Not all events have to be esports

But they can all be competitive entertainment. The rise of esports has lead to a variety of game developers pushing their community and marketing outreach into esports competition when it may not be suited or appealing to their large and wide-ranging playerbase. This piece is not to determine which games should or should not be esports-focused, as we’ve even seen games built specifically for esports fail. This discussion is to highlight brands that re-examine esports as other than the height of competition or an emblem to traditional sports spectating and treat it more as the marketable and exciting entertainment that esports runs parallel to general gaming consumption culture.

Image result for shootmania esports

Ubisoft’s Shootmania (2014) was aimed to be an esports title but failed to reach mass-popularity both as a game and an esport competition despite some strong support from IGN’S IPL, ESWC and more. They are not alone as games like World of Tanks (2018), Guild Wars 2 (2016), Lawbreakers and Epic Games’ Paragon all were leaning to be or include esports in their game’s branding but failed to even reach that level of exposure.

With the upcoming genre of AutoChess games where randomization heavily affects a player’s chances of winning a match, it is relieving to see Riot Games’ potential approach to their version of AutoChess as a spectator “esport”:

Teamfight Tactics will feature in its own tournament at this year’s League of Legends All-Star event. However, a full-on competitive league isn’t likely for the title. “We’re going to focus a lot more on entertainment-focused infrastructure, that won’t be as regimented,” said Needham. “That’s just specific to how the game is played. It’s a bit more casual than League of Legends from a competitive perspective.”

John Needham, Global Head of Esports at Riot Games (The Esports Observer, 2019)

When it comes to treating a game as an esport, publishers and most tournament organizers seem to define esports as a serious and competitive tournament in front of millions of viewers and a stadium full of exciting attendants. For games that align with the players’ perception of skill and strategy, this is a fairly normal expectation. For genres where randomized elements heavily affect the game it can feel disjointed for fans to see a game, such as Hearthstone, take such a serious tone when it is typically played at leisure and without much focus or thought. It may appear as if I am talking negatively or downward about these games, but in reality, I am simply prefacing the idea that different levels of competition and competitive titles should be approached differently as esports entertainment. The attention, focus and energy I give to playing games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Poker or Dota 2 is significantly different than how I play Team Fortress 2, Artifact or Dota Underlords. Similarly with television, how I digest a sitcom may differ from how I focus in a serious drama – both are appealing but I treat them differently.

Not all games have to be esports but it’s not flawed to try different formats for a competitive title to see which resonates best with its variety of audiences. It goes without saying that even though the live-streamer, Kripparian, thinks people don’t take competitive Hearthstone seriously, he is mostly referring to his cultural and regional audience which may view Hearthstone less seriously than in the Asian regions (China, SEA, etc.).

Tone and Environment

In terms of tone and environment, two major studios have set the standard for a serious tournament set in a relaxed and fun setting for the viewers: HomeStory Cup and Beyond The Summit. Though the matches and competition are of the highest level, both HomeStory Cup and Beyond the Summit [BTS] have integrated an environment that spotlights casters and player personality, knowledge, jokes and memorable moments for the viewer.

HomeStory Cup & Beyond the Summit

Both HomeStory Cup & Beyond the Summit have the same premise: stuff a bunch of pro-players into a house (now enlarged studio), remove the live audience and let them hang out. It’s evidently more complicated than that but the elements of games being casted by sometimes 3 to 4 people, with pros jumping in and out on the mic at their own desire, leads the commentating changing from a partnership between colour-commentator and analyst to a casual conversation between highly-admired and respected individuals. It is a treat for both the talents involved as well as a unique experience for fans who want to feel a part of the event and don’t typically get to hear professional players talk, give insight and hang out.

To further this tone, Beyond the Summit’s creative team put together fantastic sketches and satirical pieces often involving pro-players and of which resemble popular skits or videos that audiences would recognize such as the YouTube video: “Rediculous B-ball shots!!!!!!!”

What’s also key to note is that this relaxed format can be applied to almost any game, allowing Beyond the Summit or HomeStory Cup to expand to games they typically couldn’t break into (as easily). For HomeStory Cup, they have replicated their setup for StarCraft II and Hearthstone whereas Beyond the Summit has achieved events for Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Super Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat, Rocket League, Team Fortress 2 and more.

