ESL’s Craig Levine talks eSports’ biggest challenges

With recent news that Activision Blizzard, EA and Turner Sports were all making big moves into the eSports game, eyeballing an estimated 335 million eSports fans around the world by 2017, industry leader ESL has been making its own maneuvers to bolster its North American presence. The world’s biggest video game events company not only filled the 18,200-seat Madison Square Garden for the “Dota 2″ championship this year, it also snatched the ESEA platform and expanded its Burbank studio with an eye toward the American market.


Cynopsis Sports asked ESL EVP Craig Levine about the moves, lessons learned this year and how VR will transform the industry.


Levine on the North American market: eSports fandom in this country is very real and as eSports athletes become stars, fans are excited to attend these events in person to see them, which has led to attendance figures doubling year over year. With every stadium event produced here in the US, fans continue to validate the fact that the phenomenon of eSports is growing beyond Europe and Asia. We’re also interested in improving those events themselves, and ESL One is about creating an all-around experience for fans, bringing a festival atmosphere to competitions in addition to viewing the games.


On building new communities: Expansion starts at the amateur level by establishing and building upon new communities. We work with publishers to develop eSports activities around these communities which creates organic growth for the industry. Additionally, ESL looks to increase the number of stadium events we produce in North America. So far we’ve established a footprint in New York and in the San Francisco bay area. It’s time to provide that same experience to more cities across North America.


On VR: VR is an interesting area. Just as we’ve seen with the NBA or what we will see with the PGA and other professional sports leagues, the use of VR to provide or enhance that in-stadium or on-course experience to fans who aren’t there in person will be replicated so fans can experience eSports in a brand-new way. With the global nature of this industry, we see that the majority of the audience is displaced and doesn’t have many options to consume beyond attending an event or watching a livestream. VR can change all of that. I think it’s only a matter of time before publishers develop an eSports-ready product leading to a 4th platform where consumers can compete, in addition to personal computers, consoles and mobile devices.


On the pitch to sponsors: For endemic brands, it’s pretty simple – it’s about audience size and ESL expertise. For non-endemic brands, it’s been less of a pitch and more of an education. Our goal is to make sure brands understand and are comfortable with this space and what the various entry points are. We work with brands to activate their audience and build their communities through many trusted and engaging channels, similar to how other sports marketing initiatives are treated. For example, don’t only show up for the Super Bowl. We encourage brands to activate across team and player activities, participate in our grassroots level amateur competitions, weekly online broadcasts around pro leagues and, of course, at and around stadium events.


On challenges: Industry analytics forecasts that global revenue projections for this industry are expected to be enormous by 2018- somewhere north of $1B. That sort of capital attracts a lot of interest and open hands. I think there will continue to be further fragmentation before any real consolidation happens and that fragmentation causes turmoil with teams and players; it creates instability for publishers and IP holders; it creates skepticism from brands and partners and it creates confusion amongst all of the above. From a resources perspective, an arms race is ultimately going to stunt the growth of the industry. Instead, I think it’s important that we continue to bring in smart, savvy business people who can work together and steer the ship.

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