“We need to reverse the way the media thinks about eSports”
eSports experts discuss why more government support and better promotion of player well-being is needed to help the industry grow in the UK
It may attract millions of avid fans to watch the biggest tournaments, but eSports still faces something of an image problem.
At an eSports summit held at BAFTA's London HQ last month, experts from various corners of the industry discussed the challenges their sector faces in 2017 - with educating the masses on what eSports truly is being a key objective.
"I was introduced at an event once after someone did a great speech about traditional sports as someone who was going to talk about 'the dark side of eSports'," Chester King, founder and acting CEO of the British eSports Association, told attendees. "That's not the intro we want. Others describe us as 'the biggest niche in the world'. No, we're not that at all. We are eSports.
"Those in the industry hate being classified and put in a box. eSports is so fragmented, individual titles have so many levels, it's such a massive industry."
Another point of contention is the ongoing debate as to whether eSports will ever be classified as a sport by the UK government. While it opens up new advantages such as visas that will help players travel the world to participate in competitions, the panel seemed apathetic towards the notion of being placed in the same category as football, golf and cricket. Team Dignitas manager and founder Michael O'Dell, known as ODEE, said he was "not bothered" whether the area gained such classification, while King observed that opinion on the matter varies from nation to nation. To date, 21 countries have in fact classed professional competitive gaming as a sport - but, King argues, why do we need that?
"Others describe us as 'the biggest niche in the world'. We're not that at all. We are eSports"Chester King, British eSports Association
"In the UK, eSports cannot be classified as a sport because of a rule from the 1930s, the same one that stops bridge and chess being classified as a sport," he explained. "A lot of money has been wasted in the past trying to classify bridge as a sport. Most people in the eSports industry are happy with how things are, because why would we want to be put in a box?"
Instead, King insists, the priority going forward should be changing perceptions about eSports, both at a government level and for the public. He went on to predict that "2017 will be a big year for educating about the benefit of eSports".
"eSports isn't a rival to physical activity and sports," he said. "It's a rival to watching TV. It's better than playing chess. These are the things we need to promote.We've got a group of academics working with the ESL, trying to prove these life skills and cyber skills [eSports can help with], as well as mental health benefits.
"A survey on the top young surgeons showed the better surgeons were people who are traditionally gamers because they can control things a lot better.
"The government places eSports under culture, which is fine but we should also have an impact under health and education as well. We need to drive that."
ODEE believes government support is vital, not just in improving the standing of eSports within the UK but also in ensuring the industry can stay competitive with its fellows in other countries. Professional gaming has long since taken off around the world, particularly in the East.
"The government has to get involved in how big this is because we're missing out on a big opportunity," said ODEE. "UKIE just released a white paper, hopefully some good comes from that. We're so far behind everyone else."
Government reluctance and public ignorance concerning eSports are not helped by negative stories surrounding the sector. ODEE says that, while not all coverage can be positive, some press outlets only tend to touch on eSports when there is bad news to report, such as cheating in tournaments.
"With online gaming there are always going to be cheats. The tournaments do their best to stop it, but it's not for us to fix"Michael "ODEE" O'Dell, Team Dignitas
"There's not much we can do to stop cheats," he said. "Over the years, I've enjoyed trying to beat cheats - it's great when you're playing against someone and you can tell they've got a hack running but you still beat them. But it's down to the developers to fix the cheaters.
"With online gaming there are always going to be cheats. Someone's always going to create a programme to wind you up. There's nothing you can do. League of Legends tournaments do what they can to prevent cheating. When you play in the LCS, you have to send factory-packed peripherals to Riot that only they can open. You can't bring your own stuff in. So the tournaments do their best, but it's not for us to fix it."
He adds that the fragmented and extremely diverse nature of eSports makes it difficult to regulate. Whereas different football leagues adhere to the same rules and standards, there are so many types of video games used in professional tournaments that issues such as poaching players from another team are harder to tackle. In fact, the panel agreed 'regulation' was something of a scary word in the world of eSports, preferring the term 'best practices', something numerous organisations are trying to establish.
"Legal representation is much more important now. The contracts are getting big - the players need to know what they're getting themselves into"Michael "ODEE" O'Dell, Team Dignitas
"The biggest problem with eSports is we're dealing with someone else's IP, so when you start throwing the word 'regulation' around, it can get a bit wishy washy," ODEE said. "Some companies, like Riot for instance, regulate their own games and communities. They have anti-poaching rules, so you can't talk to another team's player without permission or you'll be fined."
