Why (or Why Not) ‘The Next Sports Empire Will Be Built On eSports’

Here are some things that I’ve been thinking about after reading this article:  Why The Next Sports Empire Will Be Built On eSports by Prashob Menon.  To be fair, I’ve been thinking a lot about e-sports for the last year, so it’s not just the article that catalyzed these thoughts.

Show Me The Money

E-sports is a market that is waiting for someone to come up with a good monetization strategy.  In the article, Prashob Menon cites some telling audience engagement and revenue data.  In March 2015, Twitch reached 51 million viewers worldwide.  That’s engagement over a period of one month.  In all of 2014, e-sports as a market segment generated a total of $200 million worldwide.  So one player (granted that Twitch is probably the biggest player) in the market can reach an audience of 51 million in one month, but the whole segment generates only $200 million in an entire year.  That’s a market looking for a monetization strategy.

Be More Like Snowboarding

E-sports is too much like soccer and not enough like snowboarding.  Menon made a strong comparison between the emergence of extreme sports (or ‘action sports’) and the potential emergence of e-sports, but there is a significant confounding variable in that equation that Menon doesn’t address, but that represents a major challenge to the idea that the public will embrace e-sports as spectators.  E-sports games are very hard for non-players to understand.  In this sense, the snowboarding-to-soccer comparison is important to understand, so let’s walk through that comparison with some case studies.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptzwxpY-eg4

This video quickly encapsulates the reasons that action sports like snowboarding were able to gain traction with US and global audiences relatively quickly.  The video starts with an activity that is easy to understand – a guy is sliding down a snow covered hill on a board.  All technology and gear-snobbery aside, that concept is easy enough for anyone to understand, and relate to.  The next thing that happens is that the guy sliding down the hill on the board does some tricks that you and I can’t do.  We are impressed with his physical ability because while we can easily understand what he is doing, we know that very few people can do it, so it elicits respect, admiration and a little bit of ‘wow’.  Then he crashes, and why is that important?  Because when we see it happen, we all know it’s bad.  “Oww!  That had to hurt.  That’s gonna leave a mark!”.  The man-against-himself nature of the competition is clear, comprehensible and immediate.  Even if you’ve never ridden a snowboard, you can watch this sport, identify with the activity, respect the skill and physical ability required to excel, and empathize with the pain of the crash.  It fits very easily into our cultural ‘thrill of victory and agony of defeat’ box.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkvtrrvWlV8

This video nicely exemplifies soccer’s slow crawl to spectator acceptance in the United States.  The US Women’s National Team is one of the two or three best in the world, and Abby Wambach has been one of the most recognized faces of that team for the better part of the last decade.  The players’ skills and abilities are well-respected, and they benefit from a degree of patriotic pride.  But if you watch what happens from about 0:07 to 0:24 in this highlight video, you’ll find soccer’s achilles heel.  Abby scores a goal in a scrappy fight with the opposing goalie.  Everyone (players and spectators alike) cheers in celebration.  But wait… what?  She didn’t score?  What happened?  Well it turns out that Abby was in an offside position when the ball was initially played, so even though she was not offside due to the ball being between her and the goal when she actually made her play on the ball, she had gained an advantage previously from being in an offside position when the ball was originally played, so the goal was disallowed.  Much of the US audience just stopped paying attention.

For the average US spectator who is not an active player, soccer is, in many ways, hard to understand.  The offside rule may be the most conspicuous example, but it is also true that on-field strategy and tactics, build-up play, substitution strategy, individual and team playing styles, even the design of the ball itself are integral elements of the game, and many US spectators just don’t have enough experience with the game to understand what they are watching.  This is not true throughout most of the rest of the world where most of the population grows up with soccer (or football, or futbol, etc.) deeply ingrained in the national consciousness.  But in the US, soccer’s growth as a spectator sport, and thereby as a revenue-producing industry, has been slow as the viewing public has needed time to develop an understanding of what they are watching.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO1_iz8oC50

Please be sure you watch that last video before reading any further.  And now watch it again.  And for good measure… watch it one more time.

If you are saying anything to yourself other than ‘What the #!*%$ just happened?’, you are a member of a small, elite class of global citizens known as ‘gamers’ (excludes ‘casual-gamers’ – people who play Candy Crush, Clash of Clans and Words With Friends on their smartphones and anyone who only plays games on a Wii-U).  Statistically speaking, you are also probably under 20 years old and almost certainly under 35.  You are probably male, though not by a wide margin, and there’s a reasonably good chance you were one of the 51 million people that watched something on Twitch in March of 2015.

What you just watched was a highly-skilled team called Team Solomid (TSM) competing in a match that was part of the North American League Championship Series in a game called League of Legends.  In the video, WildTurtle, a player on the TSM squad, executes a series of very difficult and skillful moves resulting in significant in-match accomplishments for his team (a pentakill, an ace and a quadrakill), all within the space a few minutes.  And unless you play the game yourself, or are pretty familiar with the genre, you have no idea what just happened.

And thus, the challenge for e-sports.  I may not be a snowboarder, but I have no difficulty understanding that doing a flip in midair and landing cleanly is great, and falling on your face is terrible.  Soccer is harder, because a lot happens on the field that I don’t understand, but for the most part I can tell when my team scores, when the other team scores, and when someone wins the game.  I can’t even make myself watch League of Legends because I can’t tell the difference between one team and the other.  I can’t tell when someone does something good or makes a horrible mistake, and I can only tell that a game has ended when a commentator says something about it being over, and even then, I can’t tell who won without a big graphic in the middle of the screen that says ‘TSM Wins!’.

Where’s My Shawn White?  or Tom Brady, or Danica Patrick…

The last thought I want to share in this post (I’m trying to not think of it as a rant) is this.  E-sports has no face.  By that I mean that there is no way to fill in the blank on the sentence, “________ is the face of e-sports today.”  In the established sporting markets, there are many ways to fill in that blank.  “Tom Brady is the face of football today” (or Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, etc.).  “Danica Patrick is the face of NASCAR today” (or Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, etc.).  And action sports were able to establish their foothold with the viewing (and spending) public, in part by discovering and marketing their faces over the last two decades.  So now “Shawn White is the face of action sports today” (or Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, Sarah Burke, etc.).

Not only does e-sports not have a face, the e-sports business model itself gets in the way of the emergence of a face.  The competitors, that is, the humans themselves, are effectively hidden from the spectators by two layers of obfuscation.  First is the game character or avatar that they control.  Spectators watching an e-sports match are actually watching an animated avatar under the control of the competitor.  That avatar/character has a particular look and feel that spectators may identify with in some way, and may even become fans of.  But… wait for it… the avatar isn’t real!  And in the next match, the same avatar, with the same fans may be controlled by a completely different competitor.  But that’s just the first layer.  Even if a spectator can get beyond the avatar to the competitor him or herself, that competitor competes under a pseudonym (their screen name, or gamer tag) in almost all cases.  And so, in the video above we have a twenty year old professional competitor from Toronto named Jason Tran, competing under the name WildTurtle as the avatar Jinx, executing an historically epic series of moves in a game whose 2014 championship was watched by 27 million people (more than any MLB World Series game since 1995), and virtually no one knows who he is.

This is a problem for anyone pursuing the monetization of e-sports.

So, with all due respect for Mr. Menon, and as a gaming fan who would love to see e-sports gain traction and begin to realize some of its potential to be “The Next Sports Empire”, I think there is a steep hill to climb between here and there.

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