Star Power: Does It Matter?

6 April 2017

Yesterday this headline blazed at the top of ESPN’s website: Faceless of the Game: Where have all the MLB superstars gone?

The article talks about how a poll of thousands of Americans revealed that there isn’t a single active professional baseball player in the US among our top 50 favorite pro athletes. Zero.

The article poses this as a problem. I’m not so sure it is. So let’s talk about it.

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The ESPN article focuses mostly on how baseball doesn’t have superstars and who could be a household name. But it spends very little time establishing why it even matters for MLB–or any organization or industry–to have icons.

Here’s the most it says: “It’s about using stars and developing stars and helping them become bigger names, as a way of reaching the youth.”

So basically it’s important to have sports icons because we connect more with people than teams. Okay, I can kind of see that. I root for the Cardinals, and I remember how awesome it was to watch Mark McGwire or Albert Pujols hit home runs. There’s a different level of excitement when a superstar is at bat.

From a sales and marketing perspective, though, do superstars sell more tickets? In the end, that’s what matters: Sports are a business. The goal of MLB is to get people in seats, in front of TVs, and in stores to buy merchandise.

It comes down to this: Is there a financial benefit to building stars?

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Last year I ran a poll about guests of honor at conventions, and 51% of respondents said that a guest of honor has never been a deciding factor in their choice to attend a convention. Only 18% said that they’ve attended at least one convention they wouldn’t have otherwise considered were it not for a specific guest of honor.

But Evan Erwin at CoolStuffInc thinks differently, and he makes a good case.

Evan’s career before working at CSI was in the Magic industry (Magic the Gathering). It was there that some people dubbed him an “Enthusiasm Enthusiast”; he’s really good at making people excited about coming to an event. He found that one of the things that excites people the most is meeting stars whose work they enjoy and who make the hobby what it is.

So when Evan shifted his career into the world of board games, he was surprised that game designers weren’t revered–or even known–at the same level as professional Magic players. He posits that this has an impact on convention attendance and perhaps on game sales.

Part of the issue, according to Evan, is that many gamers simply don’t know what their favorite designers look like, nor do they have a structured opportunity to meet them at conventions.

“You can certainly become a fan of someone’s work,” Evan told me. “But you only become a fan of a person when you see them.”

I can certainly relate to this, as it’s been something I’ve shared with my fellow Kickstarter creators for years. There’s special connection forged when you see someone’s face on a Kickstarter page, when you feel like there’s a human behind the project you can root for–and not just now, but in the long term too.

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In a few hours, a Kickstarter campaign for a web series about game designers will end. I’ve spent the last few days with the filmmakers, but when they originally approached me, I was hesitant: Could I really afford to take hours/days out of my work week for a few minutes of screen time?

Now I no longer care, because I had a great time thanks to the filmmakers being incredible people who I’m lucky to know. But maybe there will be some secondary benefits as well. Perhaps someone will see a friendly face on the screen and be inspired to join the hobby, design an awesome game, or perhaps even buy one of my games. We’ll see!

What do you think? Does star power matter?

Also read: Kickstarter Lesson #64: The Psychological Benefits of Showing Your Face and Kickstarter Lesson #37: Conventions and Face Time

14 Comments on “Star Power: Does It Matter?

  1. Star power definitely has an impact, but I think it has to be evaluated on a different paradigm.

    From a business perspective, the problem with star power is that if you build up a star, you may be building up the star but not the brand. One example is sports: are fans the fan of the player (and will root for a different team if the player switches) or are they a fan of the team (so regardless if the player switches or not, will root for the team regardless). I think home teams are extreme in the US (in that there’s a greater loyalty to the home team) but in other places, it tends to be personality-driven (take esports for example where the following tends to be the players and not the team brand). From a business perspective, you can invest in this superstar, but there is no guarantee that they’ll stick with you five, ten years down the line.

    In the board game space, I think a few designers have created superstar power.

    Reiner Knizia for example is one extreme, and some treat it as a genre (e.g. “a Knizia game is one where theme is irrelevant but there is mechanics”).

    There are a few which gain respect, such as Richard Garfield, or a genre in which they are now associated with (despite working on other games in the past) like Rob Daviau and “legacy” games.

    I think Eric Lang has now attained some level of star power, hence why it became a news item that he’s signed up with CMON officially. (And arguably why people backed Rising Sun was due to his previous work and name.)

    On the other hand, there are various games which fans may like, but don’t always know who the designers are. I like Terra Mystica for example but can’t remember right now who the designer is. (Probably the same can be said for Twilight Struggle–and I’ve listened to a podcast interview with the designer.)

    So star power I think has to be qualified with context.

    Equating star power and attending conventions for me is not a good context? Because sometimes, people will be attending conventions regardless of who the guests are (e.g. GenCon, PAX, GAMA).

