10 insights from working in esports
As Europe’s leading digital strategy agency specialising in sport, Seven League has now been working in esports for two years and in doing so we’ve bumped up against a fair few assumptions, myths and no shortage of revelations. Here are a few of them:
1. Esports doesn't care about traditional sport
Big sports brands have had their egos checked somewhat by an esports scene that neither cares about nor needs their years of expertise, their established business models or their famous brands.
Clearly traditional sports – particularly those with ageing audiences and dwindling television viewing figures – have seen the big audience numbers, vast watching hours and projections for revenue growth in esports and thought, ‘We’d like a piece of that’. In reality, it’s not that simple, and it’s the word ‘Sports’ that often causes confusion and encourages assumptions.
We’ve seen a variety of approaches: soccer teams have ’signed’ players of Electronic Arts’ (EA) Fifa series, while others have bought teams to compete under their brands in popular League of Legends or Counter-Strike tournaments. Some traditional sports bodies have struggled to make the mental leap of having a team competing in a non-sports simulation game tournament – they feel there needs to be a connection of some kind to their own sport, for example the Madden series of games to the National Football League (NFL), or Fifa and Konami’s to soccer.
In any case, these forays have all been at the fringes of a scene that is dominated by new players, playing unfamiliar games, creating a new ecosystem of stakeholders and new brands that are becoming honeypots for established FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sponsor brands. 74% of esports revenue comes from sponsorship and advertising and, to date, most of this has been endemic brands offering gaming peripherals. But we are beginning to see more mainstream brands getting involved.
To the esports community – and let it be noted that this term is in itself a misnomer – the ‘esports audience’ is no more homogenous than the ‘sports audience’, and audience variation by game title is just as diverse as between boxing and baseball – market entry attempts by traditional sports can at times feel authentic but are often embarrassingly irrelevant.
2. Esports is fighting for attention, just like traditional sports
In the ‘Attention Economy’, esports and traditional sports face fundamentally similar competitive pressures – namely, competition for audience time. In a world where Netflix considers its biggest competitor to be sleep, content businesses (including both ‘e’ and ‘trad’ sports, cinema, music, social media, gaming, news etc.) are trying to distribute formats that stand out and capture that extra second of your time. Amidst this, the content and digital marketing channels with which sports organisations are most familiar are probably not the channels that work best in esports.
Not even esports, with its young and growing audiences, can be complacent about the need to create jeopardy and excitement around its tournaments, make heroes of its players, plan content effectively to spike periods of interest and draw that interest out over fallow periods. It must create engaging shoulder content that draws audiences in before and after competitions.
For example, popular esports streaming platform Twitch is home to a new ecosystem of 'variety games casters', whose content is more about bringing entertainment and personality to multiple and new games, than being elite players.
Where esports can learn from some traditional sports is in how they’ve managed to make their formats more inclusive to novice audiences. Part of this clearly depends on the game. Only some games are immediately ‘followable’ on first watch – for example Rocket League or World of Tanks. A novice, though, is unlikely to understand what’s happening in League of Legends. Think of how Matchroom, under Barry Hearn, brought prize money and expertise to darts and transformed it into a more mainstream viewing experience, both live and for broadcast.
Traditional sports bodies should not underestimate the skill, drama and emotion involved in esports at the elite level. Comebacks, upsets and mastery of technique play just as much of a role here as they do in soccer.
3. The industry will grow up
It’s sometimes tempting to see a bunch of teenagers moaning about the latest patch to a game and chastise them for biting the hand that feeds them. You’ll also undoubtedly have seen some acutely awkward examples of esports Pros looking terrible on camera, and that image has undermined the sector in the eyes of some traditional sports organisations.
It would be short-sighted to imagine this won’t improve however. It’s no so long ago that the All Blacks were performing similarly terrible and unintimidating versions of the haka…
esports athletes, like sports athletes, are interesting people with interesting stories and will in time become more relatable to mainstream audiences. We use player professionalism here as just one element of the wider esports industry – there are many other areas of esports that need to (and will) mature.
4. Games publishers own all the IP
While bodies like the UFC, Formula 1 and NFL exercise significant central control in their sports, none can claim to own the intellectual property (IP) of their sports. Even the UFC, a brand that is synonymous with mixed martial arts, cannot prosecute people for organizing an MMA tournament. This is different in esports where publishers literally own the rules, the positions and the field of play.
Publishers have largely let esports formats develop around their games. They were happy for these communities to continue growing, knowing they would support sales. Some publishers continue to maintain a hands-off approach while others have taken more central control of their esports rights (Riot and Valve, for example, are both very ‘hands-on’ with esports).
Anyone wanting to enter esports should beware they may be building a business model on IP that can be withdrawn at any stage. If you buy a game or game license, you don’t have the right to run a competition – in a strict legal sense, you only have a one-off license to play the game. In old parlance, it’s like buying a DVD, showing it in a warehouse and running your own cinema. The legal disclaimers are already all in place for the IP owners to shut you down at their discretion.