Though not all listed, Beyond the Summit has achieved over 11+ Dota events, 8 Smash events, opened for the launch of Artifact, premiered a Rocket League, Dragon Ball FighterZ, Counter-Strike, Mortal Kombat and more. HomeStory Cup has produced over 20 events for StarCraft II and Hearthstone on top of their German commentary for other events.

Though I didn’t give them a paragraph, DreamLeague has also taken an otherwise serious game and league and converted their production into a very relaxed and casual setup. Their talent, a mixed group of both intelligent and personable people, tease and josh with one another in-between highly-competitive games. The mix provides fans with comic relief among highly-respected talent as well as the exciting ups-and-downs of competitive games. This mix also helps off-set the otherwise long and perceived repetitive nature of league formats.

Though if you’re not an active follower of these games or people, some of this content might look rough or immature. But these sketches are about engaging with the on-going conversations with its audience, being in on the jokes and, ultimately, having fun in an industry that sometimes takes itself more seriously than it needs to. In that admittance comes a plethora of creative ideas that resonate with an audience and distinguishes a brand from the monotony of competitive tournaments.

Formats & Modes

In terms of formats, we typically have varying degrees of tournaments or leagues involving a bracket and group-stage. Month-long leagues play group stages online with an offline bracket stage for audience attendance. However, many event organizations try or have tried unique formats, modes and broadcasts to distinguish themselves from other events, especially if it meant at a lower-cost or without additional logistical challenges.

IPL Fight Club

The format for the IPL Fight Club, a weekly show-match King-of-the-Hill series by IGN back in 2011 (to 2013) involved players being pitted against one another where the loser goes home and the winner received $500. For each win, the “King” receives an additional $100 bounty that which an adversary can claim the bounty if they win. Though show-matches are on the decline for many games, this unique format has yet to be replicated by other event organizers and really lends itself to a story-line of just how long someone can go undefeated and who will claim their bounty.

Over 40+ players participated in this weekly online event with HyuN managing to stay alive for over 14 weeks.

Twitch Rivals

Streamers over Competitors

Twitch and their program, Twitch Rivals, really maximize the value of their platform and range of showcased games to provide a unique experience for fans and viewers. Instead of relying on competitors to be entertaining, they provide reasons for involved Twitch streamers to be competitive in games of all competitive levels (casual to serious).

Among the competitive games comes a host non-competitive titles that Twitch Rivals have hosted: Mario Maker 2, Overwatch Workshop Custom games, Dead by Daylight, etc. I personally hope they will eventually do a Mario Party Olympics soon.

Captain’s Draft

Captain’s Draft is a unique mode in Dota 2 where a randomized and limited amount of heroes (27 out 117) are available for both teams to then ban and draft according to their play-style. For MoonDuck Studios, this was their first live event and its uniqueness played its part to set itself apart from other Minor and Major events. Captain’s Draft allowed for heroes that are typically seldom played to be played more often while also ensuring that games are varied in terms of strategy and hero cohesion as opposed to traditional tournaments that can sometimes see the same heroes picked regularly because of their strengths and benefits to the team.

Midas Mode

Fan Interaction

Going one step further than Captain’s Draft, Midas Mode by MoonDuck Studios broke new ground. Not only did Midas Mode had an economy in their matches that would affect drafts for each team participating but the event also provided a variety of features for fans to be directly involved with these competitive matches. In the video below, we can see specials being able to fight professional players as Roshan, punching away at them using a VR headset. Other participation also include being units on the board to help teams scout and fight neutral creeps. Midas Mode is the only event to have this level of involvement with fans. ESL being the second organization to have additional activities for fans at their events (none of which have anything to do with the broadcast or matches).

Value & Viewership

For the sake of upholding competition, a lot of events start to blend in with one another, exhausting fans who can grow tiresome of seeing the same teams participating in match-ups they have done just the previous week. For Counter-Strike, there are over 30+ tier 1 events (32% of the annual calendar) and over 40+ tier 2 events (Beyond the Summit’s CS events are considered tier 2 but feature tier 1 teams). Not all these events are profitable, let alone distinguished enough to garner viewership akin to the cost to host and run these offline events.

