It’s attracting an audience in the tens of millions and the attention of video game giants Valve, Riot, Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft. So why is it struggling to generate money? And why isn’t the mainstream media talking about it? Christopher Dring investigates
Do you remember ShootMania at Ubisoft’s E3 press conference?
You were probably too dazzled by the fantastic-looking Watch Dogs, or the new Splinter Cell, or the publisher’s billion Wii U games to notice. It was the PC shooting game that was shown via an awkward on-stage tournament. No-one really cared. ‘Where’s Assassin’s Creed III?’ cried viewers on Twitter.
Despite the muted response, ShootMania was actually a very big title for Ubisoft. The game is a bid to take on League of Legends and StarCraft II in the lucrative eSports sector – a market where professional gamers go head-to-head in tournaments around the world to win thousands of pounds in prize money.
“As far as Ubisoft is concerned, buying [ShootMania developer] Nadeo three years ago was a wake-up call for all our teams – whether in production or in business and marketing,” says Nadeo Live director Anne Blondel Jouin.
“Looking at the increasing numbers of viewers for livestreams, Ubisoft realised there’s a true opportunity here. Ubisoft is in the business of entertainment and eSports has become a true entertainment field of its own, gathering more and more players and more and more spectators. We strongly believe it is time for ‘sportainment’ and we want our creative teams to be part of this major gaming industry change.”
A GOOD SPORT
It’s easy to see why eSports is suddenly on the agenda for the likes of Ubisoft. The growth has been enormous. The latest numbers from US eSports organiser Major League Gaming reveal that 11.7m people watched the Pro Circuit Championship online this year. That’s up 334 per cent up over 2011.
“The growth and popularity surrounding eSports has been incredible over the past few years,” says Sundance DiGiovanni, CEO of Major League Gaming.
“The numbers are staggering and I think it is largely a testament to the power of livestreaming, the improvements in technology overall and our ability to deliver a well-produced, entertaining broadcast.
Combine that with the popularity for PC games like StarCraft II and League of Legends and you have the perfect storm eSports growth around the globe.”
Major League Gaming is just one event specialist that has reported a surge in viewers.
“In terms of growth, we’re doubling our views almost every three to six months so it’s doing tremendously,” says IGN’s eSports boss David Ting, who runs the IGN Pro League (IPL), which has just held its major finals at The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas.
“If you look at the number of people watching, we believe that it’s going to be recognised as a sport by mainstream media in the near future, probably within the next five years if they continue this current trajectory.”
The marketing boss of the European Gaming League, Joshua Nino De Guzman, adds: “A quarter of a million people tuned in to watch our most recent event, EGL 8, held in Manchester. More businesses are discovering the opportunities available for brand exposure through professional gaming organisations and players.
Western eSports is generating the same growth that competitive gaming in Asia enjoyed almost a decade ago, where gaming celebrities are a part of popular culture and university degrees include courses on titles such as StarCraft II, one of the most widely established competitive games in the world.
ShootMania’s E3 reveal wasn’t just important to Ubisoft – it was a watershed moment for eSports as a whole. This is a sector that for so long has been treated as a niche by the mainstream gaming world, and here it was on-stage, at E3 next to Just Dance 4.
Another watershed moment took place less than two months later at Gamescom, when Activision lifted the lid on its eSports-inspired multiplayer mode for Call of Duty:?Black Ops II, complete with league play and the ability to livestream deathmatches.
“The competitive gaming community is in massive growth in the UK with ever-increasing size and frequency of tournaments,” says Activision UK MD Peter Hepworth.
“The team at [Call of Duty developer] Treyarch has worked hard with the pro-gaming community to create the features in Black Ops II, which will help competitive gaming become an even more compelling spectator sport.”
IGN’s Ting agrees: “If you see more and more mainstream games like Call of Duty building eSports right into the game itself, it really gets the word out about the massive amount of eSports fans. By being able to watch games played by pros, it becomes an activity that you do on a daily basis, you’re probably going to convert tens, hundreds or millions of people into watchers of this phenomenon.”
Despite its recent popularity, eSports is not new. The concept of gamers entering tournaments and winning prize money existed way back in the ‘90s with the likes of Doom and Quake.
So why has it suddenly become such a hot topic?
“Streaming has changed everything,” says Michael O’Dell, the manager of a group of professional UK gamers called Team Dignitas, a team that has recently joined UKIE in a bid to help promote eSports in the UK.
“Pro-gaming has always been popular to those that go, but now the ability for everybody to watch online and stream themselves playing, it is pretty big. Previously we had to deal with bandwidth problems and costs, and now everyone can stream. Every single tournament is streamed.”
Livestreaming has been a major factor behind the recent surge in eSports popularity. Whereas before streaming was a complex and costly affair, now gamers can do it themselves in their own bedrooms, whereas professional streaming services like Twitch and Own3d have made it even easier to stream and watch live events.
“Streaming has not made eSports, as is often misunderstood, but what it has done is given a statistic that captures a significant amount of the audience through portals like Twitch,” explains Vas Roberts, sales director at eSports media specialists Heaven Media.
“That does not mean that these people were not there before just that now there is more visibility of them and it allows us to quantify the scale of the audience.”
