With sponsorship deals between computer vendors and pro gaming teams reaching close to seven figures, PCR asks UK eSports organisation Team Dignitas’ manager Michael “ODEE” O’Dell about the exploding market, its own deal with TP-LINK and the future of eSports…
It’s funny to think naysayers declared PC gaming ‘dead’ a few years back.
Sure, retail sales of boxed games have fallen dramatically, but demand for downloadable PC games, systems and accessories has risen. But what’s more exciting is a whole separate entity has shot up in popularity, breathing new life into PC (and console) gaming: eSports.
The top players around the world form teams, take part in gaming tournaments with huge cash prizes and are watched by millions of fans live over the internet. These guys can easily have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and earn six figures each year.
Plus, 38 per cent of gamers say they are likely to purchase products and services they see being used or showcased at an eSports tournament, according to an Eventbrite study.
PC companies have recognised this growing and specialist demographic, and pro teams offer them a way in. Just like football, player shirts can be sponsored, products are promoted online and video ads produced.
One well-established organisation based in the UK, Team Dignitas, manages some 59 players. It has several PC sponsors including Corsair, Intel and Scan Computers to name a few, plus it has just struck a one-year sponsorship deal with networking vendor TP-LINK. It’s not surprised by the surging rise in eSports popularity.
“It’s growing every single month,” Michael ‘ODEE’ O’Dell tells PCR. “I can’t give you specific figures, but sponsorship deals can go up to six figures. Some of the deals are getting close to seven figures at the moment with the big companies.
“We totally expect more brands from outside of the computing market to embrace eSports, too. We’re just about to sign with our first agent who will act on our behalf to go after such brands and see if they can help get them into the space and make eSports even bigger.”
ODEE also says that sponsor partners can bring a lot more to an eSports team than just get a logo on a shirt.
ODEE says having TP-LINK on board as a sponsor will also help his players with their connections while practising
“For TP-LINK, they’ve been getting into gaming over the past couple of years and we’ve noticed them at events. They’ve gone the extra step and have sponsored my team, which is great for us as it helps us do what we do. And without the sponsors we can’t do that,” he explains.
“Hopefully we can promote what TP-LINK is trying to push to their customers. I think we’ll be pretty much using most of what they have. So our massive gaming house in Los Angeles for example is in desperate need of some switches in that place. And the internet in America is ridiculously good – so we want to try out TP-LINK’s powerline products especially, because wireless in that house is amazing.
“Even with six or seven guys using it at once it’s so fast, but I think there’s a wire going across the floor right now in the house, which shouldn’t be there! We’ve also got our StarCraft II player (BlinG) in Penzance and he will be one of the first guys to get the stuff to see if it will improve his situation, because right now his connection is awful.
“We’re also doing social media giveaways for TP-LINK. So if our fans come up and find our players and get a picture, they will win some products.”
THE NEXT LEVEL
It’s all well and good having big tech brands supporting teams in this way, but for some emerging pro gamers it’s hard enough to get noticed, let alone nail down a solid salary.
Other better-established sports like football generate most of their money by selling TV rights to broadcasters (Sky and BT Sport have just paid £5.1 billion for live Premier League TV rights for three seasons), which is filtered down to teams, players and agents. But in eSports, most of the matches are watched on Amazon’s livestreaming platform Twitch, which lets viewers watch streams for free, although they can pay monthly to remove ads or get live chat upgrades.
Some players make hundreds of pounds in donations each day on Twitch (in fact former Team Dignitas League of Legends pro Michael ‘Imaqtpie’ Santana quit to stream full-time), but some pros and newcomers struggle to balance this with their job or studies.
ODEE believes an eSports governing body could help generate further funding, but is unsure whether TV broadcasters are ready to embrace eSports.
“They haven’t really woken up yet,” he explains. “I’m sure when the BBC looked back at the figures for their recent eSports show, they were amazed when they saw how many people tuned in.
“In this country UKIE is the only thing I’d trust right now that would actually have everybody’s interests at heart. UKIE is telling the Government eSports is big – once the Government starts getting involved and recognising what we do, we can turn over a lot of money for the UK I’m sure.
“A governing body will mean more money will come into eSports, so I can pay big salaries to players. They wont have to worry about making a living if they’re good enough to come and play for us.”
Team Dignitas has a number of pro gaming teams including a League of Legends squad
But ODEE stresses that the governing body must be truly independent. In late 2008 the United Kingdom eSports Association (UKESA) was formed, bringing together the likes of Future Publishing, the BBC, Team Dignitas, EA, Fnatic and many more, before arranging tournaments with cash prizes. However, one year later it signed for bankruptcy.
“It just went from bad to worse from day one,” ODEE recalls. “I was very naïve at the time. I soon learnt if you’ve got people making money and are trying to make more money, it’s not independent. That was the problem with UKESA which just didn’t click with me until it all went horribly wrong.
“The finals in London were just awful. We turned up with our Call of Duty team and they asked us to go over the road to Tesco and buy Call of Duty because they didn’t have the disc. I knew it was going to be a bad day when that happened. They still owe us £11,000 but they fell apart and disappeared off the face of the Earth.
“We’ve seen things come and go like that over the 15 years I’ve been doing this, and now the big games like League of Legends are bringing new people into eSports. But they haven’t seen what’s happened in the last 15 years so some of them are starting to make the same mistakes – and they’re not listening to the old fogies like me.
“So we do everything very sustainably. The foundations are there – now we have to build the house. And I think we can do that.”
At the moment a lot of eSports stars hail from Korea and America. However, Europe has been taking greater strides in recent years with more young guns emerging. The UK is also home to some promising talent in eSports.
“The UK is really good at FPS (first-person shooter) games,” ODEE explains. “But UK Counter-Stike:GO teams are struggling at the moment because they’re all at university and they don’t earn enough money, so that’s a real problem. If they earnt enough money, we’d probably have the best teams in the world on Counter-Strike.”
Team Dignitas has just signed a squad for team-based action game SMITE, and many of the members hail from the UK.
“Finally – we’ve got a team that is mostly from the UK,” says ODEE. “They approached us and got my attention straight away, then we looked into them and it was a really easy decision to make.
Could the UK become a true force in eSports in the future?
“Definitely,” ODEE replies. “I don’t know why we’re lagging behind a lot of the other countries. One problem with this country is there aren’t enough internet cafes. I think it’s because the internet is so good now across most of the country. But I think what’s holding the UK back is mainly educational. A lot of the companies coming in need to do some homework on what eSports is.
“In the past, companies have come in with a one hit bang and hope it sticks, but it doesn’t work like that. So in the UK we definitely need to catch up. We have the players here that can compete on a global level, but the problem is as they’re so young they have the choice of school and university, which is obviously important and it’s something we advocate – to do their education first. So they’ve got the choice: “Do I become a pro gamer or go to university?”
“The annoying thing is there are world champions out there; they just don’t know they are world champions. We need to find them.”