    I think a better qualifier would be panels, as people who will be attending panels will either do it for a) the topic, b) the personality, or most likely, c) a combination of both.

    And then sometimes star power doesn’t rest with the individual game designer but with the company. Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, Z-Man Games, etc. have a larger cultural capital for example than any single designer in their roster.

    The other thing also is that sometimes, we don’t have any control on who gets the star power credit. In Magic: The Gathering for example, during the early years, a lot of gamers were impressed with the artists/illustrators, and this was where a lot of the star power came from, as players would ask their favorite artists to sign their cards. For your games, I think Stonemaier has been equated with you, Jamey, even if some of the board games involved other co-designers too.

    1. Charles: You make a lot of great points here. I can definitely relate to this: “the problem with star power is that if you build up a star, you may be building up the star but not the brand.” Not that I’m a star, but the Stonemaier brand is so closely related to me. I don’t think that’s a great thing, as Stonemaier and Jamey are separate entities.

      I also think you make a great point about famous games with designers who aren’t particularly well known. Those are some examples that perhaps a little star power could benefit the companies that publish those games.

      In some ways, Stronghold Games is trying to do this with their “great designers” series.

      1. Yeah, the Stonemaier = Jamey for me is just an observation (which may or may not be true for majority of your customers). Not adding a value judgment here, as it can be a good or bad depending on intentions/agenda.

        I guess the next question is how do you untangle the two (assuming it’s prevalent) associations, or do you run with it and make lemonade.

    2. Terra Mystica is a great example. It’s one of the highest ranked games of all time, with (AFAIK) great sales numbers, but the next game from the design duo is not talked about or marketed as the next game from Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag, but as the next Terra Mystica.

      Given the English-focussed nature of board gaming those two guys (like a lot of us from Nothern Europe) do also have their names standing in the way of becoming famous :-)

      I think that a factor here is that it requires playing multiple games from one designer to understand what characterizes that designer, while it only takes playing one game from one designer to know what characterizes that game.

      Example: Compare the to statements below.

      1) “Game X feels very much like Bohnanza”,

      2) “Game X feels very much like a Uwe Rosenberg game”

      If you have played Bohnanza, statement 1) will give you a lot of info about Game X.

      If, instead, you’ve only played one Rosenberg game, then statement 2) would give you very little information about game X – it might even mislead you a lot if the one you had played was for example Agricola, Caverna, Arle, or Odin.

      1. That also depends on branding.

        Some games by the same designer can be vastly different from each other and don’t want to be pigeonholed. (For me Richard Garfield is like this, as Magic: The Gathering is different from Robo Rally which is also different from King of Tokyo.)

        Other designers have a “formula” or signature to their games (e.g. Knizia).

        1. Yeah, it definitely depends on which designer we’re talking about. One reason for choosing Uwe Rosenberg as an example was the was the huge difference between games like Bohnanza and A Feast for Odin :-)

          That said, I think the point still stands no matter which designer you choose. If you’ve only played one Knizia game and know nothing else about him, then saying that game X feels like a Knizia game won’t tell you all that much. But if I said that game X feels like Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, then you’d know at lot about game X.

          Even if Knizia has a consistent formula, then you won’t have a good feel for what it is until you’ve played at least two of his games. Because you won’t have a base of comparison to understand what makes the game a Knizia.

          Even Knizia varies his game style and while you can see similarities between his Lord of the Rings (the coop) and Tigris & Euphrates, then they’re very different games and liking one won’t be much of an indication of whether you’ll like the other. Case in point: I love T&E, but LotR (the coop) fell flat for me.

          Going back to LotR: The Confrontation, then it doesn’t feel anything like the two others – that could just be me, though :-)

          So after having played all three of those, I wouldn’t know nearly as much about game X from being told that it feels like a Knizia as I would from being told that it feels like LotR: The Confrontation.

          Hope that longwinded explanation makes sense?

  2. For sports, I don’t think ‘connecting with the youth’ is just about bums on seats in current games, but also the health of the game – and as such future sales numbers for the NBA. Basically, without connecting with children, you don’t get as many people playing the game recreationally in their youth, which reduces the amount of training – and competitiveness of the field – in the highschool and college games, which… Reduces the overall quality of the professional players coming into the NBA, which hurts the quality of the games, which could have a knock-on impact on the entertainment quality, and therefore ticket sales.

    And… For basketball? In the States? I doubt it matters that much if kids are able to name a specific athlete to look up to, pick up games of basketball in the US seem to be as common as pick up games of football (soccer) in the UK, and I can’t see a lack of superstars impacting that much – pick up games of basketball, and as such the sport’s continued health, always come across as embedded into American youth culture, looking in as an outsider via American media. But for smaller sports? Connecting with the youth is vital. As an example, if you look at Strictly Come Dancing in the UK, it’s directly attributed to an uptake in children taking up ballroom and latin dancing, as far as I’m aware health that field has never really seen prior, and has maintained. When that show eventually ends, we’ll see what happens to the field, but the uptake seems to be linked to kids watching professional dancers – and getting to know their names, in some cases becoming bigger names than some of the celebrities they get on the show by this point – teach celebrities they’re already fans of how to dance.

