This is the last in a five-part series on women in the esports industry. Read the first part here. Today, our panel talks about how the esports industry has changed since they started and which trends to keep an eye on going forward.
It’s hard to pinpoint when esports as we know it began. Whether it was the 1972 Space Wars event at Stanford University, the 1980 Space Invaders competition or high profile PC tournaments of the 90s, there is one fact everyone in the esports industry seems to agree on—it has changed a lot since then.
In fact, from a business perspective, the esports industry has evolved in many ways since our panelists entered the scene—regardless of whether it was a few months or several decades ago.
Elaine Chase, vice president of esports at Wizards of the Coast says that the biggest “accelerant for the business of esports” over the past 20-25 years has been Twitch and streaming.
“I remember broadcasting the Magic Pro Tour on ESPN 2 and what a huge step for competitive gaming that was at the time,” Chase recalled. “The idea that players can be their own business and have a viable career out of being a streamer, and that game publishers can drive so much participation in their games and create fans of their events via streaming is astounding.”
When Morgan Romine, Ph.D., director of initiatives for AnyKey, got started in the early 2000s, she remembers there wasn’t an official “esports industry” yet.
“Esports is being taken much more seriously now than it certainly was back in 2004 when many multiplayer modes in AAA games were added during the last fraction of the development cycle,” said Romine. “The top teams get much more extensive support than they used to, but that still only applies to a tiny fraction of the competitive players.”
Romine echoed Chase’s observation about how streaming can literally change the game.
“One of the biggest changes from the player perspective is the advent of streaming and how that both gives them more opportunities for sponsorship and also makes their jobs as competitors and brand ambassadors much more complicated,” Romine added.
Story Mob co-founder Anna Rozwandowicz vividly remembers how things have changed since she joined the industry.
“I started in esports in 2014—the year that we moved from fairs, convention centers, and being guests at tech conferences, to stand-alone stadiums filled with fans who came there exclusively to see the athletes of the world’s fastest growing sport,” said Rozwandowicz. “In 2015 and 2016, we saw an array of mainstream brands taking interest in esports; 2017 was the year of new genres and battle royale making its way; and 2018 saw esports and entertainment getting entangled even more. I don’t think we will see another tipping point like the one from 2014 coming at us fast—but I do think that we’re in for a very wild ride with a number of developments that will further elevate esports.
“On a more personal level,” Rozwandowicz added, “a woman working at an esports event isn’t a rare sight and I’m very lucky to know a bunch of women who stay in the shadows but keep the machine running. At IEM Katowice 2014, I met Helena Kristiansson—an extremely talented esports photographer and a dear friend of mine—who joked that now [that] I’m here, there might finally be a line to the ladies room backstage. We laugh about that now, but the beginnings were very different from what you see in stadiums now.”
Super League Gaming CEO Ann Hand thinks that esports was moving forward as an industry when she joined in 2015, which accounted for the warm welcome she received.
“Professional esports teams had already existed, but they were starting to get big money behind them,” Hand recalled. “I don’t think it was even a market place at the time. We jumped in early on and I think we did a good job of shaping the narrative around amateur esports.”
Despite entering the esports industry just a few months ago, G2 Esports commercial director Lindsey Eckhouse has already witnessed significant changes.
“In that short time I have witnessed a new game emerge (Apex Legends), and the unveiling of new mediums that can grow the entire ecosystem (music platforms/ partnerships),” Eckhouse said. “This pace of change is so new to me, but keeps us all on our toes and makes the day to day ever-changing and extremely interesting.”
ESL North America CEO Yvette Martinez-Rea notes that esports has become an important strategy for publishers.
“Publishers of all types are increasingly launching games with esports functionality and strategies from the outset, embracing the importance of creating strong competitive ecosystems for their players,” said Martinez-Rea. “The evolution of mobile games and devices is rapidly pushing us forward to evolve tournament events and experiences. And generally, we’re seeing continual maturation of business practices and organizations to support the increasing scale. This is just a small set of changes that are pushing us forward in exciting ways.”
Martinez-Rea added that over the past 18 months alone, ESL has seen an increased interest from non-endemic brands, traditional sports organizations, venue developers, and media companies.
Dignitas Vice President of Marketing Heather “sapphiRe” Garozzo has observed non-endemic interest first-hand.
“Our team, Dignitas, was the first team to be acquired by a major North American sports property—the Philadelphia 76ers,” commented Garozzo. “Since then, dozens of premier sports organizations have invested in esports. Non-endemic partners like Buffalo Wild Wings, Mountain Dew, Sephora, and Mercedes have entered the industry as well. The increased investment has allowed for events to occur in arenas like the Staples Center and Barclay’s Center compared to the hotel ballrooms and LAN centers I grew up competing in.”
