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What does the Polish city of Katowice mean to you?
Possibly you’re picturing coal mines. Oppressive Soviet-era architecture. A place you might stop on your way to somewhere nicer – like Cracow.
But for the people who play video games for a living – and the fans who watch – Katowice is the most exciting place on earth. Every February, 100,000 of them pour into this modest city to attend an event called Intel Extreme Masters.
Katowice is the European capital of eSports.
If you find it odd that people will pay to watch others playing video games, you are not alone (but you’re probably over 30). However, analyst NewZoo estimates there are now 385 million eSports enthusiasts in the world, fuelling a market that generated $660m in 2017 – a figure that could rise to $1.5bn by 2020.
Picking up the pace
eSports began around a decade ago in South Korea, but has only gathered pace in the UK in the last few years. This slow start was largely down to issues of connectivity: you need fast and reliable internet connections to play data-hungry games against others online and, until recently, the UK didn’t have them.
Globally, there are now millions of gamers playing against each other online. The best players form themselves into teams, and these teams compete in dozens of live events every year. Football-sized crowds pay to watch them, with tens of millions more following the action online.
And the money is as big as the crowds. The International Dota 2 tournament is the world’s largest, and has a $24m prize pool. And more people (43 million) watched the 2016 League of Legends final than Game 7 of the the NBA Finals Game 7.
Given this, one might wonder why eSports is worth only $660m. The answer probably lies in its structure. Essentially, the four components in the value chain – publishers, tournament owners, broadcasters and teams – could be described as ‘frenemies’.
“Arguably, the publishers have the most power. eSports is dominated by just a handful of very popular titles”
“There’s this uneasy alliance,” says Andy Payne, chair of the British eSports Association. “They all think they own the sport. But they have different agendas. There’s no real structure yet, because the events are based around individual games. So it’s as if [games developer] Valve owns the high jump and [its rival] Activision owns the javelin. It’s taking a while for everyone to work together for the common good. But they will. The sport is exploding.”
Arguably, the publishers have the most power. eSports is dominated by just a handful of very popular titles such as League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Dota, Hearthstone and Overwatch. They tend to be combat strategy games played by teams, rather than individuals.
In fact, the UK’s love of FIFA football games has held it back in eSports. Payne says: “Football doesn’t do so well in live eSports events, where people prefer to see teams pulling off daring strategic missions. Your FIFA team is one bloke.”
However, when a publisher does score an eSports hit, there is a lucrative windfall. The game will sell hundreds of thousands more copies and stay popular for years rather than months.
So, initially, publishers saw eSports merely as a marketing opportunity for their ‘boxed’ titles. It was the tournament organisers and broadcasters that grew a hobby into a sport and then a business.
Predictably, these companies have now become targets for investors. The world’s biggest tournament organizer, ESL (which puts on the Katowice event), sold a majority stake to Swedish media group Modern Times for $87m in 2015. A year earlier, Amazon acquired broadcaster Twitch for just under $1bn.
“There’s new revenue coming into eSports.”
James Dean · ESL UK
James Dean, MD of ESL UK, says these deals reflect a widespread belief in the huge potential of the space. “There’s new revenue coming into eSports,” he says. “Originally, we sold subscriptions to players, but now we’re seeing massive sponsorship and licensing opportunities open up as brands start to see the reach we have, especially to younger audiences.”
Dean concedes that the publishers have a strong grip on the sector, but says ESL also has some leverage of its own. In 2016, for example, it integrated its tournament system directly into PlayStation 4 consoles. “eSports can’t be owned by one organisation,” he says. “But we do own the dates and the events and so we have deep relationships.”
“Improved monetisation and exposure of eSports can lead to a host of investable opportunities.”
Oliver Rodwell · Dolfin
Overall, despite the uneasy balance of power inside eSports, most observers believe the sector is hugely undervalued. Josh Chapman, a market expert writing for the TopTal research site, says: “eSports currently has an audience of 385 million, yet generates less than $1bn in revenue. This is why I believe eSports is possibly one of the best investment opportunities of the coming decade.”
Oliver Rodwell, Head of Compliance Development at Dolfin, agrees. “Having seen the massive growth in sports such as football over the past decade, improved monetisation and exposure of eSports can lead to a host of investable opportunities.”