By Julius Tabios
The Nationals, which launched last year as the first-ever franchise-based esports league in the Philippines, concluded its inaugural playoffs last weekend. Its maiden conference which kicked off in March saw the two teams with the biggest names behind them (Cignal Ultra Warriors and PLDT-Smart Omega) coming out on top of the group stages. The finals were broadcasted nationally on TV through 5 Plus on ESPN 5.
In the playoffs, the SUHA Execration Punishers managed to upset PLDT-Smart Omega to set a date with Cignal Ultra in the Grand Finals. But in the end it was still Cignal Ultra Warriors who managed to win it all in convincing fashion.
A large imbalance in competitiveness can hurt any season-based league, regardless of sport. Even in traditional franchise-based sports leagues like football and basketball, the teams with the most monetary backing and biggest sponsors end up dominating as they tend to attract the best players and talent.
The Overwatch League, a city-based franchise league developed by Blizzard, has had more success maintaining the balance of power. Only the New York Excelsior managed to win back-to-back stages in the first season, and despite their success, it was actually London Spitfire who took home the trophy in the end.
Maintaining a healthy balance of power is key to keeping fans interested and engaged in any franchise-based league. This was just the first conference in a long season of Dota 2, Mobile Legends, and Tekken 7 stretching until October for The Nationals, so there's time to address the problem.
A straightforward solution would be to get more teams involved. At the moment, there are just five (this will increase to six later this year when STI officially joins later this year). With more teams involved, a promotion and relegation system could be put in place to keep the competitiveness tight. The Nationals could also take the lead from traditional sports leagues, in which promising new players enter the league via a draft to help give the weaker teams a boost.
While The Nationals may lack somewhat in competitiveness, it succeeds in showing promise that esports in the budding Philippines scene can provide a sustainable career for its players, talents and stakeholders. The Nationals also brings grassroots development for many of the newer players participating. The Philippines is a big Dota country, so The Nationals will also serve as a trial-by-fire for up-and-coming players.
With this year's SEA Games set to include esports for the first time, the Philippines is certainly looking for a podium finish, given the legwork they are doing in advance. The countries around Southeast Asia are also using competition, albeit in shorter formats, to find esports talent in the biennial meet – such as the SEA Games Singapore Selections tournament. But they should definitely look at the Philippines' formula, because a franchise-based league allows boosts experience for its players while providing a more financially sustainable future for the industry itself.