How eSports conquered the world

Its global audiences and prize funds both number in the multi-millions. Welcome to the world of eSports: sport, but not as we know it

In the Staples Center, Los Angeles, the minions of Team SK Telecom are on the rampage. To a backdrop of cheering, the blue Nexus shudders, blinks and explodes. Cue pandemonium. Nearly 20,000 spectators scream their appreciation as fireworks explode from the stage. The winning team rise from their seats and embrace, their jubilation no doubt increased by the $2m spoils of victory. The League of Legends World Championship is over – and another triumphant chapter has been written into the eSports story.

If that opening paragraph just sailed above your head, don’t worry. Settle back for a crash course in modern competitive entertainment.

eSports is an abbreviation of ‘electronic sports’: or, in common parlance, video games. As with non-digital sport, the vast majority of eSports players are enthusiastic amateurs, although a select few have the skill and dedication to compete professionally. Although the number of eSports titles is vast and ever-growing, the ‘big four’, so to speak, are currently League of Legends, Counter Strike, Overwatch and Dota 2.

Consider these numbers. In 2015, 36 million unique viewers watched the League of Legends world championship finals over a five-week period, peaking at 14 million concurrently for the final. A year before the UFC sold out Madison Square Garden, eSports got there first, packing the fabled sporting venue for a LoL qualifier. At any given moment, more than half a million people will be watching eSports on the video-streaming website, Twitch. Feel old yet?

Tobias Sherman certainly did. “Watching people play video games was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard of!” he laughs down the phone. “People think eSports is niche, then they find out, ‘oh my gosh, this isn’t niche at all. This is pop culture. I’m just getting older!’”

Sherman is global head of eSports at WME/IMG. The company recently bought the UFC for $4bn, although our interest concerns its founding of eLeague – an attempt to package eSports in a league format and reach the more casual viewer through traditional media, ie: television. On the weekdays, eLeague streamed on Twitch, but on Friday night it also aired on American channel TBS.

This was a major transition: uprooting eSports from its digital habitat and thrusting it under the glare of a network spotlight. “In conventional media, digital is a secondary experience,” explains Sherman. “In eSports, digital is the primary.” Could the genre survive this forward step back in time? 

Crucially, eLeague was packaged in a way that would be familiar to the American viewer. That meant a studio, a live audience – “a lot of people don’t get eSports until they get into the energy of a live event” – pundits, established narratives, and, most importantly, an easy-to-follow game: in this case, Counter Strike.

“There were clearly evident advantages to showing a FPS [first person shooter],” says Sherman. “It’s very easy to understand Team A versus Team B with an objective. Imagine being 40 and trying to watch soccer for the first time. You’re not going to understand offside, penalty kicks, etc. These things would be very foreign to you if you had no reference point. We felt Counter Strike required the least amount of effort to learn.” [Continued below]

Sherman is borderline evangelical about eSports – he cried on seeing the eLeague studio built by TBS – and with good reason. The league proved a success, reinforcing the credibility of eSports as a mainstream product.

Sherman recalls: “We had people whose wives were giving birth in the hospital and they had it on. People at Buffalo Wild Wings [an American sports bar chain] were having viewing parties next to people watching football. You could feel that it was a benchmark moment in eSports.”

Another sign of eSports’ encroachment into popular culture is the increasing number of celebrities taking a stake in the teams. Notable investors include Rick Fox, Magic Johnson, the Philadelphia 76ers (who also share an owner with Crystal Palace FC), Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Aoki, and actor Ashton Kutcher.

What of the eSports athletes themselves? The top teams make millions from the big tournament pots alone: Dota 2 paid out a record $9m to Wings Gaming, winners of The International 2016. The players who make up the most successful teams are celebrities in their field – and beyond. South Korean player Faker (real name Lee Sang-hyeok) was described as ‘the first true global star of gaming’ in a 2015 ESPN profile. Last October his team, SK Telecom T1, retained the LoL world title. Faker’s star has a way to rise yet.

It’s not just the players, as Sherman readily illustrates. “Montecristo [real name Christopher Mykles] is known as the best eSports analyst in the world. He currently lives in Korea. When he comes to New York we can’t get on the subway without multiple people asking for an autograph or a picture. People who first peer into this world think, ‘this could be big’. No – it’s there.”

eSports is certainly ‘there’ in Asia – the traditional power base of the industry – and very much getting there in America and mainland Europe. But what of the UK? To seek an answer, I plunged into a world of wizards, superheroes, monsters and robots – otherwise known as London Comic Con – where ESL has taken over a portion of the ExCeL centre hosting the biannual event.

