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2016: the year of eSports?

View profile for Andy Moseby
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Just a few months after Activision Blizzard splurged $46 million on buying Major League Gaming (prompting commentators to ask ‘Can Activision Blizzard create the ESPN of eSports?’), it looks like ESPN are also pretty set on becoming the ESPN of eSports, following the launch last week of ESPN Esports.  The new website and app section is the start of ESPN’s plan to cover the professional video game competition circuit in the same way as the sports broadcaster covers the NFL, the NBA, the MLB or the NHL.  It also represents something of a change of heart for the company.  Shortly after Amazon acquired the video-steaming service Twitch for $970 million in the summer of 2014, ESPN president John Skipper was less than enthusiastic about televising eSports.  “It’s not a sport,” he said, “it’s a competition.  Chess is a competition.  Checkers is a competition…  Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports”.  However, the investment made into, and subsequent growth of, the eSports market - even over the last 18 months - has been hard for ESPN to ignore.  Given this rise, could 2016 be the year that eSports hits the mainstream?

Certainly, the audience figures and revenue projections coming out of the sector are extremely impressive.  Riot Games announced at the end of last year that the League of Legends 2015 World Championships pulled in 334 million viewers over the four weeks.  Newzoo’s ‘The Global Growth of Esports’ report (previewed here) reveals a global audience of 205 million people watching eSports and 13 million active participants.  Of all eSports viewers, 40% do not play any of the top eSport franchises (League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Hearthstone) – testament to eSports’ growing popularity as a stand-alone spectator sport.  Newzoo’s “relatively conservative” revenue forecasts show a leap from $278 million of worldwide revenue in 2015 to $1 billion by 2020 (the “optimistic” scenario predicts the sector hitting the billion-dollar mark by 2017).

These figures are the “pure” revenues from eSports competitions and broadcasting, not taking into account revenues from the games themselves or “secondary” advertising revenues from streaming and player content on YouTube.  They also don’t take into account the amounts generated by eSports betting.  “eSports has become our fastest growing market judges by volume and player numbers,” said Mirio Mella, Customer Engagement Manager at online bookmaker Pinnacle Sports, “The level of volume traded has pretty much doubled every year since we began dealing in 2010, and based on current activity this looks set to continue.”  In fact, the current volume of betting on eSports makes it Pinnacle’s seventh biggest sport (ahead of golf and rugby).     

No wonder, then, that over the last 12 months, eSports businesses have been the subject of high-valuation M&A and investment deals.  In July 2015, MTG (the Swedish media conglomerate) acquired a majority stake in Turtle Entertainment, one of the world’s largest eSports companies which operates ESL, for €78 million and then followed it up with the purchase of DreamHack (games events and festivals business which runs The DreamHack Open European eSports championship) for SEK 244 million (around £20 million).  On 24 September 2015, one day after fantasy sports site DraftKings announced it would be launching an eSports fantasy gaming service, competitor FanDuel announced its acquisition of fantasy eSports provider AlphaDraft for an undisclosed amount (less than $25 million according to re/code).  Closer to home, high-street retailer Game Digital spent €27.5 million on Multiplay, the games festival organiser.     

Details of investments are harder to come by, but Prashob Menon, TMT strategy consultant and analyst and author of ‘Why the next sports empire will be built on eSports’ has reported that “venture capital flowing into eSports has passed the $250 million mark [in 2015] which is already double of what we saw [in 2014].”  2015 also saw one of the first large investments into an eSports team.  In October 2015, USM Holdings, a firm founded by Russia’s richest man, Alisher Usmanov, agreed to invest as much as $100 million into Russia’s leading eSports team Virtus.Pro.

Although it’s difficult to argue against eSports being a growing market, as you might expect, not everyone agrees with the some of the more bullish forecasts.  Last week, Deloitte Global released its 2016 Technology, Media and Telecommunications predictions and was decidedly cold towards suggestions that eSports is of a size comparable with more traditional major sports:  “Today, a major eSports event may attract 40,000 people watching live, and tens of millions watching over the Web. This could be interpreted as meaning that “eSports is bigger than basketball”. That may be true when measured by audience size for an individual event. However, there are far fewer major events for eSports than for traditional sports, which means that in dollar terms eSports is not yet playing in the big leagues.”

Regardless of whether 2016 is the year eSports finally breaks through, it’s going to be an interesting twelve months.  New games will no doubt challenge the current franchises: Blizzard’s new Overwatch is generating a lot of pre-release hype, whilst the fighting game community will be celebrating the release of Street Fighter V (my choice would be Psyonix’s wonderful Rocket League).  We can also expect more from the big publishers following recent announcements from EA on its Peter Moore-helmed “Competitive Gaming Division” and Sony on its PS Plus League.  Given the current myriad of different leagues and events, we can also foresee further consolidation, both in terms of transactions as well as player and team associations.

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