March 27, 2018

Can Storytelling Help Propel Esports to Wider Audiences?

Rick Fox remembers the story and tells it like it was yesterday. While visiting the offices of Riot Games in West Los Angeles with his son Kyle, he noticed a huge photo on the wall and instantly recognized the interior of the Staples Center, packed to the rafters with fans. But something was amiss.

It wasn’t a Lakers game, unlike many he played there as an NBA superstar. Instead, as the front desk receptionist pointed out, it was the finals for the 2013 League of Legends World Championship — packed with young fans to watch the game’s finale — its own Super Bowl. More astounding to Fox was that the venue sold out in a mere nine minutes.

Flash forward to 2018…. esports is increasingly a known quantity, leading many to wonder how it can expand beyond its core audience.

Where is esports headed, and what role will original content play in its expansion?

At this month’s annual music, film, tech, and esports event, South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festival in Austin, attendees heard from industry leaders including publishers, team owners, franchise owners, and others. Esports is on an upward trajectory with astounding metrics that have advertisers, networks, and media companies all clamoring for a slice of the action.

Morgan Stanley recently reported that esports attracted an more than 380 million viewers in 2017. It (conservatively) estimates esports will be a $1.5 billion industry by 2020, as it emulates the business models of major league sports, complete with sponsorships, advertising, media rights, ticket sales, and merchandise.

While these numbers are impressive, strategists are already evaluating how best to reach beyond its core base of fanatical viewers. Some believe that original content may hold the key to unlocking wider audiences and pique curiosity among more casual fans, and hopefully trigger conversion funnels. It’s a strategy proven with a number of nascent sports, most recently with the UFC, which learned it needed to reach beyond linear audiences to cord-cutters and cord-nevers.

There is no doubt that game publishers are wizards at attracting huge audiences for its marquee events online, frequently outnumbering mainstream sports like the recent 2018 Winter Olympics, which averaged 19.8 million daily viewers across all its platforms (both linear and digital). Remember the photograph that Fox saw on the reception lobby wall of Riot HQ? That event attracted an online audience of 32 million that watched South Korean Team SK Telecom T1 defeat Chinese team Royal Club. And at last year’s League of Legends World Championship, fans filled the famed Beijing National Stadium, aka the Bird’s Nest, as 60 million watched online — one of the highest viewed events in LOL history, and what some execs called the most watched sporting event of any kind in China. Numbers like that have advertisers salivating and traditional stick-and-ball sports sweating bullets.

But for the audience to reach beyond the converted, particularly, those who have power over the pocketbook, the industry needs to look at ways to create content that is accessible to mainstream viewers and build audiences for players and teams, in particular content with strong storytelling. It’s been the missing link that could propel esports into the next tier.

Taking a Page out of Reality TV’s Playbook
Team Liquid co-CEO Steve Arhancet was one of the first to realize this, and used original content to get more exposure in his previous role as team manager for Curse Gaming. He realized it was a way to create fandom and earn revenue. Like today’s badboy of YouTube, Jake Paul, Arhancet leased an 8,000-square-foot Beverly Hills mansion for an activation one part Big Brother and one part The Real World. His strategy was simple, as he explained to the Austin audience.

“We’ll be the party team. We’ll just go party. So we set up this thing called the Curse Mansion and it was a little bit of training for events and then just a lot of fun and so we filmed it, we created this docu-series about the team, like I was basically a father figure to some of these players…. People were able to see the authenticity, just like regular teams, so to speak.”

As a trailblazer in 2012, Arhancet knew that such tactics would expose the sport to larger numbers and reach a general audience with authentic content, despite the inherent risks in keeping the cameras rolling. “Transparency is a balancing act,” he told the SXSW audience.  When allowing the cameras in the house, “You can’t always be the best version of yourself because fans see through it. You may upset some, but at least you were real.”

And it was authenticity like that which UFC fans saw when they viewed the very first black-and-white videos posted by an up-and-coming featherweight Brazilian fighter, Jose Aldo, in 2011. Shot on a simple Flipcam, Aldo’s honest speak-to-the-camera approach got fans excited about the fighter even though he didn’t speak a word of English. The mini series did so well, gaining nearly a quarter-million views, that UFC brass began to divert more attention into similar efforts.  Aldo would go on to become the UFC featherweight champion and hold the belt for four years, until being knocked out in 2015 by Conor McGregor.

Lo-fi approach aside, the digital medium began to evolve at the UFC, resulting in a digital-only series called Embedded, a real-time series that followed fighters in days leading up to a pay-per-view event. Original audience goals were for one million views per episode. Seen exclusively on YouTube, the series looked to grow a following of fans who anticipated its nightly posting. And grow it did, in many cases reaching five million views per episode and attracting significant sponsorship. Importantly, the series reached casual viewers who would quickly become invested in the fighter stories and drama, watch the Fox broadcast, and buy the pay-per-view event.

In esports, a similar undertaking has yet to be seen, even though it is not without its drama.

Late last year, ESL Gaming and Hulu struck a deal for four esports series, including a reality docs-series that followed the drama of the Immortals, a top CS:GO team, as they struggled to rebuild their roster after a series of incidents at a tournament in Montreal lead to the firing of three team members. With the IEM Oakland tournament just weeks away, and currently three players short of a full team, the Immortals had to find new talent and quickly build a cohesive team. Bootcamp followed them through the extensive process of player evaluation, testing, and trials until they finally found the perfect players and race to get ready for IEM Oakland.

Looking to Hollywood
Realizing the value of original content, the Immortals and Los Angeles Valiant CEO Noah Winston announced a major staff hire last month, bringing onboard Hollywood film director and producer J.M.R. Luna as VP of Content and Production. Luna will oversee all of the organization’s long- and short-form film production and assist in creating premium content for team partners. According to Immortals’ President and COO Ari Segal:

“When we thought about the gaps we want to fill in the esports content universe, we quickly zeroed in on using content to tell deep, meaningful stories about our players, teamwork, and the life and lifestyle of an esports player or organization. We needed a true storyteller to accomplish that goal, and that’s why we recruited and hired J.M.R. Luna.”

And it’s high production value that fans are expecting, according to Nate Nanzer, Commissioner of the Overwatch League and Blizzard Entertainment executive. Nanzer believes that esports can continue to improve on storytelling since players have incredible stories to tell, and original content can give fans insight into what makes teams tick. Even more importantly, a great documentary with captivating storytelling may get his dad interested in the sport, even though he may not necessarily be a player.

And attracting those non-fans is critical, according to Pete Vlastelica, President and CEO at Major League Gaming, a division of Activision Blizzard. He described one particular preseason match between Overwatch teams which was on the big screen at a San Francisco bar. Most of the patrons had no idea what they were watching, but “…over the course of the match they started to figure out a little bit more about what they were watching, like when San Francisco was doing something good, when they were losing momentum, and then by the end of the match the whole bar broke out in a ’beat L.A.’ chant.’”

“And that’s the hypothesis we’re trying to prove,” Vlastelica told the audience, “when you make something relevant to a local fan base, they will invest in this because you’ve given them a reason to care.”

And that’s exactly what publishers, teams, and content providers strive for as they make esports more accessible to an audience eager to embrace the sport.

Remember Rick Fox?  He went on to buy an esports franchise.

Patrick Perez is a digital professional and multi-platform specialist with a stellar track record generating multi-million dollar returns within the digital ecosystem: SVOD, OTT, mobile, authentication, digital Pay-Per-View, and other digital platforms. He lives in Los Angeles.

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