Key luminaries from the esports ecosystem converged at the BroadcastPro Summit to discuss the direction that esports is taking, its growth prospects as a profession and its future in the MENA region.
Esports is big business. In fact, it’s an industry sector valued in 2018 at $865m, with superstar gamers like Johan ‘Notail’ Sundstein and Mike ‘Hustro’ Rufaic generating millions of dollars in prize money and sponsorship and multiplayer online battle arenas attracting sponsors as diverse as Louis Vuitton and Cadbury-Schweppes.
Yet while it may be big business globally, is it big business here? Do the cultures of GCC nations encourage gaming prowess as a serious profession? Most critically, do the non-endemic advertising brands know about its Generation Z impact and standing?
These were all factors tackled in a powerful and engaging panel debate at the recent ASBU BroadcastPro Summit. Titled The Esports Players – Keeping their Eye on the Game, it brought together key luminaries from almost every corner of the esports ecosystem.
The panel featured Can Akmenek, Channel Manager of Gametoon; Edouard Griveaud, VP Gaming Esports at Webedia; Karim Mousa, co-founder and Director of Cyber Sports League (CSL); Luciano Rahal, PR & Communications Manager at Riot Games; Michiel Bakker, CEO of GINX TV; and Scott Barber, Business Development Manager, XPression and VS Solutions at Ross Video.
Panel moderator Serge Zabbal, Business Director, Empire Entertainment, was keen to clarify for the audience exactly what esports really entails. After all, it covers an extraordinarily wide range of gaming formats, from first-person shooter to digital collectable card games and Battle Royale (to name only a few), and embraces all dimensions of players, from amateur living room collectives and ‘geeks’ through to top-tier, fully-branded professionals. Consensus among the panellists largely centred around Zabbal’s view that it is best defined as “the competitive form of gaming, where teams get into league structures and are commercially sponsored”.
Luciano Rahal of Riot Games commented that “esports is competitive gaming at a professional and semi-professional level”, and then explained that “it came about by way of our asking the question ‘how can we celebrate competitive gamers in the same way as athletes?’ The reality is that it happened at a time when people’s behaviour was changing – and esports is the perfect fit for that new lifestyle, with everything coming together at the right time.”
Yet the reality is that esports is also structurally born from a media environment – it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in the very fact that it’s broadcast or streamed and watched by millions. So in response to Zabbal’s prompting, the panellists looked in more detail at this very critical media relationship.
Scott Barber of Ross Video made the point that the broadcast element poses a level of technical challenge that’s often underrated. “The biggest challenge for media is signal conversion; there are more computers than cameras going into the router, and many of these machines are running at 123fps. But once signal conversion is taken care of, you’re back to a fairly standard set-up, where XPression graphics gets used exactly the same way as it would with traditional sporting coverage.”
In terms of media appeal in the GCC, Karim Mousa’s view was: “We are in a growth stage; there are still a few steps to get there; we need more successful events and for the player base to grow larger. At last, the idea of becoming a professional player is becoming more culturally acceptable – but we’re still a long way from where things are in the USA, Europe or parts of the Far East.”
One of the problems, as Can Akmenek observed, is: “Penetration is low compared to many areas; it will stay like this until we can introduce more key players to the region.”
More regional players or not, the potential is huge and the scale of audience in the sector can be very good: for example, the reality is that media entities like GINX TV are ‘real’ broadcasters, with – as Bakker pointed out – 50m households and 3m viewers per month. “Plus, we hope to be working with our partner OSN to help them do more than they are today, just carrying our channel.”
While focussing on broadcasters and the performance dimension, isn’t there also the danger of overlooking the real power base at the epicentre of the esports phenomenon – the gaming companies themselves?
Edouard Griveaud commented: “The world of sports is very similar to the world of esports in terms of its ecosystem, but the difference is that esports publishers have all the power. The main problem here has always been how critical it is to involve the game publishers. One of the main ways round this is to engage them with the most sophisticated events and give them a real shop window for the power of esports entertainment.”
Scott Barber summed this up: “A big gaming event can really be a huge advert for the game being played. There’s no better way for a games publisher to promote what they do to a relevant and committed audience.”
