eSports is a pretty ridiculous concept. Not because of any perceived inferiority to what is still, in many circles, referred to as 'real sport', but simply because of the enormous breadth of the term. It's a vast, vast market. 285 million people participating in an industry worth somewhere around half a billion dollars, itself only a subset of an industry which encapsulates much more. Considering how many competitive games are published each year alone, by entirely independent companies, each with its own motives, methods and bottom lines - let alone all the broadcasters, tournaments and teams involved - it's absolutely no stretch to say that the complexity involved matches that of athletic pursuits. Think about trying to organise it all.
Perhaps that's at least partly why nobody has taken on that exact job in any truly official capacity just yet. Despite the founding of various forms of governing body over the last few months, there's still no real eSports equivalent to FIFA, the NBA or the Olympic Committee, no single authority which has the final say over the governance of the field as a whole.
Whether the establishment of such a body is necessary or even desirable is a matter for considerable debate, but if you're looking for the closest equivalent in the meantime, you're probably going to end up at the doorstep of the ESL, the sector's largest, oldest and probably most widely regarded firm. Although a directly commercial concern, ESL has taken a top-table position in the development of much of the existing regulation and structuring of eSports as we know it, from player welfare and the establishment of leading competitions to the introduction of anti-doping measures. But where does that responsibility, if indeed it is a responsibility at all, end? Can the fate of a burgeoning global phenomenon really be entrusted to a private company with a vested interest in certain outcomes? Sitting down with freshly minted UK MD Spike Laurie at Develop in Brighton, we endeavoured to find out.
The past few months have posed some significant challenges to eSports as a whole, an in particular those who might be perceived as its leading lights. Do you think the industry has addressed these issues quickly and comprehensively enough?
"I think so. I think that the industry is a lot older than people give it credit for. ESL has been around for over 15 years, almost 20 years now, and has been delivering eSports, you know, the leagues, the broadcast, the development that goes around that, the anti-cheat, the matchmaking, that sort of stuff. I think you're right, it's a very exciting time for the industry right now in eSports, and we're pioneering lots of new ground, but actually the fundamentals of it are competitive play, and that has been around for a very long time.
"For every person in the audience there, I mean, at least 2,000 people were watching online at home, right? And that's a stadium of 14,000 people"
"The technology has moved on, broadcast has moved on, the online viewership has really grown. That's where eSports started to ramp up and started to develop to the beast that it is today. I just came back from ESL One Cologne where SK won the Counter-Strike major. For every person in the audience there, I mean, at least 2,000 people were watching online at home, right? And that's a stadium of 14,000 people. So where I think the biggest advancement in the industry has been is in that online broadcast, and it has allowed us to develop into this really exciting industry that we are today."
You've recently become more directly involved in that aspect of the industry with the launch of the TV channel through your parent company MTG. Can you talk us through a little bit more the plans for that, where you see it fitting into the broader structure of things? You're working in the same markets as Twitch and doing some of the stuff they did previously. What are your plans there? Do you see yourself moving more directly into competition with other broadcasters?
"I don't think it's about competition. We still work with Twitch. We still work with Hitbox, we work with TV partners. I think that's a very clear strategy for us, that we want to put this content wherever it will thrive, and I think the decision to work with multiple partners and to work with TV is literally just that: that we want our content to thrive, we want the consumers and the fans to be able to engage with their content how they want to engage with the content, and not have that dictated by us. I think it's worked very well so far. We've seen definitely an increase in viewership since we've gone out further. Of the 235 million people that engaged with eSports in 2015, 185 million of those people are enthusiasts. So there's an appetite from a more mainstream audience, and maybe that mainstream audience isn't watching a specific particular channel. Maybe we want to reach out to them through other means, and by diversifying I can only see that as a benefit."
Do you see a future, especially moving into the broadcast TV model like that, where you just attract people who just want to watch eSports generally rather than specific games which they already play, and that you are perhaps starting to introduce new games to new audiences and reversing that feedback loop?
"I think yes. The core audience is always going to follow a game and teams. You invest when you watch a sport, or an esport, or any hobby. You invest in that. There's a lot to learn, right? There's a lot to understand over time. But at the same time, I couldn't tell you who the top ten hundred metres runners are right now but the Olympics are coming up and I'm certainly going to watch the hundred metres. I think as well the benefit that video games have in general is that they are exciting, they're fun to watch, just like the hundred metres is fun to watch when you watch at that top level. Absolutely people are going to say, 'Oh, that event is on this weekend. I'm gonna check that out,' or, 'It's the Intel Extreme Masters next weekend in Shanghai. I'll tune in and watch a bit of that.' I think absolutely they will."