SHOW ME THE MONEY
eSports is massive. It is growing rapidly. And thanks to livestreaming, broadasters and commentators, it is even becoming a spectator sport. One recent phenomenon called ‘Barcraft’ has seen fans and companies organise live viewings of StarCraft II matches in pubs – just like watching a football match down your local on a Sunday afternoon.
But despite the growth in audience, eSports has yet to attract the big bucks.
MD of UK events organiser Multiplay Craig Fletcher says: “If you look at the last Major League Gaming final, you got around half a million concurrent viewers tuning in. That’s only a couple of hundred thousand less from the NBA final, the difference was the NBA final had $50m of advertising on it.”
But Fletcher believes as the viewing figures keep going up, the advertisement and sponsorship will follow: “When you’re talking millions of views of a livestream over a weekend, it is not something that advertisers can ignore any longer.
“There is this audience here that is no longer watching TV anymore, it is all done via their iPads and via PCs and on-demand services. They are not reading printed press anymore, they are all going online. Advertisers need to reach these people where they are.”
If you ever get the chance to watch an eSports tournament online, or even live at the likes of this weekend’s IPL 5 in Las Vegas, prepare for a surprise. This isn’t a group of men sitting at a computer hiding under anoraks. It’s an over-excited spectacle, not too dissimilar from your typical sport show.
And fans go crazy for the big stars. One anecdote MCV heard whilst investigating this sector involved a pro-gamer hiding in a cupboard from a mob of eager autograph hunters.
In territories like China and Korea – very much the home of eSports – these professional gamers are celebrities. They’re media stars. And this is starting to happen in certain Western markets.
However, this level of hysteria has yet to reach the UK. That may be partially due to the continued popularity of consoles over here (the big eSports titles are PC games), but the eSports specialists we spoke to insist the market is as popular in the UK as it is elsewhere, but it’s struggling for coverage, and therefore it’s struggling for investment.
“The prize money in the UK is on par with standard Major League Gaming events over in the US,” adds Multiplay’s Fletcher.
“For instance our StarCraft II tournament in the summer had as much as a standard MLG event. Yes we couldn’t compete with the big numbers that you see at the big finals – single events that have hundreds of thousands thrown at them. But for the day-to-day, bread and butter eSports, there is a thriving scene here. It’s just not getting as much attention and certainly not as much sponsorship. In terms of the interest from gamers, the UK eSports market is not underdeveloped. But it’s not generating as much commercial attention. We’ve found it difficult to convince people to invest in eSports, because it is not well-known.”
Heaven Media’s Roberts agrees: “eSports in the UK is continuously growing. If anything it is just lacking exposure within mainstream media as people have perhaps not appreciated the size of the market."
Part of the problem is the media coverage eSports commands. Whereas in Taiwan the national newspapers actually feature competitive gaming in their sporting section, over here it has – until recently – been hard to convince even the specialist games press to cover the events.
“Games journalism has had its blinkers on for a long time; focusing mainly around console, where as eSports has traditionally been underground and until the last 18 months or so did not have mainstream appeal,” adds Roberts.
“This is certainly changing, the eSports scene is starting to attract some fantastic talent in an editorial capacity and media coverage sites like Heaven Media’s have become as important to gaming as traditional and popular game review sites.”
As a sport, pro-gaming is still young. It is still finding its feet. And this is obvious by merely glancing at the eSports schedule. Major events around the world keep clashing, and the best players are having to choose which tournament to enter.
But that is about to change, say the experts.
“Major League Gaming was created with traditional sport in mind and the league was based on organisations like NFL, NBA and MLS,” says MLG’s DiGiovanni.
“We are currently coordinating with a number of eSports leagues across the globe in order to create more synergy for both the players and the fans.”
So it is boom time for eSports, or so it appears. Major sponsors from Dr Pepper to PlayStation are signing up, the best teams in the world are commanding seven figure sponsorship deals, while players are being paid anything up to $100,000 a year, and that’s not including prize money, which can stretch into the milions.
And then there’s those headline-grabbing viewing figures, the moves into the space by Ubisoft and Activision, or the statements about eSports becoming an Olympic event. It’s no wonder these leagues, teams and broadcasting giants are obtaining such huge VC investment.
But there’s also an air of caution amongst these specialists, particularly those more established firms. eSports has witnessed false dawns before.
“We are one of the older teams and we have seen it before, the old boom and bust,” says Team Dignitas’ O’Dell.
“There was one eSports team in 2008 that got €1m investment. In 18 months they blew it all and went bankrupt. It is challenging, especially for us as we have 66 players, so we have to keep them all happy without spending all the money. We have a few sponsors now, and a few more non-gaming sponsors are starting to come in.”
European Gaming League’s Chris Marsh adds: “There have been times when eSports has tried to expand a lot quicker than is suitable. Ambitious plans have sometimes gone airy and in the process hindered the expansion of eSports by isolating some potential partners.
“Competitive gaming has sometimes been a bit of a free-for-all in the past and with many different companies trying to get a foot hold in a relatively new industry, it is no surprise that there have been a number of flawed efforts along the way. In the long run one would hope that this benefits the overall expansion of eSports as newer businesses look to learn from the mistakes of the past. But no industry has ever developed without teething problems.”