It goes without saying that not all these events achieve their ideal KPIs. However, the consideration to alter an event into something that has a lower cost-ceiling in return for a more creatively distinguished event can help a brand be set apart from the rest. For example, WePlay Studios continues to operate their brand at extreme losses, but due to the efforts to distinguish their brand with unique settings, animated and live sketches and continued efforts in exploring esports competitions for games such as Artifact and Underlords, they were granted a Minor slot for this Dota 2 season.

WePlay! Dota 2 Reshuffle Madness 2019: photos of WePlay! Esports studio
WePlay continues to reshape their studio set design for each new tournament they host.

There is plenty of room in esports to transform titles with struggling viewership into entertaining games to watch under the right tone and environment. As Riot Games has determined, if a game has aspects that reduce the quality of competition, it may be safer to gear the competitive scene to be more reliant on personality and entertainment over the sanctity of quality competition. For Nintendo, their annual World Championships receives harsh criticism from the Super Smash community because its ruleset does not align with what the competitive scene expects. However, for Nintendo, this marketable event aims to appeal to all demographics and players who may not treat the game as competitively as the esports scene does. That sacrifice plays into Nintendo’s targeted audience and frame for the Nintendo Switch to be accessible and available for anyone to pick up and play.

These numbers may seem short, but Twitch Rivals hosts their broadcasts for about 6 to 8 hours. Their average viewers ranged from only 2-3K to 10-23K depending on the game and the streamers involved. To add, streamers can also stream the event leading to split viewership that is not displayed in the image above.

The conclusion of this piece is to say that not only has esports not explored sufficiently in what ways it can be more engaging and entertaining for some or all types of audiences, but also that its identity has become too narrow to hold all the brands and companies that want to jump into this growing market. The scene is expanding vertically but its horizontal expansion is revolving around types of companies, not number of companies. The identity of esports continues to be an on-going subject I’ve talked about previously in “Publishers are dictating what esports will be”. This article can be tacked up to the marketing aspect of the scene and the games involved.

Russian esports must go international or go extinct

After three years working in the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS] region, namely Russia and Ukraine, with some of the leading esports organizations such as StarLadder and ESforce Holding (Na’Vi, Virtus.pro, Cybersport and Epicenter), I have grown to better understand what makes this region so competitively viable in the international esports business sector but also the disadvantages they face both as a region and as competitors. Within this article, I will outline CIS advantages but also underline their weaknesses that may reflect what the industry, itself, is also challenged with. In summary, the CIS (mainly Russia and Ukraine) are a skillful region with low cost of operations and an abundance of talent. That said, their challenges range from growing beyond their CIS-audience based ROI and the difficulty in reaching international sponsorship budgets, to undercutting competitors in prices, due to the point of potential extinction.

Since 2016, Epicenter has been a staple pinnacle of Russian esports events and businesses. Later this year, they will hosting their upcoming CS:GO event in Moscow. 2020 will be their Dota 2 Major.

The CIS Ever-changing Approach

As esports moves from a regionally-split ecosystem to a service-for-marketing business for game titles and developers, the CIS region remains a competitive service production brand (especially for tournament orgs). From the PUBG Europe League, BLAST Pro Series: Moscow to the Boston and Kiev Dota 2 Major (white-label). CIS continues to make moves within the international market to act as a production service for a very cheap cost. That cheap cost, especially in an industry that struggles to break even is something only the CIS region can offer. That advantage means that CIS events cost 20 to 30% less to produce compared to Western European events. To add, sponsorship rates are sold at traditional rates, leading to low costs but strong sponsorship revenue. This is why CIS companies are looking to go international as opposed to looking inward, within their own countries, to expand their positioning and opportunities.

From my article: Dota 2 Majors are not guaranteed profitable events (June, 2019). Remember that 35% of costs to run an esports tournament comes from staffing, production, equipment and more

The CIS Challenge

The biggest hurdle the CIS region is facing is reaching international marketing/sponsorship budgets where their ROI is not just with CIS audiences but internationally. Within esports, there is no doubt that Russia and Ukraine are among the largest player-base and viewers for some esports titles. For Dota 2, almost 20% of all daily matches are played on Russian servers. The International 2019 saw a peak viewership of 670,000 Russian views.

