There has been much made of the sexiness and growth of eSports, and with the growth and buzz comes considerable debate. When you are working in the mainstream billion dollar business of sports globally, where exactly does eSports fit? Fad, phenomenon, surrogate business, parallel opportunity, engagement tool, nuisance; all of those listed, none of those listed? One thing is for sure after spending a half day listening to those studying the business, and then another morning hearing two industry veterans opine about the lack of opportunity; no one knows for sure, but many are paying attention and outing ancillary cash towards trying to figure it out.
The afternoon last week was spent at the Times Center as the last half of Leaders, with eSports panel discussions that touched on all areas of the growing industry. While the superfluous and jaw dropping engagement numbers in the millions were certainly offered up, the reality, refreshing reality, of where the industry in the US still has to go was refreshingly clear and three key markers were put forth for eSports to move into a mainstream challenger position in sports business:
While there is no doubt that the core gaming audience continues to grow and evolve, the education of the casual fan or viewer, and with it the brand, is still very fluid.
Storytelling: From Pete Vlastelica of Major League Gaming, we learned a great deal about storytelling from his days at Fox Sports told the story of how at the Call of Duty Championships the producers found a championship caliber player who had one thumb. While older MLB fans will remember a day when Carolos May of the Yankees and White Sox played baseball with one thumb, not having a thumb in the uber competitive controller world of eSports can be a serious issue. Yet this player was succeeding at the higher level, and MLG used that story to go well beyond what fans were watching on screens and streaming around the world. Humanizing the story will lead to a more casual and diverse following, and that outreach for all gamers is just beginning, and is sometimes still very hard to find without veteran storytellers listening and learning about the personalities.
Structure: Many of the panelists pointed to the siloed nature of gaming and the fact that every game maker controls just that IP as a barrier for bringing the overall world of eSports together as a while. Ken Hershman, longtime TV executive at HBO and Showtime now CEO of the World eSports Association , spoke at length about the idea of unifying professional gamers and even addressing overall issues head on, like salary, benefits and competitive balance. Nate Nanzer, Blizzard’s Global eSports Director, talked of the issues of going from creating games to forming an eSport powerhouse like the Overwatch League without having a full understanding of how and team sports actually work from a business perspective; despite being a lifelong fan of traditional sports. The explanation of eSports to a fickle audience outside of a massive core, remains a challenge, and that structure will have to be there for really expansive mainstream growth.
With that structure can also come measurable growth that can further appeal to Madison Avenue. While Jesse Wofford of AB INBev explained how Bud Light was gaining traction with a gaming audience over 21, Peter Warman of NooZoo pointed out that the measurement of ROI for brands is still not there, because engagement with various games is still very hard to track in a streaming environment without traditional benchmarks for measurement. Warman also pointed to the relative infancy of eSports in the US compared to big team sports on a consistent basis; saying that the cost per fan in 2016 was $8 per fan in US for eSports; compared to NFL , where every fan on average is spending $60. Is it growing? Sure, but it is nowhere near critical mass of the bigger sports for brands.
Structure can also come from the buy in of traditional team sports, like Ted Leonsis and Monumental Sports or what the Sixers ownership is doing with Team Dignitas. Chairman Greg Richardson talked candidly about taking Sixers team assets; trainers, money managers, other staffers, to help their team eSports players be more fit, more attuned and more mainstream, and that overlap will help grow both properties.
Simplicty: The third overall theme involved simplifying the complexity of games or even one game so that a casual follower can engage with a character, or play for a short period and still be involved in the narrative. Hershman spoke of the growth of mobile gaming as a way to take eSports and simplify it for the masses, while most also talked about better overall education and myth busting, not unlike the education process that has gone on in MMA.
Still for all its growth and expanded leadership at the top, an older leadership that is averse to change is still there for the pushback at the decision-making stage. One example came on Saturday at Columbia, when Sal Galatioto, head of Galatioto Sports Partners and one of the largest sports team dealmakers and insiders on the planet, pooh poohed all things eSports, even saying that the next “League of Legends may be a League of Idiots.” Admittedly he is not the demo and he also said he passed on the UFC years ago, refusing to believe there was an audience for MMA, and he may be wrong again.
Still, as the industry insiders pointed to scale, structure and simplicity as the rallying cry, it is clear that eSports is still a very fluid comer; one with some big numbers but big hills to climb. We are interested in being along for the ride.