That said, it’s definitely possible to obtain a license to run tournaments with these games though; Gfinity – a Seven League client – for example, have done so with the three titles in their Elite Series. Games publishers are rarely experts in running tournaments so they often need third parties to be involved.
5. Simulation games are a tiny slice of the esports market
Esports is dominated by Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games like League of Legends and Dota2 and first-person shooters like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty. By comparison, when it comes to watching people play games, sports simulations hardly make an impression and are unlikely ever to break into the top tier of esports game titles.
Watching soccer live is still more compelling than watching it as a simulation game, even if playing it can be exciting in both formats. That’s because the attributes of the computer-generated players resemble those of real players, and therefore it makes sense for players just choose the best ones. Ultimately, the esports viewing experience for games like Fifa is, currently, simply not that interesting.
Compare that to a fantasy environment where characters can have multiple, fantastical attributes that are not replicable anywhere else in life – playing characters, demonstrating skills and following storylines that aren’t hampered by reality. This, and the skill factor in playing these games which require immense mouse and keyboard precision, is what is capturing audiences’ imagination currently.
6. Esports is about participation, not isolation
Some advocates of traditional sports have a problem with esports that sometimes feels akin to your mother saying, ‘Those things will rot your brain, go outside and kick a ball’.
That is to say, they think that traditional sports are healthy, give you exercise, socialise you within a team and bring all the ancillary benefits of team sports – camaraderie, sportsmanship, discipline.
Whereas there is a negative view of esports being played and watched by young people, stuck alone in their bedrooms, not moving very much, guzzling energy drinks while their eyes go square.
While the esports community has long held up its elite players as athletes in their own right, often burning out at similar ages to elite ‘trad’ sports people, what our work in the space has also shown us is the participatory and communal nature of esports.
Whereas once hardcore gamers were unwelcoming to new audiences, more and more are reaching out to the ‘noobs’ (newcomers). esports events themselves are highly social – they bring people together around their passion points – to play together and be together.
The growth in multi-player games has facilitated the creation of teams, which are then subject to the same requirements to work together and back each other up as traditional sports teams.
The barriers to entry for esports are also much lower than many traditional sports– PCs and consoles are more accessible than cricket pitches or tennis courts, for example.
7. Esports has governance issues
Governance in esports is currently weak, with no coherent federation of tournaments or leagues. The industry lacks structure and there are many bodies trying to provide it.
Yet, there is an inherent rebelliousness about gamers and the industry as a whole – many think that having something as prosaic as a governing body or player’s association would stifle the spirit of esports.
However, the need is there, as issues around standardisation, legitimacy, doping, player advocacy and fair play abound. There is something of a Wild West land-grab going on and, as ever, some bodies are more scrupulous than others.
Whoever can provide governance in a way that players, viewers and publishers accept will win the right to provide mainstream legitimacy to esports. How stratified this will be (by game? by geography? by stakeholder type?) remains a question.
While not strictly a governance issue, the way numbers are reported around esports is still murky. Understanding the viewing audience numbers for example, is hard because there are few standards and they definitely don’t equate to television viewership estimation methods.
8. Esports has CSR issues
Like in many traditional sports elite gamers are largely young men, often naïve, with little life experience. This can leave them vulnerable to unscrupulous team owners and agents.
There is also very little in the way of player advocacy and education (although rumours of player unions circulate), meaning career and financial management models are non-existent, nor is the pathway for post-competition life.
The pressure on players can also leave them vulnerable to the temptation of doping, and training regimes can hamper player welfare if not managed properly.
9. Patches vs releases
Once upon a time, publishers used to release versions of their games on a periodic, often annual, basis. Fifa 17 for example, is a different game to Fifa 16.
Many games are now purchased in a software as a service (SaaS)-style subscription model with real-time game updates (patches) rather than annual releases. Games that are supplied in this way work better for esports, because the player base can compete against one another on the same version of the game.
BRaVe Media Ventures estimate that a game requires 10 million monthly active users (MAUs) to sustain a professional esports segment for a particular game. However sports games still fragment this audience by doing annual releases, meaning users of a current version cannot play against legacy players of past versions.
Consider that the top sports games are still sold on annual releases (Madden, NBA2K and Fifa) and this partly explains why virtual sports games are still a fledgling esports format. Sports games will likely become perpetually-updating subscription services, in this case an esports model will become more viable.
10. Act like a professional
In a Wild West land grab, reputations are forming and doing things properly from the start means a lot, particularly to players.
This means providing good facilities for players at competitions, paying prize money promptly, ensuring that the hardware works and that connectivity is good. Also, don’t assume that just because you can run a sports tournament, don’t think you can run a successful esports event (production expertise is very specialised).
Players are at the frontline of the variability in standards in the market and will return to the reliable providers and bodies who they trust. They also have the power and profile to bury the charlatans.
To discuss what esports means for your industry or where and how to position yourself relevantly, please get in touch.