It’s a battlefield | Why cities are racing to benefit from esports boom

  • Almost half the cities polled by TSE earlier this year said they would host an esports event within 12 months
  • Six in 10 North American cities say they’ve been in contact with the industry, but just one in four in Asia
  • Cities can use esports events to boost their skilled technology industries

“It’s a party crowd,” enthuses Ronnie Hansen, partner in sports strategy specialists TSE Consulting Scandinavia. “It’s a cool gang, like the snowboarders of 10 years ago. Cities are after these people – but they don’t know they can use esports to connect to them.”

That’s right. Forget the image of vitamin D deficient teenagers bashing their buttons with the curtains drawn, professional video gaming is drawing economically desirable, tech savvy adults to an arena near you.

The Copenhagen Games, held in the Danish city over three days earlier this year, saw more than 1,000 players from around the world battle it out in front of 6,000 fans for prize money worth thousands of pounds on games including shoot-‘em-up Counter-Strike and football simulation Fifa.

So successful has the annual event become that the city will host an entirely new tournament later this year in its recently opened 10,000-capacity Royal Arena. It has been estimated that this Blast Pro Series event will bring in a minimum of $2m (€1.7m) in tourist spend. And that’s just the beginning of the attraction.

“The main benefits to Copenhagen are tourism and media attention but there’s also talent attraction because esports builds up interest in our gaming industry,” says Lars Vallentin Christensen, head of events at Wonderful Copenhagen.

About 150km west, the Danish city of Odense is using esports even more directly to boost its skilled technology workforce, through a deal to host the ESL Pro League Counter-Strike tournament for the next three years.

“There is a huge tech university in Odense, and the biggest cluster of businesses in the city is robotics and tech,” explains Hansen. “Their biggest challenge is recruitment because they don’t have enough attention and there is sometimes a perception that the city is boring.”

These tech employers, desperate for clued-up 16-30 year olds, will offer job interviews in conjunction with tickets to the esport tournament through a branded recruitment campaign on the event organiser’s website.

“You can’t find another means of marketing to that amount of those people worldwide,” says Hansen. “There will be specific jobs advertised but also a general message to people about jobs in the city.”

Fledgling to mainstream

It’s an innovative move that comes with cities clamouring to make their mark in a fast-growing sector that is rapidly moving from fledgling to mainstream.

TSE Consulting has estimated the global esports market could be worth almost $5bn by the end of this decade. In a poll of cities earlier this year, more than four in five said they believed hosting esports events could help them connect with young people.

More than half of respondents said esports tournaments could provide a shortcut to boosting a city’s profile in the sports event market.

Six in 10 North American cities surveyed said they had already been in contact with the industry, as did a similar proportion in Europe. But perhaps the Asian market is the biggest untapped resource for esport organisers, with only one in four respondents from the region saying they had made contact.

“We found that a lot of cities want to look into esports in the future – but the biggest barrier is not understanding the business structure,” says Hansen. “They can see how big it is but they have no clue how to go about it.”

Blast Pro Series backer Rfrsh Entertainment is talking to several cities as it works to convert a swell of interest in esports into contracts to host events.

Rfrsh vice-president of brand Steen Laursen says up to 20 potential future host cities will be represented in Copenhagen, where the new tournament has been crafted to appeal to the growing fanbase.

“As the tournament circuit goes global over 2018 the audience will grow further,” he says. “The aim is to have fixed stops on the circuit, which will be a very strong signal for the host cities as they will have a permanent position in all content and material around the Blast Pro Series.

“We’ve been working on the format for almost a year, talking to players of all the top teams, some of the best producers in the business, casters, experts, fans and other stakeholders to create a format where the fans can be sure to see their favourite team on stage in the arena without having to consume 25-30 hours of esports over one weekend.”

‘Wonderful’ opportunity

One city that has recently hosted an esports event is Orlando, Florida, which held the Call of Duty World Championships in the 20,000-capacity Amway Center in August.

Orlando Venues chief venue officer Allen Johnson says it was approached by producer Activision for the “wonderful opportunity” to host the event.

“In just the last 18 months we’ve successfully hosted several high-profile sporting events including WrestleMania 33, the NFL Pro Bowl, NCAA March Madness and Copa America Centenario matches,” says Johnson. “We’re proud to add the Call of Duty World Championship – and esports in general – to our diverse programming milestones.”

Laursen says there are various commercial opportunities related to hosting esport events.

He says: “It’s a global phenonemon and millions are already watching. For the post-millennials, esports are actually preferred as competitive entertainment over traditional sports, and through hours and hours of highly fan-engaging live and on-demand content we offer a direct pathway to access to an audience which is traditionally hard-to get.”

