Opinion: eSports needs to grow up

SuperData’s Joost van Dreunen discusses the challenges that could hold back competitive gaming

It’s not often that you get a chance to be part of an emerging industry before it becomes mainstream.

Today, 214m people worldwide regularly watch competitive gaming, and the market is worth $892m, made up of 74 per cent sponsorship money and the remainder directly from consumer spending.

Many investors, advertisers, publishers, and networks have placed bets on the future growth of this segment, hoping to catch the wave as it builds momentum.

But it isn’t going to be quite so simple.

Traditional media tends to hold a rather naive perspective on eSports’ emergence. With young audiences proving to be elusive when it comes to effective ad targeting, networks and broadcasters seek to increase their appeal by ‘getting into eSports’. In the process, they reason they are graciously legitimising gamers and gamer culture.

This is an arrogant strategy as it is the incumbent’s staple audiences that are shrinking, with the Major League Baseball, for instance, seeing viewership of its World Series reduced to half what it was 30 years ago. In reality, eSports doesn’t need TV; TV needs eSports.

But to grow out of its adolescent struggle, pro-gaming will need discipline and a sense of accountability. Intoxicated by the last two years of sudden mainstream media coverage and a growing list of celebrity suitors like Marc Cuban and Rick Fox, the various participants in eSports are starting to feel the repercussions of its step into adulthood. After years of scraping by, investment is more readily available, and the line of curious new sponsors is getting longer. The growth potential of this market seems to suddenly have taken flight with hundreds of millions now regularly watching competitive gaming. But the biggest concern for eSports is sustainability, not size.

A country like the UK is not unfamiliar with this process. The UK games industry originated in the bedrooms of a generation of ambitious teenagers, some of whom became leaders in the field. After a period of local, entrepreneurial success, large American and Japanese publishers started employing the British innovative spirit, which, in turn, had to professionalise. What the UK industry learned then is what pro-gaming is learning now: it should focus on establishing a healthy network of professional teams, publishers and sponsors that work together on making the spectacle of games a better, more rewarding experience for its fans.

Worldwide earnings for eSports remain tiny compared to the $104bn in global games revenue. To grow, it has to overcome one of its biggest struggles in digital media today, which is the lack of credibility and reliability in assessing the ‘true’ eSports audience. This is not an issue exclusive to pro-gaming because brands all around the world are clamoring for more transparency when it comes to digital ad spending. Channels and publishers play an especially important role here: Despite their usual reluctance to disclose anything to anyone, the major players are going to have to own up if they expect to earn.

From a historical perspective, the importance of transparency and the relationship with sponsors cannot be understated. Almost ten years ago the Korean eSports industry was thriving. But as audiences moved to mobile screens and away from televised programming, advertisers pulled away, triggering a decline.

Other problems that will hold eSports back include: doping, gambling, the exploitation and abuse of female pros, preventing teams from selling merchandise at events, a lack of transparent rules that determine team participation, an unfair and unnecessarily strenuous tournament schedule, region-blocking, and generally poor communication between platforms, publishers, and players.

Now that pro-gaming has moved into the mainstream, all its petty problems are coming to light. At the same time none of the issues are insurmountable. Already we see the emergence of self-regulatory industry bodies like the eSports Integrity Coalition. It presents eSports’ first step toward becoming a respected, sustainable industry.

All it has to do from here is grow up.

About MCV Staff

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