ESL UK co-managing director James Dean discusses what lessons we can learn from the past failures of eSports in the UK and why it's important not to forget them.
2016 has been a massive year for eSports. With TV production companies all over the world finally committing to coverage, eSports is moving ever closer to wider acceptance. When you couple this with record viewing figures, it's tempting to think we're approaching a golden era of recognition for the sector.
That well may be, but it's something we can only achieve if we learn from former mistakes and continue to focus support on the grassroots elements of the eSports scene.
Historically, the UK led when it came to eSports. Around the year 2000, the country was poised to blaze a trail for other European nations to follow – unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.
A big contributor was the failure of the Championship Gaming Series - an international televised eSports league. Following its formation, Counter-Strike teams had been acquired, salaried and flown all over the world. When it crashed and burned, however, the teams became somewhat bitter – they were reluctant to put in so much time training going forward, especially when competing for lower prize pots than those that had been around previously. As a result, it's almost like we've skipped a generation of eSports and only now are people starting to take it seriously again.
Which is why it's so important to learn the lessons of the past.
CGS failed because it tried to grow too fast – over the last three years we've been working hard to establish the ESL UK Premiership on the two tenets of stability and sustainability. We advance with caution; we may not be as glamorous as what other countries have, but we're building for the long-term. Unequivocally, that's something the UK can be very proud of in terms of the eSports scene.
We started out with League of Legends and CS:GO in the Premiership; today, we have four titles, with Overwatch and Hearthstone joining the ranks.
The ESL UK Premiership also aims to cure the skills gap that's a hangover of our years in the wilderness. In some titles, current UK teams would be trounced by highly-skilled squads overseas. It means they can never achieve anything globally, can never excel and can really struggle to get their careers off the ground.
It's clear that for UK eSports to continue to grow this can't be the case - talent needs to be identified, nurtured and protected. By offering this UK-only crucible for teams, players come in as amateurs, go through as a semi-pros and emerge as serious professionals.
You can see the embryo of it now with [eSports team] Misfits, who qualified for the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) eventually, though the players did split into different teams. It's a first iteration of this function of the Premiership bearing fruit. It offers a concrete path for those who want to take eSports from ambition to career. At the moment, we're only seeing individual players making it rather than entire teams – but that has to be the next step.
It's on all of us to keep this growth going, and there's a number of ways to do it, such as bringing mega-events to the UK, so players can see LCS at Wembley, or the ESL Pro League at the O2. That alone gets attention and creates aspiration for players, and then we provide an avenue to make it a reality for them.
The bright lights and big names are starting to beckon to the UK eSports scene – but let's not lose sight of what's important.