Hansen says the very nature of video game tournaments makes them especially appealing to advertisers. Unlike at football or basketball, all eyes are already on a screen.

“One of the most interesting things about esports is the contact you have with the audience,” he says. “When you’re talking about something that’s truly digital you can talk to whoever you want – sending a message about colleges to all the 18-year-old viewers from neighbouring countries for example.”

Armchair fans become anywhere fans, watching the action on their phones, tablets or laptops through feeds often hosted on the organiser’s own website.

“You would generally have broadcast and host deals separately for most sports but for Odense we’ve made an integrated deal,” Hansen says. “With just one rights owner it’s easier. With people watching the ESL event through the ESL website we can put up in-game messages.”

When it comes to advertising during esports, however, the media most certainly is not the message. Millennials are used to being bombarded with online content and will rapidly tune out unless they are connected with it.

“You need to be sure what your message is,” warns Hansen. “You have to be specific; this generation will only watch for two seconds before moving on.”

Technological requirements

Understanding the young, tech-savvy fan base is also important for making a success of the event within the arena itself.

Johnson notes that the amount of IT infrastructure required for the Call of Duty tournament was “considerably more intensive than typical events” and adds that the “load-in process took a little longer”.

Christensen says the technological requirements are way above those for other sports.

“Esports is the most developed area in terms of networking and cabling but also the big screens,” he says. “You can’t have technology failures.”

He adds that the young sport benefits from a fresh approach.

“With a new event you have to give the audience a new feel; we have a new format and a new stage built in a triangular shape,” he says.

Laursen says Rfrsh aims for at least 10,000 fans at each esport event.

“We want to create the ultimate esports event and as such we do require fairly modern facilities, a solid net connection, VIP lounges and so on. But if it is not there, we bring a lot of experience to bring or create what is necessary.”

Fans need to be connected

Hansen says hosts are maybe not always getting the most from the fans they attract into their arenas for esports events.

“The matches are very long so people are there all day but these fans need to be connected with and understood,” he says.

“If you’re 18 years old and never been to football you don’t understand that standing in a queue chatting to your mates is part of the experience. It’s easy to sell fans more if you understand what they want. You need to consider apps and smart stadium devices.”

The potential rewards are huge. For a start, the travel required by fans means they’re very likely to stay in hotels in the city and spend on food and drink outside the venue.

“These are young people, they don’t sit around watching TV at the hotel,” says Hansen.

Tournaments are also far easier to schedule than, say, a key NFL or football game, which is likely to have a fixed slot in the calendar.

“Esports is like boxing as you can put it on when you want to – you can use it to fill a free weekend or boost your winter schedule,” says Hansen.

Almost half the cities polled by TSE earlier this year said they would host an esports event within 12 months. Now could be the time to act before it becomes a very different marketplace.

“Esports events are still very cheap in terms of hosting-fee-per-visitor or online engagement compared to other events,” says Hansen. “Tickets to the Odense event in December sold out within 24 hours.

“These are people who are used to travel. They are not geeks, they are engineers working in augmented or virtual reality. If you want to brand yourself as a tech city then esports is the way to go.”

IMAGE: Esports fans at the Copenhagen Games

EXTRA: Esports is ‘like basketball, boxing and F1’

At workshops, Ronnie Hansen, partner in sports strategy specialists TSE Consulting Scandanavia, tells interested parties to think of the esports industry in terms of three sports they know well.

“It’s like the NBA, where team owners are key; boxing, where there are lots of federations; and Formula 1, where you have commercial teams who travel around to events worldwide and fans who travel with them,” he says.

Hansen expects the partial disconnect between teams, organisers and potential hosts to be resolved quickly as the sport reaches its tipping point. There is even talk of it competing for Olympic status.

“The sport is growing every day,” says Hansen. “It will become more organised, so within three years, esports tournaments will have the same bidding systems as other sports – that will make it easier but also harder to bid for as more cities will compete.”

Forget pizza and Coke

Think of thousands of video game fanatics in your city and you may conjure up images more reminiscent of zombie movie Shaun of the Dead than party films such as The Hangover. You may also be wrong.

“Forget the stereotype,” says Christensen. “There’s no pizza and Coca-Cola; just people very serious about their sport.

“It’s very active people who support their teams like football fans, and create a great atmosphere but can sit next to opposition fans without any trouble.

“We have people in their 30s coming, maybe a couple of guys together, they spend as much if not more than football fans and they show different behaviour in the city; there is less risk. They spend on merchandise, food and drink, it’s a very interesting group for us.”

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