Notes on the Emergent eSports Industry

The eSports industry has been around for decades. Once thought of derisively as a feel-good appellation for fat nerds with repetitive-use wrist injuries hanging around in their parents’ basements, the competitive aspect of video gaming is developing clout as a wildly popular, professionally organized and truly skilled arena for yet another form of human excellence. And it’s beginning to attract serious athletes and serious money: Michael Jordan and the family office of David Rubenstein announced a $26M investment in aXiomatic in late 2018, and Mike Tyson announced an investment partnership with eSports organization Fade2Karma in May 2019.

With this as background, I recently attended the InvenGlobal eSports Conference 2019 at the University of California, Irvine, hoping to better understand the history, structure, trends and business and investment opportunities of this emergent and rapidly growing industry.

Keynote, Chris Hopper, RIOT Games, Head of ESports North America

The conference kicked off with an informative keynote address by Chris Hopper. Hopper is an integral part of Riot Games’s League of Legends (LoL) tournament organization. LoL is the largest competitive eSports game, going from a rather modest world championship event in 2011 to last year’s championship event which filled a World Cup-sized soccer stadium in South Korea with cheering spectators. The finals competition overall received over 100 million unique global viewers. Based near Los Angeles, Riot Games operates 20 global offices with over 3,000 people supporting regional LoL leagues and the global championship tournament.

One of the critical challenges for the industry according to Hopper is designing a “multi-decade game” ecosystem. The video game industry is notoriously faddish and driven by constant change in underlying computer hardware technology– each year brings upgraded computer capability which drives new design and graphical capabilities which in turn means that even a game with a solid core gameplay mechanic can be superseded by new releases that better utilize emergent technology. In Hopper’s mind, creating a multi-decade franchise means that industry participants can build eSports, media, community and merchandising infrastructure around a single IP, justifying long-term investment commitment.

Another significant challenge is how to harness traditional professional sports dynamics and fandom phenomena with eSports. In this regard, LoL and other popular eSports games have borrowed a lot from the “ESPN playbook”, adapting broadcast production strategies and even professional broadcasting talent from the physical sports world into the eSports broadcasting universe. This developing broadcast strategy unlocks the potential for advertising sponsorships and marketing partnerships with global corporate consumer product brands. For example, LoL partnered with Mastercard to allow fans to receive special game benefits by using a Mastercard to purchase tickets and other broadcast access to LoL events.

ESports organizers are also studying how to create a sustainable team and talent ecosystem. The institution of minimum salaries for LoL players allowed eSports athletes interested in participating as a full-time career to achieve economic security while committing to playing their favorite games for a living. As more players “go pro” and spend more hours playing games, there is also a need for applying sports medicine principles in the areas of sleep, psychology, nutrition and exercise to ensure that athletes do not suffer from burnout.

How to Embrace the Next Gen of eSports Pros

After the keynote I attended a panel about different parts of the player development infrastructure in eSports. One piece of player development revolves around creating an amateur, minor and collegiate league systems to better organize non-professional eSports. The impetus behind league development is not only to create a farm system that can train, identify and procure future professional athletes, but also to create more fans familiar with the competitive nature of eSports. Just like a person who played basketball in high school might become a fan of the NBA even if they don’t play in the NBA, the belief is that creating organized systems for competing at various skill or other demographic levels with video games will lead to more people interested in spectating and following eSports competitions.

Another area getting a lot of attention in player management is professional discipline and sports medicine. Many current eSports pros are young (high school and college age) and have not held professional 9-5 careers prior to their sudden emergence into professional eSports. The novelty of this responsibility combined with the unique physical demands of eSports which lack normal sports body feedback (ie, unsustainable heart rate) but still involve fatigue and overuse can result in the phenomenon known as “burnout”. Many eSports pros emerge onto the scene in a flash of blinding light and just as quickly disappear after a season or two finding the routine too hard to keep up with while living an imbalanced lifestyle.

To address this, sports medicine consultants in cooperation with eSports coaches and team managers have begun recommending specific guidelines for sustainable player development. These include things like daily playtime caps, weight training and other vigorous physical exercises outside or in purpose-built gyms, diet and nutritional standards and even mental health counseling and mindset training. As many eSports athletes are also students, some teams and organizations have taken to providing daily scholastic tutoring to support the players’ intellectual development and to ensure they have a safety net should their eSports ambitions fail to develop successfully.

Interestingly, while most major competitive sports have a farm system in place that necessarily passes through a collegiate competition phase with recognized school teams and pro drafting after school, eSports lacks this. The NCAA recently decided to delay further research into developing an official support structure for eSports, so it’s possible such a system never develops. This may be a unique feature of eSports in which emerging talent can go “straight to the pros”. Regardless, the industry currently lacks rigorous recruitment databases and centralized, authenticated play statistics for players across time and games.

What do eSports Casters Do All Day?

With many interesting panels on offer timed simultaneously, I had trouble picking a follow-up to the eSports development panel but ended up settling on a discussion offering background to the life and career of professional eSports broadcasters. One thing I noticed about the panel was that they were all young, mostly-single men in their early thirties. Not because I was concerned with sexual diversity in the industry (a known point of controversy for social activism panderers) but because it seems that the unique demands of this career track cater to young men who do not need to support other family members.

While eSports broadcasters may only be on air, video or audio podcast, a few hours a day, they all reported spending many hours offline reviewing older video game footage for ideas and inspirations on their broadcasts, taking notes on players and competitive details and even playing the games in question themselves to understand the mechanics and gameplay possibilities to better inform their narration.

