In 2013, I wrote how esports is not a sport but a competition with the make-up, values and even dedication of sports. My thesis was simple: “Overall, I feel that comparing eSports to professional mainstream sports can be a poor perspective that ultimately narrows potential and shapes it to be something it cannot feasibly become.“
On the flipside, esports can be something more because it taps into two pools of consumers and markets: mainstream gaming consumerism and live sports spectating (which has sales ranging from merchandise, celebrity culture, brand activation, media rights sales and more).
What I am alluding to is the concern that we (as an industry) are using sports as an expectation to what we expect this crossing of two sectors to be. Instead, we should continue to use the ‘sports’ comparison as a selling tool to better summarize what esports envisions for non-endemic brands. This was as much of a concern back in 2013 as it is now.
We call competitive gaming “eSports” because it summarizes and eases outsiders into the idea of e-athletes. Even if someone had no idea what playing video-games at a competitive level was or what it entailed, these tournament events are gaming expositions that help show the appeal of watching someone do something better than you (better technique, strategy, approach, etc). The importance of the atmosphere mimicking that of Football stadiums or Hockey rinks is the ultimate goal and titling eSports as a sport helps push the idea further.
Once we can all agree and accept that esports can be like sports but is better suited to accommodate and tap into both consumer markets (stated above), the better it can be established as a viable market for investment without the disclaimer that investors may not see a return for the next 5 to 10 years. In addition, it can also provide more liberties for developers to be involved in esports without having to follow the current regiments and expectations esports companies, pundits and experts are pushing for. Some vocal pundits and experts are ready to dismiss certain forms of esports platforms, styles and approach because it does not fit an established tradition narrative that esports is
Esports does not return on investment
In general, esports does not return on investment. It is often a general public’s misinterpretation that large investments must mean the company is doing well and on-track to make a return but often times it is a doubling-down in hopes that these brands will become profitable and more importantly, an established brand for (if and) when the esports sector becomes an multi-billion dollar industry. That expectation stems from how esports is being sold to investors as a sports comparison as well as its heavy dependency on the gaming industry, which has been on the rise for the past decade and generating more revenue than most other entertainment industries (on par with the global box office)
So in reality, nearly everyone agrees that esports has potential and that agreement is spreading to mainstream markets, members and brands. There is profit to be made but not enough to justify the massive amounts of investments being made. These investments are actually made to not only explore the reach and potential of esports for companies but also to help them expand into markets they would either be unable to reach within a reasonable time-frame. For instance, with ESL’s newly-found investment with MTG, they sought the value of media rights and sales while also creating events in regions they had only attempted once or twice before (Asia/Oceania). The results and profit margins have been mixed.
Esports can be just marketing & community engagement
Ultimately, my goal in this piece is to remind everyone the reality of the situation and to remove any sense of gate-keeping some pundits have in framing companies’ attempt at esports as being poor or unjustified when in reality, everyone is trying new things to justify their continued involvement in esports.
This goes for everyone, including game developers. Riot Games loses tens of millions of dollars running the LCS each year. In recent years, they have sought to cut down on a lot of extraneous costs to further justify running the circuit despite League of Legends, as a game, dipping in returns year-over-year. When the LCS was launched, it was just an exploratory idea no different than what Fortnite and Epic Games are attempting now and what Nintendo has in mind.
All these developers are just exploring the value of esports to further emphasize, distinguish and invite traditional players to their product. A perfect example of this is the fact that a new Call of Duty is released each year despite these annual releases being a deterrent to the sustainability of their esports scene as a whole (instability). Another example is Fortnite and Nintendo hosting events that may not be the strictest form of esports by today’s expectations (items on in Super Smash or releasing a new weapon in Fortnite the same day as the tournament). Some of it is due to inexperience, other reasons also include that esports does not take precedence to the priority of mainstream gaming markets and consumers. Everyone knows this but we sometimes forget that esports is simply a subculture to mainstream gaming.
Conclusion: the goal should be justified sustainability
Esports’ identity is in flux because its viability and potential for all companies involved (tournament organizers, sponsors, investors, game developers, players and more) has not been definitively explored to its fullest potential. As esports goes through its growing pains to eventually settle on its marketplace, it’s important to avoid criticizing brands who take a risk and rather seek to better understand how to make that approach the most viable and most importantly, sustainable for the long-term. Esports may become this professionally-driven and international industry or it may become a localized affair of friendly competitions with part-time pro-gamers who are also finishing their degree. Esports may be a blend of both of those and I think it’s important to be realistic about its eventual path.