Before I speak to Jeff Clark, Intel’s director of business strategy for gaming & esports, I’m warned that Clark is still feeling the effects of travelling around the world to the Intel Extreme Major (IEM) tournament in Katowice, Poland.
If the press officer looking after the interview was worried that Clark would lose some charisma while he adjusted to his new timezone, he need not have worried. Clark is clearly a man that cares a lot about esports, and Intel’s place in the ever-growing market.
"Esports is blowing up, right?" says Clark as soon as we’ve shaken hands. "We’ve been doing IEM for a dozen years, but the last two or three, it’s exploded in popularity, the size of the audience is bonkers."
Clark says that Intel sees a path where the size of the global esports audience could become a billion in the next five years. It seems feasible: 172,000 people attended IEM Katowice in 2017, well over half of the 297,197 people that call the city home, esports events are drawing vast virtual crowds on Twitch.
With this audience comes revenue. A report from NewZoo back in February predicts esports revenue at $906M in 2018, growing to $1.5b by 2020. Clark says that many companies, both endemic and non-endemic are making big movements as people try to seize the opportunity to make big money.
There’s nothing new in Clark pointing out the difficulties that many companies, Intel included, are facing as they seek to successfully monetise esports. However, the tech company’s own positioning in the esports space is more intriguing.
In short, Intel is Switzerland.
"Intel is a neutral party in the esports space. We’re the Switzerland of the esports industry, working with all of the players, and we don’t necessarily have a vested interest in any one league or any one team or any one structure."
Clark smiles broadly. "We’re backing all of the horses, right? This means our interest is solely in advancing gameplay, enhancing the fan experience and getting the developer community the tools that can take gaming to the next level."
Intel’s involvement on a technical level with developers, publishers and tournament organisers gives them a unique perspective, Clark posits. If you have a technical problem, and no one else can solve it, Intel should be able to help. After all, every success for esports is, in part, Intel’s success. It’s in their interest to help the industry mature.
The industry is seeing this at a huge, public facing level. In 2017, Intel and ESL signed an agreement that makes everything technical: the technology between frontend and backend, with everything in between, Intel’s responsibility. Clark says that Intel has had similar conversations with Blizzard about the Overwatch League, although currently the company is involved just as a sponsor, which Intel is "really excited" about.
Less public, but no less valuable, Intel is also working with developers directly to help optimise their games to take advantage of Intel’s feature set. This could involve consultancy, or advice on how best for a company, large or small, to achieve a specific goal. However it could also just involve an Intel engineer moving into your office for a while.
"We have Intel engineers that we’ll send to sit right next to the developer at one of these triple-A, game development companies, and help them unlock all the performance, take advantage of all the horsepower, and completely optimise the game for the x86 architecture, to make sure that they’re getting the most out of the technology as they build the games at the heart of esports."
Does this mean Intel is an esports company now? I thought it was a fair question, but Clark says the company’s work in the esports scene doesn’t impact what they’re working on elsewhere: esports is just another potential avenue of business for the company, albeit one that has been delivering double digit growth year on year for the tech giant.
"Really, when we talk about what is our primary objective in esports, it’s to be the technology that powers esports. So, I don’t think Intel as a company is going to try to shift our brand or our brand image all the way over to esports. I mean, we’re doing so many other things."
Clark heads off at a tangent and we talk about Intel’s acquisitions in AI, machine learning and even autonomous driving. If there’s a technological arena that can be explored, it seems Intel is keen to be trailblazers.
"Truthfully, if we look at the consumer segment, gaming and esports is number one." Clark says. "That’s the number one segment we care about. So, we’re taking all our various assets and IP across the company, not just our silicon road map, but also our other investments around AI and machine learning, and security and anti-cheat technologies. And we’re saying, "’Hey, how can we get laser focus with these technologies in the eSports space, and take it to the next level?’"
Esports and gaming as a glittering jewel in the consumer market makes sense. Clark admits that the last few years, at a macro level, have seen the consumer PC industry dip slightly. While there is no one solution for it, he sees the rise of esports and the boost Intel is getting from their heavy involvement, as a big positive for the company.
"It’s gotten kind of sluggish," Clark says, discussing the PC market over the last few years. "Not a dramatic decline, minus two, minus one percent. We’re looking at how we flatten that out year-to-year and try to get it to grow plus one percent, plus two percent over the next few years."
"When we do that, we say, "All right; well, we’re going to drop our anchors to make sure, or to help us deliver growth back into the PC segment," and esports and gaming is one of those anchors."