You can laugh when I say eSports will be in the Olympics – but it’s going to get there

Founded in 2000, ESL is the largest and oldest eSports organisation in the world, with 15 offices globally and more than 400 employees. One of those employees is James Dean, the co-managing director of ESL UK. Sharp of suit and hipster of beard, Dean doesn’t exactly resemble the stereotypical gamer, but he shares Sherman’s zeal, and his belief eSports is on the cusp of something big.

“We have two main responsibilities,” says Dean. “To help grow the grassroots level and create an environment for young professionals to develop. Second, to bring eSports on a global level closer to the UK – so global tournaments are held here.”

UK eSports players are disadvantaged: most of their global counterparts have more experience playing the major titles, certainly in competition. Dean cites the rapid evolution of eSports as a cause for optimism.

“UK eSports is vastly improving. We’ve had amazing players in the past, but we’re striving for a full UK team on that level. With the well-established eSports titles that’s a tricky task, but the new titles offer a kind of reset so we’re seeing some really good opportunities.”

Not only is eSports as an industry rapidly expanding, within the industry new titles are introduced on a daily basis: the gaming world never stands still. Whether you like strategy, combat, FPS, the industry will not only provide but constantly strive to improve on the current favourite. It’s a very modern product, albeit one that still follows some old rules.

“The revenue model follows a typical route to traditional sport,” explains Dean. “You have sponsorship, merchandise, and ticket sales for live events. We need to get a viewership to raise sponsorship to raise prize money to attract the teams to work harder to play better to attract a bigger audience to attract more sponsorship, and it goes round in circles.”

eSports live events are growing ever more ambitious. In London, eSports has sold out Wembley Arena and indigo at the O2 – not to mention bars such as Meltdown in Islington dedicated to hosting eSports every night.

Dean notes: “Currently we’re seeing the big, big tournaments getting around 10-20,000 people in a stadium. That will continue to grow. We’re a little far off filling Wembley Stadium but give it a couple of years.

“A huge amount of production value goes into the big events. We’ve got game characters on stage, spider cams flying around, pre-show acts… [the DJ] DeadMau5 recently performed. It’s getting bigger and bigger.”

And as eSports grows, so does brand interest. Initially ESL only attracted endemic sponsors: brands directly related to the gaming world. Dean says this is changing.
“Now, we’re starting to attract the non-endemic sponsor because the kind of people watching eSports are very hard to reach through the traditional media.”

Most eSports consumers are millennials, the most desirable of all advertising demographics. Yet how can brands work digital platforms such as Twitch? Is the answer to adapt, or simply drag eSports – and its millions of young fans – further into the mainstream? Nobody has yet found a satisfactory solution: those who do will become very rich, very quickly.

Dean summarises the current state-of-play thus: “The question on the top of every marketing director’s list will be, ‘what’s our eSports strategy?’ This doesn’t happen very often, when a new thing pops up, and for an audience they’re not necessarily reaching.” [Continued below]

Meanwhile, as brands seek to unlock the eSports puzzle, the industry itself continues to acquire the mainstream trappings. ESL has hired a PR company, and releases weekly news bulletins which are published by Red Bull. In America, IMG Academy runs eSports programmes, enlisting experts in sports science to improve player performance, assess hand-eye coordination, hydration, and diet.

One mystery: why did the quality of play tend to dip after around 40 minutes? Monitoring suggested a crash in blood sugar caused by excessive intake of energy drinks: so now the consumption of Monster is carefully regulated. Just like a footballer’s pre-match meal or a boxer’s drills.

“This is a sport,” insists Tobias Sherman, “and over time it won’t even be questioned. People have their generalities, their stereotypes, and those are hard to break. But guess what? Kids that are growing up with these games, and playing these games as second nature – this is sports for them.”

Before our conversation ends, Sherman offers his vision for eSports. It’s ambitious, beguiling and quite possibly spot on.

“What’s next? VR stadiums are next, where you can be beside a buddy of yours in the UK but you’re sitting together virtually watching your favourite eSports players right in front of you, just as you would in a real stadium.”

“Every year I make a bold claim and somebody laughs at me. We’re going to sell out stadiums – somebody laughs. The next claim: we will see eSports in the Olympics.”

Lower those eyebrows. Young, digital, and with millions of devoted fans worldwide, eSports could easily prove the revelation of the next decade. Many would claim it is already the revelation of this one. The future is what happens when you are looking the other way.

Let’s give Sherman the last word.

“Time wins this one. You can laugh at me now, when I say eSports will be in the Olympics – but it’s going to get there. Period. This will continue to grow as these people get older and share the experience with future generations. Gaming isn’t going anywhere. Competitive gaming isn’t going anywhere.” 

For more information on ESL, visit eslgaming.com