Wendy Lecot, head of strategic alliances and digital marketing innovation at HyperX , says this newfound interest is a sign of chief marketing officers working to keep their brands relevant.
“More non-endemics are looking at gaming as a mainstream addition to their marketing strategy to new audiences,” Lecot stated. “A second change is the increase in the number of traditional sports organizations that are embracing esports as a new younger audience acquisition strategy.”
It is this arrival of esports into the zeitgeist that keeps Sabrina Ratih, partnership executive at G2 Esports, on her toes.
“I only started at the end of last year but have been observing this space for the last three-four years,” Ratih said. “We are talking about an industry that has surpassed music and movies in revenues. It keeps growing and so does the level of professionalism. I [would] love to see what this industry develops into over the next months and years. It’s exciting to work in an environment that has new opportunities popping up on a daily basis.”
Christie St. Martin, senior director of social strategy for Sparks, says that brands assume the esports market is much smaller than it is or could be. The truth, she adds, is that esports is now common knowledge among some rather unexpected demographics.
“Come on, my dad will now happily send me esports articles (maybe too often),” St. Martin says. “That’s a far cry from the ol’ ‘telling me to get off my computer and go outside’ dialogue. If you know that someone like my dad is listening and looking for a conversation starter with his kids or grandkids, you shouldn’t leave out the possibility to target that consumer audience vertically, too. Give him a reason to want to chat with his family about a product/service that he can’t wait to show them or participate in himself.”
The Esports Observer’s Head of Events, Prinita Naidoo, has been amazed at how quickly esports has gained awareness since she joined the industry—an experience she calls “opening the door to Narnia.”
“What I have noticed is this crossover to my pre-Narnia life and my post-Narnia life,” Naidoo explained. “When I first started, I literally did not know anything about esports. I had never heard of Fortnite or League of Legends. Now a year later, Ellen Degeneres—who I used to watch quite avidly—she’s playing Fortnitewith Ninja. This crossover to my life before is becoming closer and closer….now you see Drake playing with someone. I was home in South Africa and they were talking about esports on the news. I feel like the divide between the endemic and non-endemic world of esports is really crossing over.”
G2 Esports head of communications Karina Ziminaite observes “more structure, less gray areas, more proper legislation in place.”
Credit: G2 Esports
“I’m happy to see not only the money but also experts of their trade flowing in and elevating the whole industry year after year,” Ziminaite added.
Story Mob Co-Founder Nicola Piggott says that the esports industry has gone through a “radical growth” in the last seven years since she’s been involved.
“With additional investment and a brighter spotlight comes a ton of possibility and growth, from franchised leagues to teams rising to greater heights of organization and professionalism,” said Piggot. “I’d say that its unrecognizable from it’s earliest years, but actually, the fundamentals haven’t changed—it’s still about passion and watching gaming played at the very highest levels of skill. It’s up to us to keep that core of authenticity throughout all of this change.”
With the tremendous changes going on in the esports industry comes a newfound market for data, observed Nielsen Esports Managing Director Nicole Pike.
“Thankfully, for the sake of my business, there is a lot more data being used in the industry today! There is still a long way to go, but it’s been really exciting to see this transition, which has in large part been caused by brands and potential sponsors requiring more confidence before making their esports investments,” said Pike. “I think this is a really healthy trend, as it allows for reasonable yet clear expectations to be set, which in turn creates more transparency around what is working—or not—in esports sponsorship, which ultimately will lead to increased optimization and return on investment (ROI).”
The Story Mob Co-Founder Kalie Moore concurs that esports has evolved into a more professional industry.
Credit: The Ellen Show
“This is the result of significantly more money coming in from investors, sponsorship deals, and league franchising,” Moore added. “We also see a lot more interest (and better narratives) coming out of mainstream news. The ‘teenage boy in mom’s basement’ story is dead, and journalists are more interested in what drives pro-gamers, how an esports CEO runs his business, and how esports combines the best of both entertainment and sports. Our clients have been showcased on Forbes Sports Money, The Daily Show, and Netflix documentaries.”
Based on what they’ve witnessed thus far in the esports industry, each panelist shared their thoughts on which trends will play a major role over the next year.
Lecot predicts that wellness and responsible gaming will be a major factor in the future of the industry.
“This discipline is starting to gain momentum to ensure that the gamer lifestyle is healthier to ensure less injuries, longer play as well as access to cognitive training to be the best version of your gamer self,” Lecot observed.
Hand believes that esports will continue to bring different generations together.
“Gaming isn’t something you grow out of these days,” said Hand, “it’s just a wedge of your entertainment lifestyle. Because of that, you’re increasingly having young parents who have kids who are gamers but the parents still identify as gamers themselves. We already see it at our experiences. Dads and teenage sons play together in League of Legends or we have dads or moms that play in our adult leagues and their young children are playing in our youth league. That really tells you something has gone mainstream.”
