Esports has exploded in popularity over the last decade, and a huge part of that success is due to the fact that it’s so easy to engage with from afar. Streaming, Discord, and Twitter put esports directly in fans’ homes. There are drawbacks to the current ecosystem of esports, and organizations are adapting by focusing on creating real world infrastructure and settling roots. It seems odd to stop focusing entirely on being always online, but the rewards of building a physical presence make the risk of building infrastructure worth it.
Away from keyboard
The Overwatch League and upcoming Call of Duty League from Activision Blizzard are both focused around geolocation. There are 20 teams in the Overwatch League, with each corresponding to a city around the world. (Two teams, the Valiant and the Gladiators, share Los Angeles.) Activision Blizzard is so dedicated to this idea that it plans to have each team have their own arena by 2020.
Activision Blizzard has already proven that a tournament can succeed by selling over 20,000 tickets for the Overwatch League season one finals. Big tournaments tend to be relatively infrequent but sell out quickly. Tournaments can now host elaborate displays for present fans, like an AR concert starring fictional pop band K/DA. Ubisoft developers note that they partly track community health through events, meeting fans and observing an increasing amount of cosplayers. And of course, there is the prestige of a shot of a sold out arena, screaming and cheering for their favorite esport.
Show me the money
The Overwatch League has a wealth of sponsors, including Intel and Coca-Cola, and the participating organizations paid multimillion-dollar buy-in fees to be included in the Overwatch League. When the League expanded from 12 teams to 20 in 2018, Activision Blizzard earned a cool $20 million apiece. Ad revenue also comes in from the millions of viewers on stream, but that’s a far less reliable figure, especially since adblock exists.
That’s where offline events start to show their value. Physical events are another venue through which to sell merch to excited fans. A League of Legends statue from the ‘Unlocked’ line runs about $70, while a more high-detail statue of an individual champion is closer to $150 to $250. A jersey goes for around $60, but it’s more if you want to personalize it with your own gamer tag.
The Overwatch League store sells t-shirts, hoodies, keychains, flags, can coolers, glasses, logo plaques, stress balls, lanyards, pins, and socks. All of these items are prominently displayed at matches and tournaments, and you’re never really done collecting it all. New items and jersey designs continually roll out. Teams also sell tickets (both standard and for premium seating) at events, concessions, VIP packages, meet and greets, and more. With geolocation, the potential to bring fans in and get them spending goes beyond just finals tournaments.
Meeting up and hanging out
While there’s definitely the cynical, mercenary angle of money making, esports has also become a place where many people find community. The internet has opened up many avenues for people to find their folk. A few years ago, to find esports events in Toronto, I would have to go on community Facebook groups. Those now lay dormant; many fans have moved onto Discord. These community groups are difficult to follow and can spin out of control.
Teams are moving in to fill the gap — major esports organizations run their own official Discords, for instance, but moderating them and keeping them maintained remains a concern. While it’s possible to follow one esports’ schedule, or one team’s schedule, any attempt to crosspollinate quickly gets confusing as fans keep track of multiple schedules.
This is further complicated by the fact that large events and tournaments have the matches themselves, but also smaller independent meetups happening within. Cosplayers, pro players, and influencers often take advantage of the amassed gathering to host mini-meetups, creating events within events.
Developers are creating tools external to the game in an attempt to flesh out the infrastructure necessary to manage all of this.
Apps like Beam.gg are being developed in an attempt to both fill that need and take this market over broader tools like Eventbrite or Ticketmaster. “We have a dual focus,” says CEO Arwina Mogul. “The focus on big events, like the Overwatch League or LCS, is to have people communicate and engage with each other. When there’s a massive event, it’s hard to be like, ‘when is my favorite cosplayer doing a signing? When is this player meetup happening? Oh, there’s a giveaway I missed out on because it’s on the other side of the venue.’ The other focus is community events, grassroots events both offline and online. A lot of those events have organizers who don’t have millions of dollars to spend on ads.”
Beam.gg has reputation and rating systems built into it, to encourage both guests and organizers to conduct themselves appropriately. Events are organized by game, purpose (a Fortnite tournament, or a Hearthstone gathering?), demographic (LGBT-friendly events, for instance), and details. Once fans sign up, they can chat in a room specifically for that event that is moderated by organizers. And once fans meet, they tend to genuinely experience a sense of camaraderie and joy from being among their own people and cheering for a common cause.
Of course, the optics of that joy reflect well on esports organizers and teams. There are powerful incentives to harness fan energy for marketing and prestige purposes. Every organization wants to convert interested players into fans, and fans into superfans. Organizations want players to be emotionally invested in acquiring the new merchandise to celebrate an unprecedented win, or tickets for a viewing party. That’s much easier to build face to face than over a stream or Twitter account. Real life experiments will continue to play out as esports seeks a sustainable path. It’s just a question of whether they can survive an increased frequency, or whether the experiment will veer into unexpected territory.