eSports at IBC

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IBC2019 was the self-styled "world’s most influential media entertainment and technology show", and lived up to expectations, with around 400 speakers, 1,700 exhibitors – including us – and over 55,000 attendees.

The five-day event was chock full of product and tech innovations, but this year also marked a first for the conference – a dedicated showcase for eSports and a live eSports tournament. It was a first for us too, as we were exhibiting as ‘Gravity Media’ – our parent company that encompasses Gearhouse Broadcast, HyperActive Broadcast, Input Media and Chief Entertainment - just as we did at Gamescom in Koln last month.

Showtime for eSports

The eSports showcase on 17 September was of particular interest to us, and an excellent way to catch up on the latest issues and developments. The eSports market is hugely attractive to existing media businesses and newcomers alike. Some of the challenges are similar to traditional sports broadcasting, but in many ways it’s a brave new world with rules and protocols yet to be tied down particularly fully integrating the PC/Gaming workflow with broadcast, and many challenges to be overcome. For one, the reach of eSports is vast, with low barriers to participation, with new titles launched seemingly every month and hugely assisted by the sector’s natural integration in the digital world including social media & streaming sites which means that everyday players are highly connected to both the pro & amateur scene and to each other, providing instantaneous feedback. That connection really drives growth – and the trend is set to continue.

A billion-dollar business

According to Futuresource, last year saw over 4,400 eSports tournaments globally, with prize money totalling more than $200 million. The same report shows that compound annual growth rate for eSports revenue will be 18% from 2019 to 2023, and pass the billion-dollar revenue threshold in 2020. All of this attracts spectators and fans both live and via streaming channels such as Twitch, and fuels the interest of sponsors and advertisers – particularly those with products and services geared to the 18-35 demographic (still heavily weighted to males).

The eSports ecosystem is becoming increasingly complex, involving professional and amateur players (ESL alone has around eight million playing members), publisher producers, technology businesses enabling the underlying platforms, broadcasting companies, sponsors and advertisers, merchandisers, broadcast manufacturers, gambling businesses, and governance bodies and associations. It is a global sector, with few local limitations, and it’s maturing rapidly.

The broadcasting mix

For our part, we were interested in all angles at IBC related to creation, production and broadcasting. Online streams are very much at the natural home of the eSports community, with Twitch the dominant platform. But more traditional broadcasters such as ESPN and Fox Sports are keen to get in on the action, with some eSports content making its way to prime-time viewing. Traditional broadcasting complements the streaming platforms not least because the audience demographics differ, and because linear broadcasting lends itself to programming such as weekly reviews, round-ups, and education about the sport for those less familiar with it. Mixer, owned by Microsoft, is starting to make an impact on Twitch predominantly thanks to its exclusive tie-up with Ninja, worth a reportedly seven-figure sum.

Across the sector, though, there are many gaps that need to be filled. Data management is a challenge, with scores, statistics, analysis, projections, odds and related news feeds to be incorporated with playing content still not fully established as a segment within the market translating the in-arena experience to the watching viewer. And the talent pool supporting the production and broadcast of eSports is still maturing, with key gaps in the observer, director and producer roles, where few properly experienced professionals exist – especially when events overlap.

Unfinished business

Which business models will be successful is still uncertain, but some viable approaches are already emerging. One is in the form of physical facilities, and basing pro competitions on a city-by-city franchise model, where local teams play home and away matches in a similar format to traditional sports. This bricks-and-mortar approach to a clicks-based experience is even spreading to the education sector in the US, where several major universities are investing in educative and competition facilities dedicated to eSports. Staffordshire University launched their own eSports course in 2018 with a new campus going live this month in London to help fill the aforementioned gap in talent.

The future for eSports is bright, offering many opportunities for new and exciting broadcasting approaches to provide the perfect environment for brands to engage with customers old and new. A key question is whether eSports will find a natural position in linear broadcast whether that’s in the form of a weekly review of global tournament competition activity or more mainstream-friendly content, say short-form in-between event content, that provides the insight behind the professionalism that is forming whether it’s with the teams lifestyles or sponsorship activation campaigns which are taking place both online & offline.

Gravity Media will certainly be part of that future, as we’ve been active in this market since Day 1. We were the first production company ever to work out how to bring a game into a TV workflow, and we’ve supported some of the biggest players ever since, including ESL, FACEIT, PGL, Ubisoft, Blizzard, Riot and GFinity. We look forward to continuing our role in this ongoing success story. 

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