For hosting events in Russia or Ukraine, physical turn-out for these events require a lot more effort and cost to achieve than in some more internationally-viable countries like Germany that are in proximity of other European Union countries. The reasons for these additional CIS efforts include:

  • Flying professional players and teams to Russia or Ukraine has a lot of bureaucratic visa hoops to go through than in European countries
  • For most events (not just esports), fans not native to the Russian or Ukranian hosted city, do not internally travel to that city. So when an event is hosted in Moscow, its audience reach is mainly Moscow-living residents.
  • In advertising and sponsorship, the CIS region is considered a tier 3 market behind the US (North America) and Europe (Germany, Spain, Italy, UK and France)
20% of the player-base are in Russia combined to the US which only has about 2 to 5% combined (depending on the hour)

When ESforce acquired Virtus.pro, Na’Vi, Cybersport.ru, Epic Esports Events (Epicenter) and RuHub Studios, it looked to create an internal ecosystem that:

  • Signals the international impact of CIS brands
  • Represents CIS on the international stage to improve perception of CIS businesses
  • Creates enough collective reach and marketing value for international sponsors
  • Is self-sustaining and self-dependent

While some of those goals were achieved, not all appeared to be ambitiously possible. The truth is that ESforce is an attempt for self-sustaining profitability within the CIS region and with endeavours internationally. From YOTA Arena, a LAN Cafe and esports physical space for local to regional tournaments, to Fragstore Holding, a merchandise company seeking to bring international team merchandise to the CIS marketplace, ESforce explored many (failed) avenues of monetization to capture the CIS market under one umbrella. As many newcoming organizations are seeking physical spaces for their esports endeavours, they’d be wise to look into those who have already trailed this space and failed.

YOTA’s arena had a LAN Cafe, a stage for hosting tournaments and even a bar and karaoke room for gatherings and parties. After every Epicenter, an after-party would be hosted at YOTA Arena.

White-Label Services and Undercutting

As written in my previous works: “Publishers are dictating what esports will be” (October, 2019), publishers are dictating the direction of their competitive titles. With it comes the transformation of CIS tournament orgs. providing production services for these games, sometimes even for other esports organizations like PGL (Boston & Kiev Major, 2016-2017), Winstrike (Blast Pro Series: Moscow) and more, acting as a white-label – meaning without their brand attached. The recent Berlin Major, though performing weaker in comparison to previous majors, highlights StarLadder’s continued reach to go international along with their production services to companies.

In terms of event development in Russia and Ukraine, it is internally rumoured that CIS companies are now paying for events to be in Russia such as Winstrike paying Blast Pro Series $600,000 sum to deliver their branded event in Moscow (with white-label production from StarLadder). In exchange for that fee, Winstrike can sell local sponsorshp rights and keep the ticket revenue (which is still a net loss) and Blast keeps all international sponsorship revenue plus a nice country fee they’ve never received before!

If the rumours are true, new-coming CIS brands purchasing tournaments may signal poor health for the region. Or worse, that buying opportunity may become the norm for Eastern European businesses. To add, if more brands turn to being event production service companies for international businesses, companies will continue to undercut each other to the point of providing services for free or at a low cost that could never be recuperated (e.g: WePlay and the Late Game show for CIS).

Conclusion

While Russian/Ukrainian businesses continue to prosper and receive new investment, it is unfortunate that the CIS region as a whole does not have much going within but a lot to offer for the outside. As westerners, we tend to either dismiss, overlook or underrate the value the CIS region has to provide. At the same time, these businesses also face many hurdles as they transition towards the international stage. With American brands dominating stronger esports markets like North America while also moving towards the European and Chinese regions, it will be very important for CIS countries to make their place as the esports scene solidifies. In addition, they must adapt their work culture practices to attract international leadership and staff if they are to connect with businesses outside their region. This is also true for CIS teams for attracting international audiences. CIS teams create content for their CIS fan-base but also must find ways to attract and connect to their international (minority) audience despite the language and cultural differences.

Having worked in many CIS esports business, I’ve found to be among a mix of smart leaders and big spenders. I am often caught by surprise of the work culture in the CIS region where employees sacrifice 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, for salaries that equate to $12.50 an hour. That said, some of the best events and crowds I’ve ever seen were in Russia and Ukraine. I continue to believe that Russia and Ukraine are viable markets for future investment but also feel that going international is not only something these CIS companies must immediately focus on but that all of esports is aiming for the past few years now.

