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ESL: We've had conversations with every publisher

Ignore eSports and miss out, warns pro-gamer turned VP Craig Levine

"In Scandinavia eSports is very popular, a couple of months ago a famous Swedish team, famous for Counter-Strike - called Nip - they had a McNip burger at MacDonalds," says Craig Levine, VP North America at the Electronic Sports League.

We're talking markets for eSports, a part of the industry that it's no longer acceptable to ignore just because you don't know your Invictus from your Epsilon.

"We've literally had conversations with every publisher. So the fact that every publisher has an eye on eSports for one title or business development lens or another says something," he tells me in a crowded hotel lobby in San Francisco.

"It's about building out the core functionality of what's needed for that eSports title. And some of them have it and some of them don't."

Once a pro-gamer himself, then the founder of E-Sports Entertainment and the ESS Agency, Levine is passionate about the topic of eSports - still a mystery to many of the suits sat around meeting tables in game studios - and plans to make watching a Starcraft battle as mainstream as a Saturday night football game.

"People are now building games with an eye for eSports"

"A lot of the misconceptions in the industry right now are still that it's very niche or they don't really understand what it is, or that eSports isn't for them. It's too hardcore," he explains, which is ironic given that he's speaking at Casual Connect that same day.

"That's sort of a recurring theme that you hear and I think from my perspective eSports is the culture of gaming. Just like the Super Bowl - everyone watches it whether you're a fan or not of football - it gets everyone together. I think the reach for eSports and the appeal is broader than people superficially give it credit for."

The ESL is hoping to overcome that niche label with quality content from its studio in Los Angeles and working with publishers to grow a strong and healthy infrastructure of content. Some of the publishers it's working with include Blizzard and Wargaming.

"So if you're a hardcore Starcraft or [World Of] Tanks fan you've got your fix twice a week, but if you're more of a fringe fan mega-events are a little bit more of that rallying point. So it's the culmination of those stories that are happening every week and building the gamers up and telling their stories and the personalities, so that when it comes together for example at Frankfurt..."

Here Levine is talking about ESL One Frankfurt, a huge gaming tournament that took place at the end of June this year.

"It was crazy, I don't know what the official key arena numbers were but we had 25,000 people buying tickets to come through there. I think those type of events, again, become this sort of rallying point which that broader base is attracted to. From an ESL perspective it's about storytelling, telling the story of these competitors and players everyday and them boom, blowing it out of the water with something big a couple of times a year."

Of course what's crucial to the proliferation of eSports is the games themselves. Can they build the right sort of following to fill a stadium the way, say, Dota 2 can?

"People are now building games with an eye for eSports. There's definitely a little bit of a recipe and formula to what you need to make it successful - multiplayer, matchmaking, spectator tools so people can watch it. But there's also a fair amount of magic and lightning in a bottle that you've got to catch."

"We like to think that we know, but the reality is that it's really all about the game and the community. That kind of dictates where it goes. As an organizer certainly at the ESL we provide infrastructure to foster the development of a competitive community but first and foremost it's got to be a good game," adds Levine, pointing to Blizzard, Valve and Riot's League Of Legends as examples.

"The Compendium that Valve did for Dota 2. Blew my mind - not just in how much money was raised in the prize pot but that only 25 per cent of that $9.99 purchase went towards that. So there's a lot of money sitting over that shows it's viable and again you've now monetized eSports in a different way," he says.

"Every has a different strategy for eSports. Valve is the completely open approach, Riot is the first party approach and Blizzard is somewhere in the middle. In our opinion the best way to leverage the community is somewhere in that middle spot. You've got a little bit of regulation going on so you don't have all these wahoos out there making bad names for the industry but it's also creating a platform for innovation."

Ah yes, the wahoos. Truth is if you have seen coverage of eSports it's probably because someone has behaved badly at an event, or said something online to shame their corporate sponsor into an awkward apology. It doesn't mean it's common practice in the scene, but it is a symptom of mainstreaming gaming media's failure to figure out how they cover games as a sport. Levine is looking forward to seeing better coverage as the sport evolves.

"I think in the mainstream gaming media there's a little bit of a perception of 'oh, this isn't what our readers want.' I think everyone has to find their own voice within it. If you read the New York Post sports section it's got a very different tone and level of depth than ESPN or Yahoo Sports."

"Valve is the completely open approach, Riot is the first party approach and Blizzard is somewhere in the middle"

"I think things to cover are certainly the big events, again, they become that rallying point and people are always interested that. 'Gamers take home $5 million dollars from The International' - that's always appealing. And then it's how do you start to tell the stories of these players and their journey there? Storytelling, focusing on those stars, and humanizing a little bit of what it is also."

Right now Levine is busy talking to developers, talking to publishers, keeping an eye on the markets for eSports that are emerging and growing across Brazil, India, and France, basically anywhere with an internet connection. He has some advice for executives in the industry who still isn't sure if this eSports thing is going to take off, and it involves heading down to the canteen for a chat with your staff.

"It's just the numbers of people not just playing, but viewing eSports. It's undeniable and eSports is the sport of the digital generation. If they're not paying attention to it now they're going to be missing out on something but I would also suspect that someone in their organization, a couple of levels down with their ear a little closer to the ground, probably has a pretty good idea of what to do. Find him."

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Rachel Weber

Senior Editor

Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.