Other critical elements are also needed in order to bring money into the game. Any ecosystem needs money, and just as with the world of sport, there are many different avenues to explore. The debate is whether these are widely available within the ecosystem that the Middle East gaming scene currently offers.
Zabbal, for example, asked if it’s possible to bring in more advertisers – or is a subscription-based model likely to have better success?
Akmenek explained that SPI’s model combines sponsors and advertising. “Plus, we offer a linear platform with full esports gaming service in order to generate our money through a fee subscription basis. But we are looking to create our own exclusive events in the future.”
A real barrier to bringing money into the regional game has been the greatly varying success of the local performance platform. Ambitious events have sometimes fallen flat, and there seems to be a real need for greater confidence from the potential stakeholders all round. This can rapidly become a ‘cart-before-the-horse’ scenario in an environment where there is relatively little track record to point to.
Scott Barber pointed out what the commercial picture could nonetheless become. “The big events worldwide require a lot of kit, and we are developing a whole new market because of this. We have the Hyper Arena in the Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas, or the Esports Stadium in Arlington. ESL is now standardised on our XPressions graphics platform, with about 30 licence holders, and in Asia, there’s Banana Culture and VSPN. Plus, we recently signed a deal in Tokyo with Konami.”
So what about the core of the game – the gamers themselves? The panel considered whether the industry’s key stakeholders here in the GCC are doing enough to reach them.
GINX’s Bakker took the view that “the community of gamers is the most interesting and significant aspect of all… It’s the gamers who decide whether a particular game becomes an esport or not. It’s also often forgotten that when there’s a tournament prize of, say, $25m, half of that has been generated by the gamers themselves. But the challenge is that broadcasters are not necessarily very good at focussing on that community.”
Luciano Rahal made the key point here that one of the achievements of esports has been to take attention away from the geekish, ‘coke-and-chips’ image of the typical amateur player and create a portfolio of professional superstars.
“A player,” he said, “can make or break the business. Esports is a great advertisement, but it’s underpinned by the gamers. What better way to celebrate your players? But the reality is that you then have to put your top-performing players centre stage.”
In fact, the panellists made the same point about the style of gaming itself, and how dramatically it has evolved. Karim Mousa argued: “If we couldn’t livestream our tournaments, we wouldn’t be in business today. But we began by approaching tiny, unknown events in hotels and basements and taking the chance to expand and promote them. You have to take care of your community, because it’s not only central to your success, but to the success of the sector itself.”
For all the growth in esports popularity, the panel went on to consider what the most important next steps must be in order to take the local ecosystem to the next level and really build professional participation.
Indeed, the professional engagement figures aren’t at all good in local tournaments. It’s often the case that up to 90% of gamers are enthusiastic amateurs, keen to take part but lacking the battle-hardened finesse of their professional counterparts in the US, Europe or the Far East.
Luciano Rahal commented: “We’re not in a good place at the moment. The game has a ranking system, but here even the mid-line is only 10% of the player base. I don’t think this region is there yet. But will it eventually get there? Absolutely!”
Will greater sponsorship and commercial advertisers pave the way to that growth? As Zabbal mentioned, elsewhere in the global scene we expect to see F&B businesses, fast food chains and lifestyle brands being big sponsors, but what about here in the Middle East?
Edouard Griveaud explained: “Esports has the advantage of carrying premium values which aren’t present in gaming as such. It’s a way to ‘reach the unreachables’. It means you can reach those kids in their own environments. Telcos, banks, car makers and luxury brands – they all have to be aware of this appeal. We can see the true power of esports by looking at the current involvement of luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Louis Vuitton.”
Rahal defines this challenge in one word: education. “We need to educate potential advertisers about the power of gaming and what it actually does. That’s happened very convincingly in many of the global markets, and now we need to put some initiative into ensuring we can follow suit.”
The panel session cast light on the two paramount factors in developing the local esports universe: firstly, encouraging the role of professional players and a structure to induct them into the highest echelons of esports; and secondly, the imperative to encourage would-be advertisers to wise up to the lucrative financial opportunities that this unique and burgeoning ecosystem undoubtedly offers.