What Mark Cuban got right/wrong about esports

In a recent piece from Fair Game, Mark Cuban not only talked about how 5G will change how people will watch sports but also delved into the topic of esports, especially as an investor in North America. Regardless if someone thinks Mark is right or wrong, his opinion is not only highly-regarded among investors but also mirrors some skeptical thoughts of investors who are currently involved.

Summary of Mark Cuban’s Comments

Mark had a lot of key points to make regarding Twitch, esports and more. I recommend watching the video but for the sake of this think-piece, I will narrow down some choice quotes:

  • Owning a team in the US is an awful business
    • Consolidation is coming for many esports team brands as investors seek to sell
    • Valuations slowly coming down
  • Would not buy a League of Legends team because of player overload
    • Game meta is constantly changing every 90-120 days, exhausting players mentally and physically
    • A lot of investors who bought into esports teams did not grasp how bad the business is at the moment
      • People who bought in did not recognize the difference between regional viewership value (EU vs US, etc.)
  • Esports is growing overall but not domestically in the United States
  • Being in Asia, there is money specifically for countries like Korea and China

A small footnote, on the other side of tech. investors, we have Ashton Kutcher who believes in esports but mentions old marketing misinformation that mislead a lot of investors into the viability and viewership of esports. While both Mark Cuban and Ashton Kutcher are both invested into Unikrn, they have contrasting perspectives and understanding of esports.

What Mark Cuban got right

In terms of his understanding of esports, it is pretty accurate regarding the challenge of investing and owning a team. Though consolidation has already come for a few organizations including Echo Fox, Optic Gaming and Clutch Gaming, there is an expectation that more will come by next year. Restructuring like with the Splyce brand is also another example of businesses reshaping their brands to transition with the market’s direction.

Owning a team, in general, is a risky business. For any starting team organization, if you do not win any events or tournaments, it doesn’t matter what you do, your brand will not survive or yield much progress. For companies like 100Thieves who’s largest achievement is reaching 1st in the NA LCS 2018 Spring Split, the shift towards merchandising and relying on content-creators (live-streamers) is to off-set the lack of achievement with the branding power and sponsorship agency work in popular streamers.

Deloitte/The Esports Observer (2019)

This factor, stacked with the ‘player overload’ Mark Cuban mentions displays the risky nature of teams. You could be spending millions of a roster (League of Legends rosters can cost up to 3 to 5 million [NA specifically] excluding the additional franchise fee to compete) but if the meta shifts in a direction that doesn’t play to the style of your players or worse, your players cannot adapt or keep up with the latest addition, changes and pace of the newly-revised game, then your brand will suffer and your brand performance will suffer overall.

In terms of the decline in valuations, for most people, it is difficult to discern new investments as reduced valuations or simply a realignment in the true values of these brands. That said, a lot of brands are seeking new investment such as with Evil Geniuses new funding from Peak6 (amount not disclosed) or FaZe discretely starting discussions for new funding with a lot of companies.

Though a correction has been mentioned in a lot of open and closed discussions, it is hard to deny the amount of money invested into esports, especially teams. In another Fair Game clip, Mark Cuban mentions live-streaming and tapping into the attention of younger generations, a challenge traditional sports are facing (especially in Baseball). For some sports teams, investing in esports is looking to be ahead of the (e)sports entertainment transition that media, streaming platforms and better internet data technology (5G) current are and will usher in.

What Mark Cuban got wrong

Is there a lot of money in China? For game developers, sports and esports, yes but not for everyone. In my travels to China, I spoke with a few team brands and leaders and the conclusion resulted in the same: they look to the international audience to broaden their brand. The cost to go international without a guarantee is scary however.

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It goes without saying that the viewership in China is much larger but not for all games and not for all brands or tournaments.

In terms of culture, gaming is taken a lot more seriously in Asian countries than in North America. Games like Baduk/Go have had professional players, tournaments and national television broadcasts for decades. Naturally, the development of esports came much faster for Korea and China (e.g: Brood War): non-endemic sponsors, team-houses and trainers, rigid practice schedules and staffing, etc. Being ahead of the curve means they have also identified challenges that the international scene are now facing. Since the early 2010s, Korea, and now China, face two problems:

  1. Reaching the business ceiling of opportunity
  2. Turning an internal ecosystem of brands into an international interest and value.

