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In just over two months, Artifact has arrived at a state where its esports development and its player base are mismatched. The gap is staggering. On one side, fewer and fewer players are staying in the game. Everyday brings a new low point for Artifact and on Feb. 6, the Dota 2 card game dipped below 600 players for the first time. There hasn’t been a peak of 2,000+ since January; these days, Artifact barely even passes 1,000.

At the same time, esports prize pools in Artifact are growing. The WePlay Triad of tournaments will have awarded $50,000 total by March. NoxFire League just announced a $30,000, two-months-long league with LAN finals in May. Throw in the odd SeatStory Cup and Artifact Preview Tournament, and the number goes above $100,000 between just a few tournaments.

In every other esport, these would be laughable figures. But in Artifact they are significant, especially juxtaposed to player and viewership numbers. The truth is that while thoroughly illogical, these prize pools are organizers’ only viable option to generate interest.

Artifact has left them no other choice.

Dead on arrival

Saying Artifact’s dead on arrival started off as a joke, a meme that Hearthstone die-hards liked to throw around for fun but which is now ringing true. 98% of the players have abandoned the game, while the few Valve apologists still cling to the #longhaul promises as if they’re the holy grail of Artifact salvation.

The reasons for Artifact’s ill-fated launch have been discussed through and through, and are not the subject of this piece. What it wants to point out instead are the consequences of a failed launch and to the esports aspect in particular.

If there is money invested in something, then it must be “important” and “real”.

Historically, successful esports stem from strong grassroots communities. A game is released, players pick it up, love it and start competing. They begin organizing tournaments, the title becomes more popular, it attracts big money and in a few years starts filling up stadiums. It happened to StarCraft: BroodWar and Quake, to Counter-Strike, to Smash and Dota. And while things have changed since decades ago, something similar is happening to the Battle Royale kings like Fortnite. They all grew on the foundation of community love and support.

In today’s esports climate, however, a lack of grassroots interest doesn’t mean the death of an esport — for better or worse — which would’ve been the case years ago. In pursuit for either relevance or a pioneer cut from an infant market, developers and tournament organizers alike have found an alternative: throw money at it until it moves. Until people care.

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The logic is simple and straightforward as it is shallow. If there is money invested in something, if there is an infrastructure being built and Twitch deals being made, then it must be “important” and “real”. Nobody would invest in an imaginary future, right, so who cares if nobody asked for any of this?

This isn’t a thought process exclusive to game developers. Tournament organizers, which is the case here in Artifact, are slaves to it too.

Once committed to an Artifact tournament, an organizer has to answer some critical questions. The most vital one is how they will generate interest, viewership numbers they can show to investors later. This is where they find out — as this piece outlined earlier — that they don’t have many options.

As long as they want to stay in Artifact, organizers will have to commit to this treacherous make-believe.

Without a grassroots scene, there are no personalities or player stories that have developed. There is no massive urge for viewers to tune it to see the new decks, because there are hardly any players left to care about them. Games like Hearthstone have worked years to connect the tournament and in-game experiences and to some extent have made people care about what’s happening on stream, but Artifact’s in-game experience is already loathed by most. There is no social media buzz and no vibrant Reddit discussions. Half the time a popular name talks about Artifact it’s about how they’re tired of it and thinking of leaving.

Not many options for organizers indeed. Just one, in fact. Throw money at it until people care, hoping the moment where it all inevitably runs desert-dry is far, far into the future. This is why the likes of WePlay and NoxFire go big. In WePlay’s case, they actually succeed in delivering a product worth caring about and the same could very well happen with NoxFire’s League.

It is also why Valve cannot backpedal on their $1M tournament promises, even if it will be a laughable discoordination between paychecks and player numbers. Yes, it looks artificial, but the ship on the natural has long sailed and sunk. As long as they want to stay in Artifact, organizers will have to commit to this treacherous make-believe. If there’s money in it, then it must be important. The more money there is, the more people will care. Fight apathy with cash and patch the boat holes with hundred-dollar bills.

Makes sense, right?

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