Recent years have seen eSports emerge as a genuine spectator sport – both in a physical sense, with packed arenas, and online as millions view competitions on live streams. Some commentators in the US already describe eSports as the “next major league sport” – pointing to examples like the ‘League of Legends’ World Finals, which generated viewing figures of over 43 million people. One of the biggest players in this new market is ESL – part of the international digital entertainment group MTG, the world’s largest eSports company. We sat down with Spike Laurie, Senior Director of Global Publisher and Developer Relations at ESL, to get the inside track on this digital revolution…
What exactly is eSports?
It’s the ultimate evolution of multi-player gaming. The reason ESL exists is that we believe the ultimate enjoyment from gaming comes from competitive play, and so our whole philosophy is to support competitive play at every level – whether that’s you wanting to play with your friends on the weekend, all the way up to live mega-events where fans are watching the world’s best players compete at some of the most demanding eSports games.
How would you describe an eSports live event?
Imagine a massive rock concert fused with a sports event and you really get a sense of it. You have competitors battling it out on stage and big screens showing the action. Sometimes, it’s like being in the middle of a football stadium. I remember being in the middle of São Paolo in Brazil with thousands of people and I have never seen so much passion. The crowd were jumping up and down, surging forward, waving flags. At IEM Katowice this year, I was amazed by the opening spectacle of music, lights and pyrotechnics going off. I could see the blinking lights from all the fans’ phones, holding them up so that it looked like stars. Truly tribal.
Who is your audience?
Our key market is the millennial audience – that digitally-savvy, advertising-averse audience – and we’re able to target them very well. In 2015, over 160 million hours of our content was consumed on Twitch alone, with millennials making up over 80% of this audience.
What have you learned from traditional sport and what could they learn from you?
I think we have a duty to be more cutting-edge with what we deliver, to make it more exciting. We can do clever things like using POV shots. For example, I’m not sure a Premiership football player would be happy to have a go-pro camera stuck to his forehead! We are also experimenting with VR too. At our IEM Oakland event we had over 1,000 viewers watching in VR concurrently, immersed in the game. Because our “play set”’ is digital, it’s a lot more malleable. You can go in and programme things in the game, in a way that you just can’t do in traditional sport.
It’s clear that traditional sports are looking at us from an audience perspective. They are wondering: “Where are all the Millennials? Why aren’t they at our stadiums or paying for our set-up boxes?”
The answer is that they are increasingly consuming content on Twitch, on YouTube and travelling to stadiums to watch their favourite players play competitive video games. So, I think that’s the stark lesson that traditional sport needs to try and understand – where has that exodus of millennials gone?
What are you seeing at the moment in terms of brand involvement?
America is starting to pick up pace. The Mountain Dew league is a great example of a brand taking that leap of faith and doing a good, coherent integration with a great product, and they are really benefitting from that.
In Europe, we recently had a big event in Katowice with Gillette as a sponsor, and they are reaping the rewards. They gave out 85,000 razors on site and did a really cool activation on social media for the influencers and the talent involved in the show, who were all given 3D printed Gillette razors.
“If brands want to survive with that Millennial audience, they will look at eSports”
Is a lot of the brand potential still untapped in eSports?
Lots of brands don’t understand where the value in eSports truly lies. They understand that they need to make a leap, but most aren’t at the stage yet where they can join the dots and do it effectively.
I think it’s partly a generational gap. The digital generation have grown up with the language of video games but many of those in charge of media or brands have not.
That lack of understanding isn’t the game’s fault. The brands have to get the right people on board to really get past the barrier, which is quite a trivial barrier of “we don’t understand this game”.
Through all of this, I think we need to stay true to our core values in eSports. We mustn’t start watering things down to reach some sort of ephemeral standard of what a brand is looking for. Ultimately, if they want to survive with that millennial audience, they will look at eSports as a powerful string to their bow.
We know how important building trust and integrity is. What is ESL doing in these areas?
We’ve been at the forefront of these issues for a number of years now. Integrity is extremely important. That’s why, in 2016, we were a founding member of an organisation called the eSports Integrity Coalition and they are focused on issues such as match-fixing, gambling and doping. ESL One Cologne in 2016 was the very first event to tackle the issue of doping head-on and everyone came back 100% clean. In terms of tackling potential cheating, that’s an area where ESL has led the charge on developing anti-cheat tools on refereeing and running games to make sure these things don’t happen.
What about the threat of betting-related match fixing?
We’ve partnered with a company called Sportradar, which helps monitor and analyse betting patterns. We provide them with the feeds from our games and they are looking at all the bookie information and scouring for irregular behaviour. This shows ESL being ahead of the curve on these key integrity issues.
In traditional sports, many worry that the distance between fans and competitors has become too big and it is affecting engagement. How do you see that from an eSports perspective?
There is an interactivity in eSports where you can watch your favourite players train, or even play with them in a game. You don’t have to get your shin pads on or head down to Upton Park to train with your favourite player – you can do it online. With Twitch, Twitch chat, Twitter and Facebook, you can even talk in real time with players. Engagement is at the heart of what we do—and it’s why we have been so successful.