On the face of it, the profile of esports would appear to have little in common with mainstream ‘sports’.
Although Fifa, football’s global governing body, has hosted an Interactive World Cup since 2004 in partnership with game developer Electronic Arts, a common misconception is that esports only features organised sports video game competitions. The vast majority of esports tournaments actually involve games of fighting, first-person shooter, multi-player online battle and real-time strategy.
So are comparisons with established sports fair or even relevant? The evidence would suggest that the convergence of digital and ‘actual’ sports is already happening. In October the influential Association of National Olympic Committees sprung a surprise by declaring that esports was set to be one of approximately 20 sports to feature at the inaugural 2017 World Beach Games in San Diego, US.
The sector has also been strengthened considerably by a spate of recent mergers, acquisitions and partnerships in the past year involving agencies and entities that have established reputations in the mainstream sports industry.
A year ago the WME-IMG agency acquired Global eSports Management, an esports talent agency, and then signed global representation deals with Cloud9, Dignitas and SK Gaming to develop the team operators’ marketing and endorsement opportunities.
— FIWC (@FIWC) February 21, 2016
In November 2015 multi-territory commercial and pay-television broadcaster Modern Times Group purchased DreamHack, Scandinavia’s leading esports company, having secured a controlling 74-per-cent stake in ESL operator Turtle Entertainment for €78m earlier in the year.
Other significant developments in the final quarter of last year involved billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s USM Holdings investing about $100m in Russia’s largest esports company, Virtus.pro, which shows coverage of competitions for games such as Counter Strike, Dota 2 and League of Legends, and the launch of a new Competitive Gaming Division by Electronic Arts.
Earlier this year the MP & Silva agency made its move by sealing a global marketing rights partnership with Garena, comprising the Southeast Asian internet and mobile platform’s Garena Premier League, Vietnam Championship Series A and League of Legends Masters Series esports properties.
In perhaps the most noticeable move by esports into the mainstream, though, international sports broadcaster ESPN, which had dabbled in competitive gaming by covering major tournaments such as BlizzCon and League of Legends on its digital platforms since 2014, unveiled a dedicated new vertical. ESPN.com/ esports – sponsored by telecommunications company T-Mobile – is accessible via the main ESPN website and offers comprehensive editorial and online streaming coverage of esports.
Importantly, ESPN has staffed its new venture with esports experts Darin Kwilinski, Rod Breslau and Tyler Erzberger – all of whom are experienced gamers. According to Marco Blume, a successful gamer and the head of sportsbook at online bookmaker Pinnacle Sports, the credibility established by having in-house esports enthusiasts is crucial.
Dota 2’s Shanghai Major has come to an end.
— ESPN Esports (@ESPN_Esports) March 6, 2016
“You have to know esports inside out,” he said. “It is vital that you are authentic and you are on the same level as the fans. They are not only technology-savvy, but their world is esports and they have different expectations. If they tweet you, for example, they expect a response within seconds.”
Blume acknowledged that “everything is in a state of flux in esports at the moment,” with game providers mostly failing to make player data available to partners, something that would enhance understanding of the market.
“Providers are sitting on a goldmine if they can make player data available to partners,” he said. “It is also important to have the data to understand the risks of match-fixing and cheating. It would be easy to see how many times a player clicks during a game, for example, and that can indicate if things are not normal.”
Scrutiny of integrity issues in esports is inevitable given the rapid expansion of the sector. In October Sportradar teamed up with the ESL in an agreement comprising exclusive real-time match data distribution, live scoring and the monitoring of 450 betting operators worldwide through the company’s Fraud Detection System.
“The buzz around the sport and the way that it is growing and setting records across all measurables is truly staggering,” James Watson, Sportradar’s esports product manager, told SportBusiness International.
“Esports, quite simply, is a force in the world of competitive sport that cannot be ignored. It is filling out NBA stadiums and European football arenas; it has eight-figure prize-money pools; it has millions of live-stream viewers worldwide; it has some of the biggest companies as sponsors. Whichever way you cut it, esports is disrupting the industry.”
To continue reading the Esports Focus, please click the links below:
The Game Changer (1/4) – Esports Focus
The Game Changer (3/4) – Growing pains and Challenges
The Game Changer (4/4) – Market size and Business model