30B ISK in initial bankroll, plus any extra optional costs for faction/officer modules for their flagship.  (I arrived at that number after some debate with members of Hydra and Camel.)  You’ll recoup 60-70% of that 30B expenditure after the tournament ends, by selling off the ships and modules that didn’t explode; however, you still need the initial amount up front, in order to have a serious shot at first or second place.

That’s a lot of money — and some teams choose to spend far, far more than that.   Pandemic Legion was famous in AT10 for bringing 100B ISK worth of ships and modules in just a single match alone… a match which they ended up losing.

Ironically, it’s also less money than it used to be.  In previous tournaments, CCP allowed players to use +5% and +6% hardwirings, which cost hundreds of millions each.  The Rote budget for our entire run in AT10 was 90B, and 40% of that was spent on hardwirings.

Summary: Blech.

Someone who previously participated in the SCL came up to me a few days ago and asked if they should consider participating in AT.  I told them to save their money and do it next year, and stick to submitting a player commercial.

If CCP wants to see wider player interest in AT, they have to start with reforming the prize structure.  At a minimum, ensure that anyone who wins at least one match will recoup their entry fee; ideally, getting into the top 16 in either bracket will let them recoup some of the cost of ships.  Spreading out the availability of tournament ships between 1/2 (and maybe even 3rd, or 4th-8th) is another worthwhile activity as well, as Suitonia suggests in this excellent post.  Get some minor prizes out there too; there’s a ton of possibilities for them:

  • A prize for the team who wins a match with the fewest ships on field.
  • A prize for the team who wins a match with the fewest points on field.
  • A prize for the team who wins a match with the cheapest setup (ISK-wise) on field.
  • A prize for the player who gets to the lowest HP during the match and survives.
  • etc.

There’s also room for handing out little trinkets that aren’t clear prizes — for example, the New Eden Open gives all participants an in-game tshirt for their player avatar, and these have become collectors items over time.

Until there’s actual incentive for smaller alliances and lower-tier teams to compete, it simply doesn’t make sense for anyone to sink months of practice and effort into AT, unless you’re in Hydra or Camel.  This situation also doesn’t make for exciting video for CCP’s stream; as Tyrus Tenebros recently put it, the typical AT stream consists of three days of cripple fights, two days of actual close matches, followed by three days of the eventual 1st-4th placers mopping up.

The data’s staring you in the face, CCP — and you’ve got a new guard in charge of AT as well.  It’s time to shake things up!

Footnote: Why This Matters

A quick footnote here that I’m opting to add after the initial publication:

Yes, despite all of the above, tournaments can be fun to participate in; that’s why I continue to run the SCL, and why I’ve done the AT every year in non-Hydra/PL teams.  It’s spaceships exploding, it’s theorycrafting, it’s sitting with your fellow competitors on Mumble, and it’s the shaking hands that everyone gets before every match.  Competition is fun, and it sharpens your PvP skills and makes you a more effective player.

However, as it stands today, the group of AT participants is a tiny subset of the group of people who participate in PvP in Eve.

I want to see Alliance Tournaments become something accessible and interesting to a wider audience of PvPers; I want to see more players competing, and more players watching that competition.  That won’t happen if a watcher can predict the outcome easily, and it won’t happen when there’s no clear benefit for new players to get involved, other than a promise of “it’ll be fun, I swear.”

Adding incentives for smaller and less experienced/successful teams to play is a good first step towards making AT appeal to more players.

Addendum 2, 12jun2014: Fozzie mentions that prize changes may be coming for AT12.

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