Sam Cooke: ESI Digital Summit – “esports value is more than a pandemic anomaly”

Next week, Esports Insider (ESI) will host its ‘ESI Digital Summit (26-27 May), where it will discuss all critical components related to the esports value chain amid a disrupted global marketplace.

Sam Cooke, Managing Director of ESI, tells SBC that although esports may have navigated COVID-19 disruptions better than its traditional counterparts, stakeholders should not take comfort in the easy narratives ignoring esports’ future challenges.

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SBC: Taking place during unprecedented times, Sam can you detail to SBC audiences why the ESI Digital Summit is a must-attend event for all esports and betting stakeholders?

Sam Cooke (MD – Esports Insider): Whilst the return of the Bundesliga is just the beginning of something of a return to normalcy in terms of sport, esports has now been in the limelight for more than two months. General awareness and viewership, most notably by those who aren’t or haven’t watched CS:GO, League of Legends, or F1 Esports amongst many other titles, has been on the increase with records broken by tournament operators, Steam for certain titles, and streaming platforms alike. 

The absence of football, with the Belarussian Premier League not evidently satisfying enough for most, has seen betting volume on FIFA shoot up. Indeed that’s somewhat due to a significant surge in the amount of FIFA tournaments, and in turn markets, but the growth is noteworthy. One bookmaker told me FIFA is now in its top five esports betting markets which is unheard of. Will the EA title continue to see such numbers when football returns in full force? No. But can bookmakers expect for other titles & markets, such as CS:GO, League, Dota, Call of Duty and more to see a more consistently high level of interest and bets placed? I expect so. 

There will be winners and losers in this new frontline war on esports betting as bookies look to carve out a segment of this strong and growing audience for themselves. How to create a product which CS:GO fans enjoy for instance, or how can we turn more typical sports bettors into esports bettors too, and indeed understanding the diversity of the ‘esports audience’, all these topics will be addressed at ESI Digital. In terms of content and speaking to the more passionate fans, it’s worth remembering that targeting ‘esports fans’ generically is about as effective and vague as targeting ‘sports fans’. Core fanbases change across age, gender, region and are arguably more ever-evolving than in the sports world too, which is exactly why attending events such as the ESI Digital Summit is vital. Hear from the latest and greatest leaders industry-wide, ask them questions, and hopefully come away with some good ideas and excellent new knowledge, and connections. 

SBC: Media narrative suggests that esports has been unaffected by pandemic circumstances – is this somewhat a false assumption?  

 SC: In a word, yes. With esports, it’s true to say that it has been less impacted by sports as tournament operators have been able to continue to host their events for the most part, albeit it online only, or in cases behind closed doors. 

More eyes and attention on esports than ever before means the capacity for a longer-term benefit too, but are most stakeholders reaping these benefits now? Absolutely not. ESL, Blast, WePlay, FACEIT, Allied, StarLadder and more I assure you would all be much happier if they were able to host and put on physical events; they have commercial partners to satisfy, and fans spend money at these events, just as they do in the sporting world. For teams it’s somewhat the same too. 

Yes, developers and IP owners of games, and streaming platforms, are benefitting from people being more at home and more bored, with less to no sport to watch, but the fact more people are playing CS:GO than ever before, and more people are watching Rocket League does not directly and commercially positively benefit the majority of stakeholders in this space.

A major case in point here too, is the cancellation until next year of the largest Dota 2 event and by many metrics the biggest esports tournament of the calendar year, The International, which was set to take place in Stockholm in August. As far as anyone outside of Valve knows, it will not take place online in 2020, for reference this is a tournament with a prizepool around the £25m mark.   

SBC: Developing ESI Digital’s agenda, what key topics and discussions have you placed at the forefront of proceedings, knowing that all business narratives have been disrupted by lockdown?  

SC: We have five digital tracks across Investment, Brands & Sponsorship, Betting, Sports Meets Esports and THINK.

The first four I think are self-explanatory, but the latest one is focused on debate inducing sessions to get people thinking (hence our clever name), talking and arguing. They will include two thought leadership sessions such as PlayBrain’s CEO Mike Sheetal who will discuss the ecosystem and current state of play when it comes to esports in Japan.  

