A Beginner’s Guide to Esports

You may have heard of esports, but you might not be aware of what it actually is. Little surprise. Esports has risen so rapidly over the last few years that it's easy to feel lost. You’re not the only one, but fear not. Fast Web Media spoke to one such confused soul - our entirely fictional brand manager Rob Taylor - to explain to him what esports is and why it presents such an attractive opportunity for brands.

Rob: OK, come on then: what is esports?

Fast Web Media: Simple: it’s competitive gaming. Gamers get together, either in person or remotely, and battle it out in gaming competitions on the video game of their choice. Esports can be highly professional and well-organised, or it can be a few friends playing together for a laugh on a Friday night. Those games of FIFA over pizza and a few beers? Technically, you’re playing esports.

Come on though, let’s be serious: it's not really a sport, is it?

It really is. Many have difficulty accepting esports as a sport because there's no physicality involved, like there is with football or rugby. But if we accept chess, darts and snooker – sports that are equally as inert - there's no reason why we shouldn't accept esports.

OK, that’s fine, but it’s just for nerds, isn’t it? How can I, a non-nerd, and others like me, understand it, and doesn’t that limit its potential to grow?

Ever played Candy Crush on your way into work or dabbled on Mario Kart with your kids? Guess what - you understand games. Esports is certainly more complicated than casually taking on Rainbow Road on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but it isn't a foreign language that only nerds can speak. With 8.5 million people watching streams on Amazon-owned gaming site Twitch every day, there’s a huge global audience that’s expanding every day.

Global? But I’ve heard it’s most popular in Asia. Is it really as popular everywhere else?

Esports is indeed huge in Asia; it’s where the industry grew from and where it continues to thrive. But it’s popular elsewhere too, with viewership increasing by 100% in the US in 2015/16, and half of all gamers in Europe now being aware of esports. With gaming as a hobby continuing to grow, these figures are only likely to increase as the months and years pass.

Sure, but there’s a big difference between me and my mates playing as a hobby and the organised game tournaments I’ve heard about. How do those big tournaments work?

It varies. Just as the Premier League differs in format from the FA Cup, esports tournaments differ from each other depending on how they’re set up. Some are focused specifically on a certain game or a genre. Some are more interested in team play. Some strive to push the envelope with new rules. The core concept remains the same however: fans take their seat at an arena and watch teams and individual play a videogame against each other for prizes.

Prizes you say? What kind of prizes and how do I go about winning them (asking for a friend…)

Thousands of dollars are given away every year. The recent Dota 2 Kiev Major, for example, had a prize pool of $3 million, with the winners claiming $1 million, the runners-up winning $500,000 and the rest being distributed in lesser amounts to other high ranking players. Not all tournaments are as money-spinning (Dota 2 has given away an estimated $99bn across all its tournaments), but players stand to win a lot of money if they’re good enough. So best start practicing!

Awesome, I’m pretty good at Candy Crush, so can I get involved? Are all video games available to play in esports?

Sadly not. Mobile games haven’t taken the leap into the competitive arena, so don’t expect to see players frantically tapping on their iPhone in a major esports tournament any time soon. Likewise, some console and PC genres simply don’t feature a strong competitive element and so don’t lend themselves well to esports: Role Playing Games (RPGs) are a good example. However, gaming and esports are such fluid sectors that nothing is set in stone, as British GQ’s gaming critic Sam White notes:

RPGs nowadays are definitely seeing a resurgence. For years now, developers have been louder and louder about their games offering freedom for players to do what they want to do. That plays into the roleplaying aspect of RPGs.

Like any game, the most popular esports games are those that find a sweet spot between accessibility (so it can gain new players) and complexity (so there’s sufficient challenge to engage those players).

There go my dreams of a mansion in Dubai! So if Candy Crush is out, what games do I need to perfect my skills at?

There are a number of popular games across various genres, but a handful regularly pull in the most viewers, including League of Legends (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena - MOBA), Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (First Person Shooter - FPS), Dota 2 (MOBA), Hearthstone (Collectible Card Game), Starcraft II (Real-time Strategy) and Overwatch (FPS). Esports market research company Newzoo has a useful table of the most popular games on Twitch, which is updated every month.

That’s a lot of games and a lot of money for something that’s been around for such a short amount of time. How has esports risen so quickly?

There's a common misconception that esports has come out of nowhere, but the concept of major gaming competitions has been around for decades. The first competitive gaming tournament took place in 1980, when 10,000 people watched a Space Invaders tournament organised by Atari. The huge leaps forward in gaming technology and ever-increasing speed of the internet over the last few years have simply allowed this starting point to grow rapidly across the globe.

It can’t be all that big though. I mean, I don't see esports on TV much...

Newzoo has reported that in 2017 the total global esports audience will hit 385 million fans. While that's still a long way off the fanbase football commands, it's still a huge number of people. As for TV coverage, 24 hour esports TV station Ginx esports TV was recently added to Sky's roster and ITV has considered taking a minority stake in the business. Slowly but surely, the mainstream media is catching up.

But there are specific organisations for those sports that help legitimise them. I can't see one for esports? How can a sport function as a sport without a governing body?

The governance of esports is one of the biggest challenges the sport faces, though it's not a simple case of setting up an FA style governing body. Andrew Nixon of law firm Sheridan's, who specialises in esports legislation, told us that “to talk about a governing body of all of esports would be the equivalent of talking about a governing body for all sports.” In other words, it’s simply not feasible.

However, “that doesn't mean governance and regulation is any less important. It is incumbent on leagues (and where appropriate publishers) to build regulations to protect the integrity of their competition, and to protect players."

With modern esports still in its infancy, such governance could be a little way off, but that certainly doesn't invalidate the sport as it currently stands. After all, football has been played in the United Kingdom since the 16th Century, but it wasn't until 1863 that the Football Association was founded.

Thanks for the history lesson, but I’m still worried that esports represent a risk for a brand.

There’s always risk involved in any commercial partnership, but when it comes to esports, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. “[esports represents] an opportunity to get in front of consumers who are hard to market to.” Caroline Miller of gaming PR agency Indigo Pearl.

Most esports fans don’t consume traditional media, so traditional marketing doesn’t reach them. Brands also benefit from their association with teams and games that are loved by millions.

Caroline Miller, Indigo Pearl

What about gaming’s seedier side? GamerGate sounded pretty awful. Why would my brand want to be involved in a sector that has such a negative image?

GamerGate was indeed unsavoury, and it can’t be denied that gaming needs to improve its attitude to women. But just as instances of racism in the sport don’t discourage brands from getting involved in football, nor should episodes like GamerGate overshadow gaming’s reputation. “Those involved in GamerGate will not prevail,” Caroline Miller told us. “The Games Industry is a huge amazing creative entertainment sector and that’s why it will be here for a long time and why it will continue to thrive.

Ok, you’ve convinced me, I’ll give esports a look for my brand. But where do I start…

Esports isn’t simple to enter. The audience is incredibly passionate and it values authenticity above all else – if you wade in without knowing enough, you’re likely to fall flat on your face. As with any sector, the best place to start is by understanding that audience. That’s why Fast Web Media has written an eBook designed to help brand managers understand and segment the esports audience. Check it out for free.

That looks great, I’ll give it a read. One last question: fancy a game?

Oh, I thought esports weren’t proper sports…

If you have any further questions about esports, get in touch with us by emailing hello@fastwebmedia.com

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