Building The Premiership
There are signs that, while things look bad for competitive gaming on a superficial level, underneath the scene is maturing. In the past, maybe too much focus was placed on prize money and huge sponsorship deals, and not enough on building eSports teams and organisations as sustainable businesses. The trick, according to Michael O’Dell, is that the big teams are learning to rely on more than one source of revenue. ‘It’s finding lots of things that we can do that will sustain it. ESports is still very much in its infancy, and I think at the moment that my company is the only one generating a decent amount of money,’ he says, ‘although business-wise that’s still not a lot of money.’
According to UkeSA’s chairman, Ray Mia, the same holds true for championships and organisations. ‘If you look at the United States, you see a number of organisations that have come and gone. I think the World Series of Video Games is the best example. It was supported by a large global corporation – which I think it’s no secret to say was Intel – and when Intel withdrew support, the WSVG collapsed. Championship Gaming Series’ failure is because although its revenue was coming in, from a business point of view, to say that you’ll break even in three to four year’s time in the current climate just isn’t going to cut it.’
Mia thinks the answer is to adopt the approach taken by MLG in the USA, or take inspiration from the situation in Korea. Intensely commercialised and media-savvy, the Korean pro-gaming industry has turned Korean gaming leagues into the equivalent
of premiership football, and Starcraft players into rock stars.
The homepages of 4Kings and Team Dignitas, two leading pro gaming
So how might this work in the UK? According to O’Dell, the secret is ‘structure and investment. Just like any sport, without it, ours won’t grow’. Ray Mia agrees. ‘The community is here. If you want to call it a market, you can – it’s here. Some of the best gamers in the world are based in the UK. The talent is here, but while there’s basic infrastructure, it’s certainly not on the level of the United States or Korea.’ This, Mia claims, is where the UkeSA fits in. ‘We’re taking aspects of what other associations in Europe are doing – a much more hands-off, standardisation of rules and working to build a grass-roots infrastructure – and also injecting certain elements of what’s happening in Korea, in terms of immensely commercialised, media-supported eSport.’
Note the phrase ‘media-supported.’ Part of what differentiates UkeSA from ESL – and both are investing heavily in the UK scene – is its mission is to bring back professional gaming to British TV screens, albeit with lessons learned from the failures of Xleague.TV and CGS. For O’Dell, this is crucial. ‘We need gaming in mainstream media. That’s the key for growth.’ 4Kings’ Ian Leckey agrees, saying, ‘For the scene here to become as prominent as that in South Korea, we need the public to abandon the gamer stereotypes and help them to understand the eSports industry.’
Pro gaming will always hold an appeal for high-tech hardware and software companies – such as Intel, Microsoft, AMD, EA
and Nvidia – but this alone won’t be enough to take professional gaming into the big leagues. ‘We need companies such as Burger King and Subway to come in,’ suggests O’Dell.