    1. Stephen: Definitely, that’s wise long-tail perspective of getting kids to have sports idols.

      That’s a neat example about Strictly Come Dancing and how it has helped the ballroom and latin dancing industries to blossom thanks to the connection between youths and their favorite dancers.

  3. I think a big part of it is the ever-present need to expand the market

    Hardcore types, dedicated fans, etc. are the core business and will get you by in the lean times, but it’s capturing the imagination of the transients and casuals that makes the big-time money… because the population as a whole is always much larger than the dedicated who love the game (regardless of the game) for what it is.

    Those people need some sort of human connection to the sport beyond just the sport itself. The sport is entertainment, and not a end unto itself. This is where the star power has value… when you are looking for crossover appeal into the demos that don’t normally support your industry.

    People will bought tickets to watch Michael Jordan play, and do buy tickets today to watch LeBron James play who wouldn’t otherwise buy tickets. A guy like James is good for the entire NBA, because he is an attraction that will fill seats in other cities, because people are either 1) a fan of his or 2) want to see their home team play someone “good”

    I think licensed IP is a good analog for this in the board game industry. A well-designed game will sell, and maybe even sell well, to hobbyists… but splashing it with a well-known IP gets eyeballs and purchases that it wouldn’t otherwise.

    Maybe some of those folks become the future hardcore fans and hobbyists that sustain you through the lean times to come, but in order to get that initial look from those that would not otherwise look your way, it takes… something bigger.

  4. Star power can have a huge impact on attendance of a convention, the misleading fact in your original citation about gamers not being swayed to attend based on a star being there is that game designers are not stars (at least yet.) If Ryan Reynolds is attending a con, you -know- there will be people going just to see him. Or Karl Malone. Or Stan Lee.

    Gaming is still a relatively niche hobby, when compared against sports, literature, or music/video. Our star designers will typically respond to emails from the average fan and can be interacted with in other ways a true celebrity can not. This makes them less glamorous and mysterious, which is the draw for a con celeb. Being reachable is great for growing the hobby, but not for the cons specifically. Video presence is key. More people I know would be excited to meet one of the Shut Up and Sit Down crew than Bruno Cathala. It’s seeing their face that builds a personal connection, a bond you want to culminate in a face to face meeting.

    In short, star power matters, but star power is not something truly exists below a certain threshold. Visual contact can help lower that threshold though, as we are a visual society.

  5. I think that this may be something that’s difficult for someone to do first.

    There are a lot of obstacles to making a superstar game designer, who’s attracting people to conventions in droves, has people queuing around the block to meet them and starts to be attention outside of game design in the way that top sports stars are known to people who don’t play sports or top authors are known to people who don’t read much. A lot of these obstacles lie in the way that people think about game designers (or, more often, don’t).

    Getting the first person to that status, I would imagine, would be extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive. I can’t imagine the company or designer to do it would see the return on investment needed to justify the trouble.

    Once it had been done a few times, many of the major obstacles would be cleared away for subsequent attempts. Which might make it more economically practical.

    But it’s hard to see why anyone would do it first.

    1. I agree that the fact that there has not up to this point been a “superstar game designer” is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone keeps mentioning Knizia, but I truly doubt that most people outside of the game design community would know anything about him. That being said, other creative artists, such as authors, movie directors, etc. are much more well known. Heck, I aspire to be in the board game industry and yet I could still probably name more movie directors than I could game designers. I do think that if somebody was able to break into the mainstream, they would blaze a trail for other designers to come, but for now it remains to be seen.

  6. At a convention yes. Do not scoff at 18%. That’s a MASSIVE boost in attendance!
    Could you imagine an 18% boost in your Scythe sales…?
    18% = Stars make a difference!

    On Kickstarter yes. Scythe? I’m just saying. Jamey, you’re humble, but you’re a star too, in case you haven’t realized it yet. ; )

    Star power makes a huge difference. Look at Rising Sun. Why in the world do you give $4-MILLION dollars toward a game that has exactly zero play throughs or review videos and you therefore know nothing about!? Because CMON is star power. Yes, good reputation, etc., but that’s what MAKES a star. Once you are a star you don’t even need to try very hard.

    Let’s not forget the star power behind Rising Sun’s designer too…

    Fun post.

  7. Hi Jamey: Broadway producers understand the power of star power; that’s why they cast film and television actors and use their marquee potentials to sell theater tickets. And actors like the opportunities and challenges of doing live theater to show they are serious about their craft. It’s a win-win. Selling board games is not that much different in my opinion.

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