We've seen a few issues recently, not directly involved in eSports but some of the areas around it, like the CS:GO skin gambling scandal and all other secondary and tertiary industries which are developing around eSports, which I think lack a figure like the ESL or the ESIC to look after them. They are vast unregulated areas where companies like Google and Valve (although Valve has since taken steps in the right direction) don't seem particularly interested in taking that regulation on. I can certainly understand why they don't want to spend an awful lot of time and money on regulating something which they benefit from but can't claim ownership for. Do you ever see those kind of marginal activities coming under the broader banner of the ESL or ESIC?
"I think our job as ESL, and part of the luxury we have of being the world's largest eSports company, is that the onus is on us to set the bar, and I believe that we do that - a good example being last year ESL One Cologne was the first event to partner with the world anti-doping association to test players. Everyone came back negative. That's very good. I think we are doing a good job of setting a good standard. The eSports industry is moving very very fast, which means it can sometimes be tough to keep up with what's on the cutting edge, but I believe that we're the best people to be on top of that because we really are the experts who are living and breathing this and have done for the last almost 20 years.
"I think our job as ESL, and part of the luxury we have of being the world's largest eSports company, is that the onus is on us to set the bar, and I believe that we do that"
"Having said that, I also think there could also be a lot of non-issues. You know, there are a lot of scandals or buzzwords or things that people don't understand but think that they should understand or think that they should be on top of, and for me again I really think that that's where I think working with UKIE and the work that UKIE does, representing UK games industry, being a member of UKIE allows us to explore that together and to make sure that we're filtering what the real concerns are from the concerns which potentially lack as much weight from an actual professional perspective."
Your involvement in the ESIC is a great step towards that kind of thing, and I think being a founding member is very important for you. I know you don't speak on behalf of them as a whole, but it's interesting to see a lot of internal regulation going on, and a real hunger within the industry to say, as you say, 'We know what we're talking about, we know what we're doing. We can set up this framework, we can set up these rules. It will make sense.' It doesn't seem make sense to call in an external regulator, and it seems it would be better to get these things sorted before the government feels the need to do that and comes in heavy-handed and crushes a lot of opportunities. Do you feel that there's going to be a need at some point near in the future to say, perhaps to the Government, 'Look, these are the things we've set up. These are the generally accepted tournament regulations. These are the things we apply in terms of doping and player care and audience stipulations about behaviour. We would like you to ratify this set of rules, or at least give us the legal precedents to which they could be applied.'
"I don't know what the future is going to hold. I think that what is important is that the industry and the people who are experts in the industry, the reason we're putting this framework together, and the reason that organisations like ESIC are popping up, and WESA or whatever it is, is because there is a need from within the industry to professionalise, and I really believe that we're taking that on and we're setting a really good example there. I don't want to labour the point but it comes down to should or will the government come in and decide to be heavy-handed or whatever. I think that's not our concern. Our concern is that eSports thrives because it's the sport of the digital generation.
"It's a very different world to the world of Westminster or the world of big high-flying lawyers or-, in sports rights or in, you know, these sorts of areas, which have become quite bloated. I think by the time that the government got around to thinking and understanding - and there are some very forward-thinking people in government, the DCMS has been very supportive - but I think that the trend will already have moved on by then, and our job as the industry is to build that framework that is correct, supports the players, supports the publishers, supports ourselves, in delivering the best product possible."
Furthering that analogy with other sport, and talking about the bloat and the kind of absurdity of some of the industry surrounding some of the other major sports in the world - one of the criticisms often levelled at football and other high-level sports is that the wages of the players means there's so much at stake, it just becomes purely about money. It becomes a corrupting influence. There are already vast amounts on the line for teams playing professional eSports, and I think it's absolutely right that they should be given rewards considering the effort and the sacrifices they make to reach those kind of levels of skill, but do you think that there is a ceiling that you have to introduce? Is it the responsibility of a body like yours to say, 'You know what, this is where we have to draw the line.' Does it start to become unhealthy after a certain point?
"I think yes. I don't know what form that will take. I also think there's some rules to be divided between whose responsibility that is. Is that ESL's responsibility? Is it the publisher's responsibility? Is it the responsibility of WESA, you know, who of the nine original members eight are teams, whose job it is to regulate these sorts of questions within sports? I personally think the model that professional rugby has in the UK, of salary caps and things like that, I think that sort of a framework has developed a much more wholesome sport than perhaps football has. But again, it's a different landscape, because we have the question of IP and we have the question of the tournament organisers. We have the question of it being a much more globalised sport, eSports, than perhaps football is and perhaps rugby is, where you start at a local club and there's that real path of progression.