As many eSports broadcasters are current or former pro or semi-pro players themselves, another interesting phenomena was the “always on” nature of their work. After turning in an 8 or 10 hour official day, they might stay up another 2-3 hours running their personal Twitch stream, playing the game for and bantering with their personal fans. This not only builds their market value for their “daytime” career but is a source of added revenue and passion.

Most of the panelists reported that the tournament scene is currently fragmented, with numerous operators of varying skill and organizational capabilities hiring broadcasters to help cover their events. The result is a need for a dynamic personality who can go with the flow and maintain professionalism in the face of limited or uncertain information and changing broadcast schedules and needs. It’s also an international scene, with many broadcasters flying all over the world in the course of a month to cover various events. Some broadcast partners with fixed or stationary league environments and infrastructures end up being the best to partner with because they also tend to have more talented production teams which leads to a better coordinated broadcast strategy for the announcer.

That being said, all broadcasters mentioned the dichotomy of knowledge gamer-broadcasters versus non-gamer producers which often creates mismatched knowledge sets and broadcast production hangups. Meanwhile, the unique nature of eSports as a “digitally native” and interactive medium and fan-base means that all broadcasters struggle with finding the right mix between providing knowledge analytics of gameplay developments and catering to the crowds incessant love for silly internet memes. 

Intersection of Traditional and eSports

A panel convened with representatives from the traditional professional sports world who are establishing footholds in eSports was especially informative. There is a lot of best practice sharing going on between the industries which are, at the moment, almost entirely separate. On the one hand, eSports is adopting a lot of ideas from traditional sports in the areas of team formation and management, brand development, sponsorship and engagement strategies, fan base dynamics, broadcast production and league and tournament structure. On the other hand, eSports is characterized by being made up of young players and fans, being online and international natively, whereas traditional sports have more mature players and fan bases, are based upon regional identities and are just now trying to develop strategies for international awareness and digital marketing and support. As a result, established pro leagues like the NBA are keen to learn what they can from eSports and even make integrations where possible.

One example is the Milwaukee Bucks, which sponsor an NBA2K video game franchise online league and team. The strategic vision for these kinds of partnerships is that a physical team like the Bucks will be able to cultivate younger fans, including those outside of the normal regional Bucks fan market, who like the NBA2K video game series but might be unfamiliar with spectating and supporting the physical Milwaukee Bucks franchise.

There are also some noteworthy dissimilarities between the physical and eSports variants of each sport. When it comes to borrowing production talent from live action sports, most experienced people are used to producing one type of event for one game or sport in the course of a day. In eSports, a single tournament or event day might feature numerous types of games and teams, which places a unique demand on the time and talent of production teams to support the nuances between games and their fan bases.

Another dissimilarity is rate and severity of change in game “meta”. In eSports, the “meta” or underlying rule set or programming rules of a video game can change rapidly and severly. Bug patches, new content and gameplay balance changes might be released weekly or monthly. In some cases these changes are so dramatic that previously dominant players lose their edge and new players adapt to the point of overcoming the previous pros. In live action sports, changes in rules and gameplay features happen at a glacial pace and are motivated by governing body decision-making rather than by game publisher or tournament organizers. Each respective industry has things to learn from the other here– for eSports, how to make competitive game environments stable and durable, and for live action sports, how to adopt iterative improvements to their game more quickly over time.

Cross-pollination is also occurring with regard to interaction with the fan base. Live action sports franchises purposefully cultivate the sense of “you can never get as close as you’d like” in their fans, whereas eSports fans are used to being able to engage directly with their favorite players, typically through their live Twitch feeds or message board postings.

As I listened to these examples of similarities and differences, I wondered about a technology like VR and what it promises for the eventual merging of these two industries. Besides being a small fraction of the overall video game industry, VR as of the present seems to have no real presence in the world of competitive eSports. Will there be a day where physically-fit live action athletes are competing online in VR-enabled eSports environments and having an advantage as a result?

The discussion related to the ways in which live action sports franchises are dipping their toes into eSports also led me to wonder about pro sports franchises developing eSports variants of their teams. This is already happening in limited ways (see this recent Bloomberg story on the Philadelphia Fusion) but as of right now it is not common for, say, the Boston Red Sox to also have an eSports baseball franchise. And will they also be the Boston Red Sox, or will they come up with a different team name and identity while being owned and operated by the live action team? Will an eSports franchise one day disrupt live action sports by buying out a struggling live action franchise team?

I missed a panel on the relationship between the Olympics and eSports but it’s easy enough to see the opportunity for integration there as well. We’re probably not too many years away from eSports, an all-weather, year-round competitive arena, taking up an event space in the physical Olympic celebrations. But where and when and what game will be the breakthrough?

One of the toughest questions for the long-term health of eSports is what is a long-term investment in the industry? The “shelf-life” of the average eSports game due to changing technology and faddish fans is 2-3 years, whereas the average career for professional athletes is ten years or more. This relative longevity means the brand value of players and teams can be developed over longer periods of time and thus support more sophisticated investment dollars and strategies.

Conclusion

The eSports industry is increasingly a serious business. Like the major live action sports franchises, the organization and structure of the sport is being developed to support the marketing platform business model. As much as the teams and leagues exist to develop and support the players and fans, they aim to create a valuable audience which can attract advertising and marketing sponsorship dollars. This is where the “real money” is and creating a sustainable ecosystem is key to winning the investment dollars necessary to then grab the marketing credibility. With the role of hype and fads in a technology-driven space creating short-termism, one valuable question to answer might be how one can sell “pickaxes and tents to miners” in this space. Until the industry fully matures, this might be the most lucrative, scalable and repeatable model.

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