Interview: Intel's Frank Soqui on the demand for PC gaming hardware, eSports and the future of VR

PCR interviews Intel’s enthusiast desktop group general manager at Intel Extreme Masters
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
1-frank-soqui-web.jpg

With a host of competitive gaming tournaments, a vendor expo and some 100,000 attendees, Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice has become an essential event in the eSports calendar and a valuable show for PC companies looking to crack the gaming sector.

Dominic Sacco flew out to Poland to interview Intel’s enthusiast desktop group general manager Frank Soqui (pictured), report on the show expo, and discover how channel partners can benefit from eSports.

eSports revenues are expected to reach $463 million this year and over $1 billion in 2019. Will the eSports bubble eventually burst?

I don’t think it’s going to burst, for a couple of reasons. I see gaming as a form of entertainment. It’s like asking: are movies going to go away? No, but you can transform the way you experience it and you’re seeing VR do the same thing.

I don’t think people stop playing games. Every time you see us produce the next generation performance or next level graphics, or experience VR, as soon as you get that tip of the iceberg usage model, people are going to take VR everywhere for example.

That puts a tremendous load on that platform – people are going to want more and there won’t be enough. The future of VR is in training, education and haptics. eSports is its own thing, it will transform, but it won’t be going away.

Intel recently announced some limited edition Intel Extreme Masters PCs, with several OEM partners selling the systems, such as Scan Computers.

What kind of demand have you seen for those?

We took the modest goal of selling 15,000 units and it looks like we’re probably going to exceed that. The initial uptake was very, very encouraging.

If you think about 15,000 PCs, all of these are enthusiast PCs, so the CPU is going to be $300 or higher at retail. That’s around $4.5 million so far.

Wow. So just from being here and giving the players want they want, we didn’t have to push it.

One manufacturer, which was selling a top-end IEM PC for $6,000, only thought they would sell five – but those five are already sold out. So it’s exceeded our expectations.

Would you look to partner with smaller retailers for those IEM PCs in the UK?

If our OEM partners want to go to a specific retailer, we have co-funding marketing programmes they can access. It doesn’t matter if the retailer is big or little to be honest, we have a sales force in the field that brokers these kind of deals. So if a smaller retailer did want to get more into gaming, that’s one way to do it. We also have a channel organisation, and that can help local OEMs get into retail.

Desktop sales were down again in 2015, but gaming seems to be resilient. How is Intel doing in that space? Last year, the consumer PC market was very tough – the market shrank. But when I think about what we did with our enthusiast processors, we did very well. And not only in that space, but in the case sku space. It was double-digit growth – in a bad year. People love overclocked processors.

What new tech can retailers and the industry expect to see, specifically from Intel?

Optane (fast SSD and memory technology) is coming out. There’s also going to be a next-generation Broadwell Extreme CPU – that’s another pretty cool technology, which is on the way this year. It’s not too far away.

A lot of the things we’re doing is promoting the overall experience and use cases. So, for example RealSense technology and getting that into the developers’ hands.

Here at IEM you’re showing off technology that allows players to put their own faces into Fallout 4 (see ‘testing the latest tech’). Do you think that consumer personalisation will become more prominent?

Yeah. It’s a level of customisation. Think about what gamers are doing with hardware right now in the DIY market. They want it their way. And I think inviting end users to be able to modify their games somehow, whether it’s putting your face or virtual objects into the game using RealSense, it personalises the experience and I think gamers love that.

Intel has invested heavily in eSports. What return on investment have you seen in terms of hardware sales?

It’s not quite that black and white. The goal isn’t to monetise. We have a venue, we have a forum, gamers want to buy things and our partners want to sell things.

If my customers make money, I make money, if the gamers are happy, I’m happy. But we didn’t do it strictly for the direct revenue return, because things are hard to track, but there are two things we do track at IEM as real metrics: What kind of positive awareness are we creating? And then the things that can start to look like demand generation.

Also, people at events look for exclusive stuff they haven’t experienced yet. They want to come along and take something home. In this case, the gamers like the keyboards, mice and gaming systems that their favourite eSports teams play with.

