eSports is a huge part of the lives of millions of fans but to some it is a scary new world. However, with its expansive audience, it has the opportunity of becoming any global sponsor’s cash cow. SportsPro spoke to for WME | IMG’s global head of eSports, Tobias Sherman, about his involvement with the nascent eLeague, his passion for eSports and why – in his opinion – it should be classed as a sport and its combatants as athletes .
The future is now, and it is different.
Millennials, seemingly ubiquitous in the sports business world as the target market of sponsors everywhere, are held to be the generation that didn’t grow up with jumpers for goalposts but played Fifa on the Playstation instead. The future of sport - for some at least - is not on the pitch but on the screen under the umbrella of eSports.
No matter how many traditional sports fans want to fight the revolution, eSports is here to stay. Furthermore, it is starting to post numbers that are impossible to ignore, especially in terms of participation, audiences and sponsorship.
Although competitive video gaming has been commonplace from the 1980s, it was at the turn of the century that serious growth was seen - notably in South Korea and Japan. The second decade of the 21st century saw further expansion with an increase in the numbers of tournaments, rising from ten in 2000 to about 260 by 2010.
It is now unquestionably remiss to ignore the sector as the reserve of a silent generation who prefer to voice opinion on social media. The 2014 League of Legends World Championship in Seoul, South Korea had over 40,000 fans in attendance - and many more watching online - and was able to feature the popular band Imagine Dragons at the opening and closing ceremonies in addition to the competition.
Notably, established European soccer sides Werder Bremen, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have all signed specialist eSport players on long-term contracts, and the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Philadelphia 76ers have acquired eSports franchise Dignitas and upstart Apex.
“I think that eSports is pop culture and nobody else has caught up to it,” proclaims Tobias Sherman, global head of eSports for WME | IMG, speaking to SportsPro at the Leaders Sports Business Summit in London in October. “I think that we have all aged, and as we age we lose track of what is hip and cool, so we are actually looking to the kids to influence us in some of our decisions.
“I think that eSports is already mainstream and typically people that tap into mainstream need to further understand and catch up. We are selling out stadiums worldwide: the eSports industry sold out Maddison Square Gardens, the Sony Ericsson Centre in Sweden and the Commerzbank-Arena in Germany as well.
“Now that is not that impressive when you compare it to other sports - until you back it up with the point that eSports has only been around, in this iteration, for seven years, 12 in total since the advent of Twitch. What we thought was an Asian phenomenon is actually is in fact a world phenomenon. So I do think that it will transcend its own little niche and be seen as mainstream very soon.”
Sherman, for his part, began with a boutique agency seven years ago - long before the involvement of WME | IMG - with the ambition of featuring eSports and broadcasting it to the masses. He began in the ‘pre-Twitch era’ selling his broadcast rights on what was ostensibly a 1960s model to television and, as he points out, “it was not digital”.
“So, there was no smoke and mirror,” he says. “Literally, what you saw was what you got.”
The distribution vehicle ensured that he was able to tell the story of eSports, whilst anchoring it to a familiar broadcast model that non-endemic sponsors could understand and engage with.
“Despite people telling me that Twitch had done so well, I stuck to my guns and said that actually we want to utilise TV in a hybrid format to introduce new fans and attract new sponsors,” says Sherman. “We didn’t see a whole lot of traction and obviously a few years later we were acquired by WME | IMG, then a month into the company we just assimilated our DNA into WME | IMG and I met a lot of fantastic people through their rolodex. This enabled me to immediately execute a league for television.”
The league that Sherman talks off is the eLeague, which is a joint venture between US broadcaster Turner Sports and WME | IMG. The collaboration - which is a centred on the platform game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - puts on two ten-week eSports tournaments a year, which are televised live on the TBS channel and streamed on digital platform Twitch. The 2016 tournaments reportedly had prize pots of US$2.4 million and US$1.2 million.
“At the top level we had a hybrid approach, which was putting it on Twitch and TBS simultaneously,” says Sherman. ”I thought that Turner was going to hate this because typically networks want to own their own. But they were fantastic: they agreed in three minutes with me.
“The thought was that we don’t want to make the people that tune in traditionally on Twitch suffer, or feel that they have to authenticate to tune in because that is the main line of distribution for this, then TBS being secondary. But we are in 148 countries over 20 different networks. To get that further network exposure interests me not only because of the money but because I love exposing new people to eSports. It is great to be able to do that globally.”
The global reach and limitless amount of viewers in virtual stadiums has seen a host of major sponsorships flock to the burgeoning league, such as American fast-food chains Arbies, Buffalo Wild Wings and Dominos, US-based financial management platform Credit Karma, global technology giant Sony and, most recently, the Mars-owned chocolate bar Snickers.
Despite the goodwill from some quarters of the sports world, the pressing issue surrounding the multi-million dollar sporting enterprise is whether or not it can be classed as a sport. Sherman equates it to a sport of skill like darts or snooker, which both attract huge, impassioned audiences. If one was to focus in on an eSports fan they would be hard pressed to know what sport they were watching: the emotive reactions are the same as those of a soccer fan.
To emphasise this point IMG’s revered sports academy - which has helped shape the careers of tennis players Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and two-time baseball World Series winner Pat Burrell to name a few - has now added an eSports training camp to its programme.
The academy, which was founded in 1978, has trained thousands of youth, high school, collegiate and professional athletes in the eight major American sports: baseball, basketball, football, golf, lacrosse, soccer, tennis, track and field, and cross country.
“All of these young eSports athletes - and I am sold that they are athletes - can now enrol in an eSports training camp programme,” continues Sherman. “The reason that I bring that up is not that I am trying to push the product. I am just saying that the reason that we are doing it is that we have identified metrics that do set these people apart. It is peak human performance, whether you want to label it a sport or not. I don’t care what you label it, it is great competitive entertainment.”
In fact, it is often said that that a top-level eSports player should have the same dexterity in his hands as a concert pianist; lovers of Rachmaninoff would perhaps bemoan this supposed waste of God-given talent but in 2016 supple fingers are now prepared to play a different song. A top player, who is watched by a stadium full of devoted fans, can expect to accrue between US$1 million and US$2 million per season.
“These guys deserve to be celebrated as stars and as really talented individuals - nobody else can touch what they do,” argues Sherman. “People don’t understand that, they often reduce or delude it down to just playing video games, but if you tried to play against any of these people it is not even a contest.
“One player that has resonated is a player from North America called Hiko. You hear him mentioned a lot. Make no mistake these guys are LeBron James and the Michael Jordan to their fans. These eSports fans look at these guys their traditional sports heroes.”
And, if eSports is the future, what is the future for eSports and the eLeague?
“They told me that it will never work on television, it will never get sponsored and it will never get an audience,” says Sherman. “That was all wrong, so when I was asked what the future was, I used to say TV. I think the next future will be refining the entertainment experience.
“Instead of focusing on live stadiums - which are very important, of course - I think that you are going to be able to buy VR tickets to watch your favourite eSport, where you are either in the field of action or sitting next your friend in the stand, a friend who is actually in Canada, USA, France or wherever, it doesn’t matter. You will be able to customise your own VR arena with your favourite players’ retired jerseys, there will be monetisation and micro-transactions around the players in the same way that you would see in traditional sports.
“The cream always rises to the top but I think that the future holds better viewing experiences and more access - not just content - but to the players and to the teams themselves.”