Hit Start Now. Or Be Startled (not too much) Later…
Over two weekends in early 2017 in the wintry depths of southwest Poland, the industrial town of Katowice hosted nearly 175,000 people and some 46 million live streamers. An attendance comparable to the world-renowned Glastonbury Festival at an event that most readers have never heard of, despite teams of America’s, Europe’s and Asia’s ‘best’ competing to take home the $650,000 prize pot.
Celebrating its fifth year at Katowice’s saucer-topped Spodek stadium, the Intel Extreme Masters Season 11 Finals are a kind of Elympics for the world’s fastest growing competitive sport.
The 2017 Finals were the most broadcasted since IEM’s foundation back in 2006 by ESL, the company who organise this and similar competitions across the globe. All this helped to justify Sweden’s Modern Times Group taking a majority stake in ESL for $87million in 2015, and why Amazon stumped up $970million for the Twitch streaming service ESL broadcasts through.
Not convinced? Try the fact that esports are part of the official line up for the 2018 Asian Games. Not necessarily known as a tech innovator (even when Sir Alan Sugar was in the chair), London’s Tottenham Hotspur football club is planning 50,000 attendance esports matches at its new stadium, generating £3million revenue per match. After live-streaming competitions to attract young people, the Luxor will become the first esports arena on the Vegas Strip in 2018. A doubly interesting move when considering investments by Betway and Unibet suggest regulated gambling is gathering momentum in the esports universe.
Esports are played not by pale-faced teenagers thumbing control pads in a parentally funded sea of sugar snack and soda-can detritus. Esports are competitive competitions between teams held to professional standards and conduct. The new breed of professional player is paid a salary to train in secure office complexes kitted with enough server capacity to manage the northern hemisphere’s airspace. Coaxed by nutritionists (“avoid energy drink come-down with organic ginseng…”) and physiotherapists (“improve multi-key command entry dexterity with yoga 20 minutes a day…” whilst practicing together 10, 12 or even 16 hours a day in preparation for a big prize match.
Some of the teams’ stars can earn a mint. SK Telecom’s star ‘mid-laner’ (midfielder in esport speak) known as Faker picks up a cool $2million a year – pre bonuses and sponsorship - for jetting around the world to be met with photocalls, interviews, the adulatory roar of fan-packed stadia and crowds of screaming girls usually left reserved for Harry Styles.
Still not feeling it? Well, AdAge reports the global esports economy will grow 41% in 2017 to $696million, rising to $1.24billion by 2020. Newzoo estimates a global viewership of 385 million – about half and half enthusiast and occasional viewers – in the same timeframe. That’s a mere two years away for anyone that’s paying attention…
Sponsorship is expected to reach $266 million this year, with ad spend pushing $155 million (Newzoo). Agreed, this pales against the vast sums peddled to traditional analogue leviathans, such as last season’s $1.25 billion bonanza for the NFL, but the proverbial winds may well be changing. With brands’ collective obsession with capturing Millennials and Gen-Z and the likes of McDonald's split from long-term lover the IOC, how long until the smell of teen spirit draws the Big Mac’s big-bucks cost-effectively into esports? “Not likely” protest the naysayers. But, remember no sport was born with a silver spoon shovelling funds into its formative furnace. Formula 1 was a pastime of (soon not to be) wealthy playboys until young Bernie Ecclestone got hold of TV negotiations in the 1970s. Likewise, the pre-cursor of The Premier League was played part time by butchers’ boys before injections of global media cash enabled the opening of supercar dealerships in cities across post-industrial England.
So to all who’ve repeatedly dismissed esports on the basis of low numbers on boardroom PowerPoint presentations over the last decade, now - as the numbers start to climb - is the time to take another look.
However, do not limit any newfound esports enthusiasm to market reports and corporate cosseting. Please refrain from slapping brand logos around in exchange for cash that you then attempt to recoup by marketing the ass out of everything with poorly thought out strategy and lacklustre execution.
For example, one of the biggest mistakes made by the uninterested is assuming that esports are simply analogue sports played in video game format. Wrong. Other than FIFA, which lets players try and change the outcome of real matches replayed virtually, esports are played in arenas of imagination. The attraction is not to see what can, frankly, be better done in the real world recreated in pixels. The real appeal and competitive edge lies in things that can’t be done in the real world. You’ve no doubt heard or even played Call of Duty, but Google League of Legends, Rocket League, Overwatch, DOTA2 and Counter Strike to get a taste of what motivates millions to tune in and watch ten youngsters in tech emblazoned sport shirts sitting behind over-clocked PCs in an arena in front of thousands of engrossed fans.
As one fan muses, “it takes months just to understand what you’re meant to be looking at” when describing the neon cornea crumpling of League of Legends’ UI. So, take time to see the wonders of their world. To see the things they dream of. To understand the realm you are about to enter. To truly be able to connect with the tribes that inhabit - what is for you - uncharted territory.
Esports present enormous, and as yet reasonably untapped, opportunities to engage with next gen audiences that every brand, advertiser and marketer is allegedly desperate to engage. To avoid kicking over the cup of cornucopia by patronisingly brushing aside those that built the phenomenal growth of esports with duct tape and hard-knocks, get to know them.
To gather the riches laying in abundance at the end of the quest, your place must be earned and levelled-up over time by playing - as they do – as part of the team. And to do that, to have them trust you as one of them, you need to know them…
Dean Taylor is Director of Creative Strategy at Momentum Worldwide