SBC: Observing betting developments, bookmakers have rushed to amplify their esports offering. What has been esports reaction to this ‘pandemic trend’?

SC: Hard to say, as it’s not like betting is new to esports, we’ve had Betway and Pinnacle involved and sponsoring events and teams for years. Just this week we’ve had the announcement of Betway sponsoring DreamHack, a huge esports and gaming festival company which has been around since 1994. The influx of newer bookies and more esports focused ones too such as Luckbox, Midnite, Rivalry, Puntt and more, with the likes of Midnite securing both a UKGC license and capital in recent times, we’re all intrigued to see how this plays out. 

Moreover Better Collective’s acquisition of HLTV, the leading CS:GO focused site, and a top affiliate site in the space was major news too. 

The partnership between GRID and Pinnacle is one that is well worth hearing about hence why it has its own session on the 27th. What I hope more broadly is that game developers, especially those who are a tad apprehensive about allowing betting partners in the competitions they run, become more open to the conversation.

The highly regulated side of the industry should, in my opinion, be welcomed as it can help teams and tournament operators alike with much-needed revenue and help to strengthen and develop the wider industry. After all, these developers can’t stop bookies offering markets on their IP anyway, and so it’s my view that we better embrace the more highly regulated side of it to ensure customers and fans are better protected and can better gauge the Good from the Bad. 

SBC: Under lockdown, esports has increased its investor appeal. However, which segments and components need funding and resources to improve esports capacity?  

SC: Plenty. Rights Holders need to get better at explaining the ROI to brand partners, which will enable them in turn to agree more significant fees and commitment of marketing budgets, and longer-term deals. There are plenty of opportunities for focused tools to be better developed for this purpose, esports is full to the brim of data points, and fans are incredibly active across socials, but showcasing and proving this is the challenge. Indeed there are many doing so currently, such as Gum Gum.

Teams need to better understand, or rather simply know more about their own fans too. That’s a huge opportunity which ties into the above. 

When it comes to the viewership experience, you can put CS:GO on mainstream TV that’s great but how do you cater to 1) hardened CS fans who know the terminology, the lingo and the stories and everything else, and 2) potential new fans just getting into it. It’s difficult but in essence tools to accommodate and make that happen, enter Skybox; a company with well renowned CS:GO caster Anders Blume at its helm, is a major opportunity for investors, broadcasters and fans alike. The hope and expectation is that this kind of thing will, in turn, help the media rights conversation which is absolutely pivotal for the wider industry to continue and sustain the level of growth over the past two to three years.    

 SBC: Esports has mitigated lockdown circumstance better than its counterparts. However is there a fear that esports will lose vital engagement factors (audiences, youth appeal, stadia) should it maintain a long-term digital structure?

SC: No. In fact I’d argue that football and sports generally need to create more effective and modernised longer-term digital structures. I love Charlton Athletic, and I go whenever I can, but that isn’t always easy or doable. Would I pay to watch all games, or get regular great content and such from them? Hell yes, the former isn’t available at all, and the latter…barely. 

Me paying for that wouldn’t stop me going to a game whenever I can, it doesn’t detract from the experience, my commitment, or indeed my capacity to spend if anything it adds to it. Esports needs to get better at creating amazing and fuller experiences for fans attending events, and more could be done to ‘engage’ them sure, but they aren’t losing out by strengthening nor further developing this digital structure. 

SBC: Finally as leadership minds now focus on reopening complexities, what key concerns should be at the forefront of businesses engaging with esports?   

SC: Understand it fully before diving in head first. As mentioned different games = different audiences. Know what you want, and who you’re targeting, speak to as many of the right people as possible before committing to anything. There are plenty of data points and there’s plenty of information out there, it’s just sometimes tricky to find and sort the wheat from the chaff.  

Also, Ninja isn’t esports per se, the viewership figures for some streamers you may have seen do not always echo the reality of esports broadcasts. Have a look at Esports Charts for some viewership figures across tournaments and titles, and keep up to date with new titles as they emerge, e.g. right now Riot Games’ forthcoming Valorant is making quite a splash.  

As for the key concern of leading minds and businesses when engaging with esports, it’s easy; do I buy 10 or 100 tickets to the ESI Digital Summit? Clue… it ain’t ten! 

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Sam Cooke – MD – Esports Insider 

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