Martinez-Rea says that at ESL, they’re particularly excited about the growth of collegiate esports.
“We’ve partnered with groups like the BIG EAST and Big Ten Network to bring more structured competitive experiences to their campuses,” said Martinez-Rea. “We’re also launching some exciting mobile competitions shortly to showcase both existing and emerging mobile esports titles. Without question, mobile presents many opportunities to reshape how we structure, broadcast, and engage esports fans, including broadening our audience to more women and others.”
Moore predicts that non-endemic brands will continue to enter the space with more creative and engaging activations.
“Last month, I spoke at Esports Bar Cannes and I was blown away by how many major brands just starting to consider esports were in attendance,” said Moore. “Esports is becoming more stable with the rollout of leagues. Brands have much better access to data in order to target specific audiences and track ROI with companies like FanAI. It is only a matter of time until we see much greater brand adoption.”
St. Martin agrees, based on her experiential work at Sparks.
“We have seen such a shift in how brands connect with their audience at live events, digital advertising and across social,” said St. Martin. “Non-endemic brands are growing more comfortable and confident in owning their space and taking it to the next level. I think I expect esports to become more regular subject matter in the film industry and perhaps more sitcoms. I can’t wait to see what happens when the distinct Overwatch markets activate their own arenas. That will be a wild ride to watch develop.”
Credit: Riot Games
Emerging technology such as 5G leads Rozwandowicz to believe the esports industry will spill over into other parts of our lives.
“I think that we will see ‘real life’ and esports mix even more,” Rozwandowicz predicts. “You will no longer have to log into a game client on your PC to play [a game] because the 5G technology, cross-platform features, and your smartphone will allow you to play your favorite battle royale game on your way to school or work.
“The influencers you know from music and movies, will also be esports influencers,” she added. “You will see music concerts in-game and gaming competition at music festivals with a LAN component. The borders will blur and we will see the softcore fans and casual enthusiast find new ways to interact and engage with esports, which will grow and strengthen their fandom.”
Ziminaite agreed, expanding this prediction into other industries like traditional sports.
“Connections between esports/gaming and originally non-gaming entertainment will deepen,” said Ziminaite. “We just recently saw [Brazilian football star] Neymar saying hi to Ninja after a football match. Hosts like Ellen DeGeneres, comedians, and various TV shows keep adding esports and gaming representatives to their agenda. I also think that more and more esports organizations will look into strengthening their unique identity and brand to keep up with the high standards that leading organizations, G2 Esports among others, are setting.”
Eckhouse believes that culture/ lifestyle elements will start emerging “in a serious way” within the industry.
“You have already started to see music lean into the space in a much bigger way, but I think this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Eckhouse.
“Expect music and esports/gaming to collaborate even more going forward,” Ratih agreed. “The Marshmello concert on Fortnite, with more than 10 Million viewers attending, is just one proof point that gaming is the key to take entertainment to a completely new level. Besides that, I think merchandising will play a major role. Whether that’s esports clubs building their own merchandising and lifestyle collections or teams entering into limited edition collaborations with artists or apparel/fashion brands.”
“I think the Marshmello concert in Fortnite was a real game-changer,” agreed Naidoo. “I never thought I’d see something like that where people gather to be at a concert, but not physically be there. It’s such a foreign concept. What I find fascinating is the power of the influencers. You’ve seen them previously in history but now with social media, it’s incredible.”
As esports continues to solidify its place in pop culture, it demands resources similar to that of television or other entertainment events.
“Look for the blending and blurring of lines between entertainment and competitive gaming,” says Piggott. “I’ve focused on hardcore competitive gaming for most of my career in esports, but there’s more and more demand for entertaining experiences—keeping their roots in competition but equally transcending it with areas like music and streaming.”
“I’m excited to see how more experimentation in broadcast environments will grow in the coming year—not just in esports but in traditional sports as well,” says Pike. “The different player perspectives Overwatch League offers via their All-Access Pass on Twitch is to me where the future of sports broadcast and viewership is going, and it’s really exciting to see esports leading the charge for a much broader sports and entertainment industry in this space.”
Credit: Epic Games
Garozzo adds that some of the most popular esports stars are also strong content creators.
“Marketers and sponsors are looking for that total package—someone that is talented in-game, has a charismatic or intriguing personality, and creates engaging live or VOD content for fans,” says Garozzo. “As a result, I’m very passionate about helping our esports athletes grow their personal brands.”
Chase predicts that increased diversity within every aspect of the esports industry will have the most impact.
“There is huge growth still ahead of us in esports,” Chase said. “Breaking out of the traditional homogeneous demographic to attract and engage a wider breadth of players, fans, and professionals is going to be key to unlocking that growth.”