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 g