For point #1, the established brands of esports tournament organizers, team brands and more has been hit since the StarCraft II era (some would argue even before then). Brand consolidation has already occurred as old StarCraft II brands closed down like oGs and SlayerS (pioneered by old Brood War veterans) and game channels like MBC Game departed in 2011. The reality is that there is a lot of money in Korea, as Mark Cuban says, but there is a lot more in North America and China. Unsurprisingly, those NA and CN team organizations have paid more to import Korean talent.

Back in the day, Korean events were considered the best and most entertaining tournaments in the StarCraft scene. Turning an internal ecosystem of brands into an international interest and value (#2) was easy since the rest of the world had not developed in terms of player talent, tournament broadcasting and esport infrastructure. Competing at international tournaments paled in comparison to the few major players who could go to Korea and play among the best in the GSL. This has been true since the Brood War days years ago but StarCraft II really pushed esports development to a new speed.

This segues into point #2 where Korean brands are looking to go internationally (but may be too late in the large scope of things). Some examples are OGN investing 100 million in their North America venue, the joint venture of T1 Entertainment & Sports (a cooperation between Comcast Spectacor and SK Telecom) and Gen.G who are involved with both the South Korean scene and North America. The goal of transitioning these internal brands and expanding Korea’s ecosystem of businesses into a global value properties is dictatory of Korea’s challenges. In discussion with Korean leaders over the years, they have all sought to expand abroad.

Regarding China, it’s similar to North America. Prices for players and to start an esports company is growing more than the promise of matching revenue growth. When I was in Shanghai, my conversations with some team and business leaders were becoming repetitive: how can we reach an international audience with as little risk as possible. There is a ceiling in China but its risky, sometimes bureaucratic, and challenging to get the necessary funding. Team LGD Gaming has tried several times to go international before partnering with Paris Saint-Germain. Though the partnership is rare, the desire is not among Chinese brands. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) can access the international sponsors that Chinese brands want and LGD can provide the talent, presence and involvement in esports that PSG seeks without the risk and investment they’re not willing to venture into. Before this partnership, PSG had attempted to get into esports through League of Legends and famed played YellowStar. That cooperation did not work out on numerous levels. On the flipside, LGD has tried to go international with a LGD.int team but for similar reasons, it did not pan out and so both organizations are met with a similar challenge at different sides of the earth: how do we reach each other’s markets without the complete risk of a full investment? The partnership between PSG and LGD heavily favours PSG (in terms of numbers) but the alternative for LGD means no involvement whatsoever internationally.

2012-2013. LGD International is born but does not last long. With Valve implementing rules to allow only one team per organization to actively compete in The International, international risk versus value falls quickly. LGD Gaming were not the only ones to try this as Na’Vi also had a US squad competing at the time.

Esports teams and brands look to go international because it broadens their appeal, raises higher sponsorship values (for the international companies that want to sponsor internationally – which are a very select few) and it will establish an early dominance and household name before the esports market is expected to ‘optimistically explode’.

Esports is not only looking for which markets to target but also which upcoming games and trends will yield the most value. Esports continues to be agile and the transition to mobile games will continue to display quick-interest from companies looking to be first-in-the-market.

Conclusion

In many ways, esports is still very immature, both in its understanding of taking advantage of its growing audience and target demographic but also how to convert aggregated viewership into valuable consumers and purchasers or team brand content and merchandise. On the other side, brands are faced with the challenge of having to invest more heavily into their rosters and brand but also to rapidly expand internationally in order to fully maximize all considerations of potential revenue return.

Image result for pubg mobile esports
PUBG Mobile piques interest from various parties. Many tournament organizers want to be involved in mobile, especially games with the publishers involved such as Supercell, Tencent and Drodo Studios.

To say that investing in esports in the US is an ‘awful business’ and then comparing it to the money in China or Korea is a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side”. Though I am not sure how involved Mark Cuban is with esports in Korea or China, discussions with those esports team brands and even esports businesses will tell you straight-away that they are eyeing markets outside China for similar reasons as the US. Esports is valuable but risky and no region has it best, just different.