Esports: Invest now and monetise later

Lee Choong Kay, vice-president of sports business at Astro Malaysia, explains why organisations need to move fast and devote more time to esports.

There seems to be no end to the debate about eSports, and opinions are as extreme as night and day.

Fans and industry players boast about the ballooning numbers both in terms of participation and revenue, while critics bluntly say sitting in front of a screen while playing a game is no sport.

What we see is a serious divide – a generation gap to a certain extent – with little effort being made to ensure the masses, especially the critics, understand what eSports is all about.

Youth has been connecting through computer games since the 1990s, creating pockets of communities and conversations along the way.

As the numbers grew and technology developed, industry players saw an opportunity to rebrand what was largely viewed as a pastime into something more serious – creating its own ecosystem and supporting communities along the way. The boom even created new career pathways, something that was unimaginable when gaming was in its infancy.

Even Premier League soccer teams are now investing heavily in eSports, evident in the inaugural ePremier League that kicked off on January 5, 2019. Celtic FC is the latest club to join the likes of Paris St-Germain and Turkish team Galatasaray to sponsor eSports teams outside the football realm. The Scottish Premier League champions signed up a team at the recent Call of Duty World League Championships.

F1 outfit McLaren launched Season Two of its Shadow Project – an eSports racing talent scouting programme which attracted some 500,000 participants in the first year.

These established sports teams are well aware of changing viewership trends and are looking at innovative marketing methods to draw new audiences. By investing in eSports, they have further raised their profiles and fanbase beyond the sports they are involved in.

With 600 million people and over $2.5tn in GDP, Asean economies are one of the youngest and fastest-growing in the world. Due to its youthful, digitally-savvy and upwardly-mobile population, the region holds the edge in the digital future.

According to Hootsuite and We Are Social in their latest Digital 2019 report, mobile penetration in Myanmar stood at just seven per cent in 2012 but demand has since sky-rocketed and the figure is now at over 80 per cent. Malaysians, meanwhile, spend a daily average of eight hours and five minutes online, and most youths from this region play some form of mobile games.

ESports offers an alternative way for brands to engage with the young generation who view and accept content differently. It provides a gateway to a new audience, and the huge numbers of viewers and participants are indeed enticing.

At Astro we recognised this shift and were prompted by eSports fans, through an online petition, to carry The International 5 (Ti5), an annual Dota 2 championship in 2015. Ti5 was the first eSports event aired live on a sports channel (Astro SuperSport) in Southeast Asia.

The feedback was simply overwhelming and we decided to introduce a dedicated 24/7 eSports channel – the eGG Network in June 2016. The channel is now aired in eight Southeast Asian nations and Australia.

We saw the value of investing in the eSports ecosystem and ventured into it – from tournament production to talent management. EGG Network’s first event, organised in collaboration with PGL, was the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: Go) Minor Championship held at Iskandar Studios in Johor Bahru in 2016. It was a small studio-based event.

Today, it organises bigger and bolder events like the Mobile Legends Professional League (MPL) Malaysia/Singapore, which is currently in its fourth season, and the 2018 Kuala Lumpur Dota 2 major that attracted 8,000 fans at the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur over three days.

Ever since the Southeast Asian Games Federation agreed to schedule eSports at the regional SEA Games in the Philippines later this year, marketers have started to invest in eSports. But they need to move faster, that is, they need to invest in eSports first and monetise later.

There are sports networks and platforms that continue to live in the past and if they don’t keep up with changing consumption patterns they will be left catering for an older generation and that may impact their revenue potential.

Advertisers must be willing to experiment as the revenue route is not always clear. But esports promises one thing: eyeballs of a whole different community that has been largely ignored up until recently are now looking.

And just like any other sport, those investing in eSports must look beyond the purely competitive content and invest in storytelling to lure new supporters and further expand the fanbase. This will certainly increase eSports’ profile and ensure it remains entertaining.

ESports, whether you like it or not, is here to stay and we are glad to be part of it.

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