Mobile network Giffgaff is officially entering the world of competitive video games. This month and next they're running a tournament for popular MOBA League of Legends, called Giffgaff Legends, with a grand final to be held at the Insomnia53 games festival. A £10,000 prize pool and the launch of a new dedicated eSports section of their site speak to how serious the company is about getting involved in the UK's competitive gaming scene. Gregg Baker, Giffgaff's Head of Community, talked to GamesIndustry.biz about why they're taking such an unusual step.
What Giffgaff really likes is to do things that are not necessarily what you'd expect, to look at opportunities that other people would be perhaps a little unwilling to do, he explained. We looked at eSports and we saw that it was a huge up-and-coming thing. It's going absolutely massive right now...it's incredible. We thought, what can we do to try and get involved in this?
You've got bars showing the games. People are sharing a few drinks with their friends with an eSports game on in the background. It's starting to become such a mainstream activity now that it would be stupid not to try to support that more in the UK.
Baker pointed to Amazon's recent billion-dollar buy-out of streaming service Twitch, and gaming tournaments selling out arena venues such as Madison Square Garden, as signs that eSports is a burgeoning industry. The incredible expansion of events like Valve's 'The International', which in 2014 boasted a prize pool of over $10 million, certainly seems to indicate big things to come. Giffgaff sees an opportunity to connect with their core customer base - and leverage some of the prior experience of their staff.
"Personally I've worked with Multiplay since 2007, on various eSports events that I did while working at EA and other companies. So I wouldn't say we're learning as we're going"
"Basically we have a little bit of a gaming industry team here," revealed Baker. "I mean I'm from the gaming industry, a few others here are from the gaming industry, so it kind of felt like a natural fit to start looking for potential opportunities within the gaming industry.
Personally I've worked with Multiplay since 2007, on various eSports events that I did while working at EA and other companies. So I wouldn't say we're learning as we're going, we've got a lot of experience in the field.
And our audience is that kind of demographic - typically younger males - so it feels like a good place to be playing in.
The challenge for any business's entry into eSports is making sure it doesn't seem a cynical move. Baker is determined that Giffgaff not appear simply to be trying to sell SIM cards. He's also critical of companies that try to profit on a short-term investment in the scene.
We've seen a lot of companies coming in and doing a one-off activity, and then you never see them again, he said, describing them as not helpful, more destructive. Even sponsorship, he feels, would just be a quick win that doesn't really achieve anything in the long-term. For Baker, it's about creating an ongoing connection, one that will continue to bring rewards for years to come.
Giffgaff's focus is on growing the UK scene, and indeed in this country we seem to be trailing behind in eSports. No one would expect us to reach the kind of fervor of South Korea, or the resources of China and North America, but it's notable that even just within Europe we have far fewer tournaments and events, and professional and semi-professional players, than our neighbours.
DreamHack, you look at that, it's a huge event that happens in Sweden. If Sweden can do it right, there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to, said Baker. There's much more of a PC following over here but we're having to fly UK teams out to Sweden to compete.
The key to helping UK eSports is, he believes, a grass roots approach, appealing to those currently on the fringes and giving them more opportunities to get involved, both as fans and potentially also on a professional level. He sees a growing need for a more introductory platform, including advice for those seeking a career in competitive gaming.
Ultimately what we want to be is kind of the first two or three rungs on the ladder, if you like, when it comes to eSports, he explained. We want to be the first destination that you land on the moment you start thinking, what is eSports? How do I get into eSports?. We'll help show you how to make it a viable career path for you. And basically at that point we're quite happy to shake your hand and see you off on your way.
"We're looking at these different career prospects you have beyond just being really good at gaming; the less known areas of eSports such as casting, hosting, and behind the scenes, video production"
We're looking at these different career prospects you have beyond just being really good at gaming; the less known areas of eSports such as casting, hosting, and behind the scenes, video production, all those kinds of areas as well down to event organisation.
To that end, Giffgaff Legends isn't just about the competitors, it's also intended as an accessible entry-point for those who want to get involved in the production and presentation of this kind of event. The aim is for there to be beginners, intermediates and experts mingling at every stage. It's a philosophy continued over from 'Giffgaff Happenings', a prior project from the company which saw industry experts giving free workshops at universities to help give students their first big breaks in areas including music and film.
Ideally what we want to do is help build the scene by putting the skilled people out there, giving them their first break, added Baker. Then companies like Riot can come along and say 'Oh yeah that's a really good caster, that's a really good host, or whatever they are, we'd love to take them on and do something in the UK, and have them head it up'. Just give them opportunities that without the helping hand, or without the knowledge or the awareness, they're just not going to get.
He believes that it's by engaging at an introductory level and focusing on developing the UK scene that Giffgaff can make the most difference. Coming from the other direction, connecting directly with already-established events and organisers, he feels would be pointless.
We think, for example, that the LCS is a fantastic event, but there's little-to-no value we can add to something like that, he said. What we can do is make sure more people are getting opportunities to compete at that level.
"What we can do is make sure more people are getting opportunities to compete at that level"
Riot brought LCS to the Wembley Arena pretty recently. I think they sold about six or seven thousand tickets, which is phenomenal. But they know they could do so much more if there was a bigger following and a bigger scene behind it. That's where we want to get it to, so that next time there's an event over here we can safely say we contributed to completely selling out Wembley Arena, or we've helped contribute some of the talent that they're using for it.
It's an ambitious goal, and it's hard to predict if Giffgaff will be able to make the kind of impact that Baker is so enthusiastic to see - and what rewards the company will reap if they do. Successfully connecting with a community like this is never easy, but with eSports swiftly becoming a billion-dollar industry, the opportunities are surely there. No matter the result, it will be fascinating to watch Giffgaff's plans unfold - and if they achieve what they're aiming for, others will surely follow in their wake.