The growth and prestige of esports has often been measured by competition: record viewership records, sold out arenas cheering a team as they heft a trophy, or a team making a run through the gauntlet to finally claim the regional crown. While esports is focused on competition, and many of the field’s top organizations keep aiming for the top, team G2 Esports is taking another approach, aiming to entertain fans and build a media brand.
“I always had entertainment as the reason as why I was relevant at my job,” says Carlos “ocelote” Rodríguez Santiago, who played League of Legends and World of Warcraft professionally for close to a decade before founding G2 Esports, where he’s now owner and CEO. “You don’t always have competitive success. You have off-months, and sometimes off-years. What keeps a fanbase happy and willing to follow you and willing to die for you is the goosebumps you generate with your content.”
So, how do you keep people engaged if you’re losing? That’s the bind with esports — there can only be a limited pool of winners. The Overwatch League has 20 teams, but only one champion at the end. Making matters more complicated, players only have a limited time in which they can compete at the highest levels.
Players in esports often have short career spans; there are few players in their 30s, and repetitive stress injuries and burnout become a risk for high level players. While some players grow older and look toward security and family, there are always younger players who will be eager to take their spot.
It leads to a churn, where older players fade out and younger players take their place. That works for the overall ecosystem, but it leaves players in a rough position unless they’re able to transfer to another job within esports like casting, hosting, or coaching.
It’s also potentially damaging to the team, who can lose the player’s fanbase along with the player themselves. When a team is focused solely on winning, and a star player steps away, that can cause a period of upheaval and uncertainty among fans.
By focusing on entertainment, G2 Esports, which competes in League of Legends, Hearthstone, Counter-Strike, and other games, aims to extend the lifespan of any individual player. Instead of worrying about a player’s ability to compete at the highest tiers, they are able to transition into tracks like streaming. As G2 Esports experiments with formats like talent scouting reality shows and personality-focused battle royale teams, these opportunities expand.
Rodríguez Santiago notes that the team will still focus on these initiatives, even now, when G2 Esports is on the rise. The organization claimed the LEC Spring Split championship, and earned a top four finish at the League of Legends Worlds Championship in 2018. Despite that, there have been long stretches where G2 Esports would dominate regionally and then crumble on the international stage. It bred resentment and mockery. This is where the promise of entertainment comes in — G2 Esports pivoted into a brand that you loved to hate, and that gave it legs to eventually redeem itself. It’s a commitment that requires players to balance their training schedule with the demands of branding, a burden Rodríguez Santiago is aware of.
“Every time we pick a player, they automatically understand what they’re getting into,” he said. “We brief them really deeply into what we expect of them.”
As esports continues to grow, brands seek to build strong parasocial relationships with fans. With a fanbase of millions, it’s impossible for an organization to acknowledge or be aware of every fan — but they want each fan to feel like they are a part of the team and the family. That requires broader strategies.
Through this lens, Rodríguez Santiago is far less interested in comparison to traditional sports. Instead, he looks to comedians, musicians, and media.
“Every time I hear a company getting interested in or investment from sports, I think they’re misunderstanding their company as a sports brand or a sports team instead of what it actually is, which is a media company,” Rodríguez Santiago says. “My company's closer to Disney or Netflix than it is to the LA Lakers.”
The organization is currently working on ways to get fans closer to the organization via exclusive content and “behind the scenes” peeks. It’s a dynamic and strategy closer to reality television than traditional esports, which is an approach laden with risks. Organizations have drawn criticism in the past for shining too much light on players, who can be in a vulnerable position, with behind the scenes features and attempts at transparency via on-camera conversations.
It’s a balancing act that goes beyond just player and fan. Esports is not confined to any one game or even genre. World of Warcraft, the former king of online gaming, only has a modest esports scene with the Mythic Dungeon Invitational, arena battles, and world-first raiding. Multiplayer online battle arenas, like League of Legends and Dota 2, filled the void and helped lay much of the groundwork for today’s esports scene. Shooters have consistently been popular and sustainable, from the titan Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to smaller up and comers like Rainbow Six Siege. Now, battle royale games are taking a swing at providing an alternative experience.
In short, a team must be able to exist outside any one individual game. This is further complicated by ventures like the Overwatch League, which asked organizations to come up with unique brands that differ from their parent organizations. How do you keep fans engaged and intrigued on shifting ground?
For G2 Esports, the next big opportunity is the battle royale genre. G2 Esports has a presence in Apex Legends, Fortnite, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. These games are dramatically different from more traditional titles — more players, more fights around the map, and more perspectives to handle. Part of G2’s talent seeking process was done via a The Voice-style reality TV show, and the organization went with compelling personalities and showmen over skilled shooters and builders.
“Publishers are trying to find out what the best system around this competition is. I don’t think anybody has gotten it right yet,” says Rodríguez Santiago, who says that G2 Esports entered these game as the potential “ultimate entertainment experience.” The larger pool of players, for instance, has potential for more storytelling and personality. “It’s about understanding what is the best way to entertain people with these games. And no one has gotten it right. They’re taking the mega serious, mega try-hard route.”
“The way players should see themselves, and hopefully how a lot in G2 see themselves, is as gladiators,” says Rodríguez Santiago. “If you lose, the last thing you want is the Caesar who personifies the feedback from the crowd and the arena. You don’t want him to put the thumbs down.”