Like many sports, eSports also comes with its own legal issues and the industry is finally catching up on preparing players for this. Professional football players are all expected to have agents, and ODEE says "this is coming" to the world of eSports too.
"In the past, I wasn't that keen on agents but in the past couple of years, I've wished every player had one," he said. "It would make things so much easier. I reckon by the end of this year, the majority of the top players will have agents.
"Over the past 17 years, it's been a bit like the Wild West, people making up the rules as they go along, players signing contracts without reading them properly. Legal representation is much more important now. The contracts are getting big - the players need to know what they're getting themselves into."
Agents can also ensure players are paid for their work, which ultimately is the point of being a professional gamer. This is something the industry has been lax on in the early years, although things are improving. ODEE added: "I'm still owed $100,000 from tournaments in the past, but it's nowhere near as bad now. The tournaments are really professional, the players get paid."
It's not just about ensuring competitors are paid; ensuring their team's well-being has become central to a manager's role and numerous eSports teams and organisations are working harder to highlight the work being done here. Team Dignitas, for example, guides its new players through how they should handle their finances and offers advice on where they might live, their sleep patterns and even their nutritional needs. "Hopefully, we can set a standard for all the other teams," said ODEE.
Hugo Byron, a professional eSports commentator for Counter-Strike: GO tournaments, added: "It's a big stereotype that gamers are fat, living in their mum's basement, spending their whole day eating chocolate and playing video games. Look at the photos of the top teams, a lot of the best players are in really good shape. Not bodybuilders but in really good shape.
"Lots of the teams hire chefs to cook for their players, so it's not just eating junk food all day. There's a need for a balanced diet to keep eSports players healthy."
Again, press coverage has been less kind here with stories emerging of substance abuse among players in an effort to gain the edge in tournaments. Byron observes that drug tests are in place but this is still "very inconsistent across different leagues".
"Putting eSports on TV gives us the chance to reach older demographics, people that may not have come into contact with eSports in the normal course of their life"Hugo Byron, eSports commentator
"A lot of new leagues don't but that's because it takes a lot of money and a lot of manpower to do so, which is something tournament organisers might not be willing to invest in. That's something we need to work on in future, drawing up standard guidelines across every event, including structured drugs test, so it's consistent."
ODEE added: "I'd like to reverse the media's thinking and show the cool stuff rather than the very tiny incidents of bad stuff that does sometimes happen to all sports."
One initiative that will help raise mainstream awareness of eSports, the well-being of its players and the benefits it can have for them will be the ongoing push to see tournaments covered on TV as well as internet broadcasting services. Byron suggests this could introduce the industry to a whole new audience.
"Right now, if you look at the demographic of most eSports games, it's typically teens to young-to-mid 20s," he said. "A lot of young people are being targeted and that's not the kind of demographic that's watching TV. Putting eSports on TV gives us the chance to reach older demographics, people that may not have come into contact with eSports in the normal course of their life. As more eSports are shown on TV, that's going to bring more and more viewers in and that will help eSports to grow."
King added: "The big debate in the future is whether there will be a franchise model like traditional sports. Football has the Premier League, the Championship League, and so on. ESPN is desperate to get content, but will broadcasters start paying for the content?"
The headline topic for the panel was 'The Road to the Olympics', suggesting that we could one day see eSports events as part of the world's biggest athletics competition. However, while King himself orchestrated an eSports competition in Rio during last year's Olympics, he believes this will never become a staple inclusion.
"I don't think you'll ever see eSports at the Olympics, because which title do you choose?" he argued. "You could be looking at more than 35 titles, all big commercial products. No one owns football, no one owns golf. But if the Olympics ran a Counter-Strike tournament, their sales would go through the roof."
Byron predicted that, while it will never match the popularity of football, eSports could well be "reasonably mainstream within five years". ODEE concluded that it's important to remember how young the industry is, particularly compared to the traditional sports that the media and other industries are so eager to associate it with.
"It's still so new," he stressed. "If you look at the top sports, things like football, for example, are over 100 years old and it took years to get the Premier League going. eSports is on a fast-track rollercoaster at the moment."