The best of our world is when the ecosystem is healthy and everybody is making money. Nvidia, ATI, our OEMs, the case and accessory manufacturers, the software guys... The choice means everybody gets what they want, as opposed to firms competing with each other.

Image placeholder title

TESTING THE LATEST TECH

Intel had a showroom at IEM, presenting some of its latest technologies to the press and partners, including its RealSense face-mapping technology, computing devices and the HTC Vive virtual reality headset.

Intel staff were also scanning visitors’ faces using a RealSense tablet, before uploading a 3D model of their face into the PC game Fallout 4, using free Uraniom software.

There was a also host of PCs and devices on display in Intel’s showroom, including Lenovo all-in-ones, Acer small form factor PCs, Razer gaming desktops and a couple of RealSense computers. Users could raise their right hand to aim a virtual bow in an archery game, and their left hand to draw the arrow back and fire. A LEGO PC game also let visitors physically move their body to the left or right to swerve and control a virtual car.

Of course, RealSense can be used as a security feature. It can detect a person’s face down to unique details such as eyebrow size and so on, meaning only that person can log onto their PC when recognised by the RealSense camera. The technology can even recognise a person’s finger joints as they wave at the screen.

Read more about PCR’s hands-on with RealSense face-mapping here.

VENDOR VICTORY

While Intel Extreme Masters is all about top gamers and teams playing matches to assert themselves as the best in the world, the sponsors and companies behind them also benefit greatly from a victory.

At IEM Katowice this year, Korea’s SK Telecom T1 (parent company of SK Hynix) beat Fnatic in the final of the League of Legends World Championship, adding another major title to their belt. The Koreans are widely regarded as the best League team in the world, and mopped up Fnatic with ease. SKT is named after the Korean telecoms firm (which is the parent company of SK Hynix), and its ongoing eSports success has given it global coverage.

However, Fnatic won the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament, beating Luminosity in the final in a close-fought match. While Fnatic’s CSGO team is formed of Swedish players and its League team is a mix of Europeans and Koreans, the organisation itself is actually based in London, giving the UK some good representation at the show. Fnatic is partnered with Zowie, Monster, MSI, Dafabet, AMD, Newzoo, Alphadraft, Twitch and DXSeat.

The UK also picked up another victory, with Team Dignitas winning the Heroes of the Storm tournament. They took home $25,000 and qualified for the global Heroes of the Storm Spring Championship, which takes place in South Korea. Dignitas is sponsored by Intel, Scan Computers, Alienware, Corsair, WD, Iiyama and more.

Elsewhere, SK Gaming’s Spanish player Esteban”AKAWonder” Serrano won the Hearthstone tournament (SK is sponsored by Intel, HyperX, ASRock and more), while CSGO team We Run This Place beat CLG Red 2-0 to win the Katowice Challenge women’s CSGO tournament.

In StarCraft II, Polt (who plays under Cooler Master’s CM Storm brand) beat Snute 4-2 in the final, winning some $66,000 and securing a WCS global playoffs spot in the process.

There was also an expo at Intel Extreme Masters, with other vendors and PC companies exhibiting their latest wares to consumers. There were plenty of giveaways, show deals and fan tournaments running on the stands, plus consumers were able to buy accessories and products. Some 100,000 attendees visited the event during the weekend overall. Exhibitors included Alienware, HP, MSI, ASUS, Acer, Zowie, Roccat, Gigabyte, Razer, ESL, HyperX, Need for Seat, Ozone, SteelSeries and, of course, Intel.

Image placeholder title

INTEL EXTREME MASTERS IN THE UK?

George Woo, Intel’s brand partnerships and sponsorships marketing manager, told PCR: “The UK, from a sales and grow opportunity for Intel, is a critical market. We have taken CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League) to the UK back in the day, and we would love to bring IEM to the UK.

“It’s about partnerships – it’s expensive to do those things. But eventually we would love to bring it to the UK if we can find a show partner. It’s a strong market for Intel. We continue to look at the UK. If we can find a partner to get there, we will.

“Obviously Intel has its objectives, and it has to be a strong market for sales – a growth opportunity. But then ESL needs to step in and look at if there is feasibility. Are there strong partners? What’s the eSports community like? They have their checklist – and if everything works out, then we can look at [bringing IEM to a new country].”

Related