"We're trying to bring that path to progression in with the national leagues, like the UK premiership, for example, which allows players to move up through that, but professional sports started at a time where there was no Skype, there was no team speak, there was no, 'Hey, I'm just gonna join a friend-, a game with a friend from Sweden' right? And that's one of the advantages we have."
"there needs to be the next step...going from a weekly to a pan-continental pro league...That's really important, because otherwise I think you're not closing that loop from inspiration to aspiration"
Peter Moore gave an interesting speech at Gamelab in Barcelona recently where he talked about the fact that the high level competition in eSports is all about aspiration. He likened it to grassroots football. The guys who are sitting at home playing Counter-Strike or Heroes of the Storm, they know full-well that they're never going to be sat on stage at the top level competitions winning hundreds and thousands of pounds, but the aspiration is key to their engagement. They're the equivalent guys who are going and playing Sunday league football. They're the guys who just care about the game, and watching someone play it brings them a kind of joy. It's not necessarily about moving through those ranks for everybody, because that's very necessarily quite a narrow part of the market. How do you address that? How do you maintain that kind of aspiration? Do you feel that it's necessary to invest in very low-level competitions where you can say, 'Hang on, you might not want to be on stage but maybe you can be top of your 100 friends, or you could be 50th out of your 100 friends and maybe that's an achievement for you?'
"I think two things. I think firstly, if you think of eSports as a cake with that top-, you know, that icing on the top being these big stadium events around the world, that's obviously inspiring the next generation of people who want to play. But you need-, to be a good eSports company today, you have to focus on every layer of the cake. You can't just focus on the top stuff. And that means that if a couple of friends want to play together in a league for 500 euros that week, or for a couple of headsets, or for some prizes, you have to offer that to them, and I think we're very lucky that ESL every week runs hundreds of leagues across, I mean, I think it's something like 25, 30 games right now that you could continue to play in and prove yourself. So that grassroots is so important, and both on a national level but on a pan-continental level too.
"But the second point of that is, there has to be a path to pro. You have to be able to deliver a pathway for players who do want to take it seriously. And that means, you know, your team of five friends playing Counter-Strike or Heroes of the Storm or whatever it is, you could be a Mortal Kombat player, it doesn't matter what your game is. If you put in the practice and you play and perform well, there needs to be the next step. And that means going from a weekly to a pan-continental pro league, and then winning the pan-continental pro league and going into a major format. That's really important, because otherwise I think you're not closing that loop from inspiration to aspiration."
Looking a the UK's involvement in eSports, we were, for such a big market, quite latecomers to it. Obviously parts of Asia and a lot of the Scandinavian regions were very keen on it, and Russia, and even other areas of Europe. We've been quite slow to it. But now there's a relatively good involvement here. We've got companies like Gfinity who are making real headway in developing mainstream involvement, having venues where people can go to watch and participate. But we've yet to really see a UK-developed game become a massive eSport. Firstly, why do you think we've not seen something like that come out of the UK? Secondly, what would be your key considerations that you'd recommend to developers if they want to make something that's going to be a great eSport?
"people need to be aware that the challenges of making an eSport game versus the challenges of making a narrative story-driven game are very different"
"I think first of all we have excellent developers in the UK. We have some amazing narrative-based and story-based developers. I think that there's no reason why a UK developer couldn't make a good eSport. But people need to be aware that the challenges of making an eSport game versus the challenges of making a narrative story-driven game are very different. eSports games have simple win conditions that are repeatable. That's where the parallel to real sport comes from. Whereas a more narrative game, the win conditions are constantly evolving and changing. Ultimately things happen where the money is, right? And now that eSports has grown to a place where it's at the visibility level to the people with the money who make the decisions, I absolutely anticipate that there are lots of development studios now being told, 'You've got to make an eSport.'
"What I would be wary of, and having worked for a publisher before, I would say that the success to making a competitive game is to make a competitive game. Don't try and take a non-competitive game and then add a competitive element. The best example of that is Counter-Strike, which was made in 1999 as a modification. There's no single-player experience, no bots, no tutorial. Can you imagine a AAA publisher today, you know, working with the development team and the developer said, 'Right, there's gonna be no single-player mode, there's gonna be no bots, there's gonna be no story.' the publisher would turn around and say, 'No. Absolutely not. How are we gonna get people into the game?' And I think it's that mentality which is changing, and people will see that with the development of more games becoming eSports."