October 1972, Stanford University in California, USA, and a group of students gather to play a game called Spacewar. The group are competing for the chance to win an annual subscription to Rolling Stone magazine in an event that many cite as one of the first competitive video game competitions. Now fast forward to nearly 50 years later, and a group of teenagers have gathered to play EA Sports’ FIFA 18 video game in a cinema in Fulham Broadway in west London.
The competition is the Gfinity Elite Series Season 3 and the prize pool is over £250,000 ($344,000). The crowd for this opening round of the competition is made up mainly of teenage boys who look more like gamers than athletes.
The fact that eSports involves watching other people play video games is quickly forgotten, as the graphics and gameplay of FIFA are so realistic it almost feels like you’re just watching soccer in the pub, or at a friend’s house.
The broadcast is tailored to recreate the traditional sports experience as commentators accompany the contest and pundits preview and analyse the games with former eSports players alongside them. A touch screen is even used to break down each goal.
It’s a nice introduction to eSports, one that can lure in a semi-enthusiastic video gamer and huge sports fan rather than just a traditional hard-core gamer. Could this be the key to achieving success in eSports, turning niche into mainstream?
Mark Brittain, Gfinity’s chief commercial officer and an experienced television executive, and Martin Wyatt, the promoter’s head of partner relations, spoke to Sportcal Insight about the promoter’s plans during the Gfinity Elite Series Season 3 playoffs.
Many consider eSports to be a risk, but Brittain draws on his experience working with Simon Cowell, the well-known pop music and reality TV impresario, to explain the cross over into the world of competitive video gaming.
He says: “I was fortunate to work for Simon Cowell at the peak of his career when Idol and X Factor [the series of TV talent shows in US and UK] were drawing millions of viewers - but underpinning all of that it was about connecting with an audience and selling to a particular demographic.
“The reason I came into eSports is it’s the one sector where the core demographic is 16-24, the holy grail for advertisers. What I found really interesting is that plenty of brands are fascinated by eSports and want to learn more but they’re also hesitant to dip their toe in the water as it’s not something they understand.
“So my job is to create tangible opportunities and break it down in a way brands and agencies can understand, and also creating a package that takes the risk out of eSports. It’s about how we effectively integrate a brand into content and make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t jar.”
“There are examples where brands have tried to own certain parts of the eSports eco-system and there’s been a clear lack of advocacy off the back of that. Part of the job that we’re trying to do with these brands is get everything executed in the right way so that they are accepted credibly straight away.”
Gfinity’s ‘safe’ approach is a logical blueprint for mainstream sports bodies like the International Olympic Committee, which has been flirting with the concept of eSports, beginning earlier this year when ‘TOP’ sponsor Intel ran an eSports event alongside the winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
As well as providing a platform for sponsors, Gfinity also acts as an event organiser, and last year it handled the debut of Formula 1’s eSports project.
The first edition of the Formula 1 eSports Series, which is based on publisher Codemasters’ racing simulation game, attracted audiences across the world, with broadcasts in 123 countries.
The final in Abu Dhabi, which took place on the same weekend as the season-ending grand prix, received a total of 1.8 million video views on Facebook, with 2.8 million minutes watched.
A record linear TV audience also tuned into watch the semi-finals on Sky Sports, the UK pay-TV broadcaster that holds rights to Formula 1.
Gfinity's presenting team at the Elite Series Season 3 Fifa 18 competition
Wyatt explains: “What’s interesting about how the Formula 1 programme turned out is that we had a combination of different populations of people. We had Formula 1 fans watching the broadcast and engaging with the broadcast, and then we had racing video game fans, eSports racing fans and then you just had automotive fans. That was really powerful for us because it showed what the potential is for something like Formula 1.”
Brittain describes eSports as a logical extension for traditional sports, and not a threat of extinction, saying: “Nobody is in any way suggesting eSports will replace Formula 1 or football but it allows these governing bodies to start legitimate conversations with the fans of tomorrow. Through FIFA there’s been a whole of group of people that learnt about players or teams that they never would have heard of.
“This isn’t about replacing the core sport it’s about complementing. It’s about bringing in the fan of tomorrow into the sport.
For Gfnity, and most eSports organisations, media rights and sponsorship are the biggest revenue-drivers. As eSports lives on the internet, linear television deals are scarce.
Earlier this year, Gfinity signed an exclusive deal with Facebook to make the social media site the exclusive streaming partner of the Elite Series. The deal marked a “tent pole” moment for Gfinity, according to Brittain, and a fairly risky one as Gfinity moved away from streaming giant Twitch.
When pressed on whether there is a place for linear television in the eSports world, Brittain and Wyatt stress that the heart of the gaming community is online, albeit some ancillary content is suited to traditional platforms.
Brittain remarks: “We are evolving our distribution strategy. This is a sector that is moving so quickly. For Season 1 and Season 2 we did a combination of Twitch, [online TV channel] BBC Three, [pay-TV’s] BT Sport and Eleven Sports and looked at various combinations to reach as wide an audience as possible.
“One of the big words of eSports is community. When people are watching eSports they’re doing so with different devices in their hands and engaging and sharing and talking about that content. We want to be accessible and as widely viewed as possible, but that’s not to say we’re abandoning any linear strategy at all. It’s about finding a linear partner that suits our ambitions. We don’t just want our content to be put on at two o’clock in the morning. We want to find a platform that is telling the story with us.
GlobalSportsJobs: the world’s leading specialist careers platform for the international sports industry.