Anyone connected to the sports industry will know that eSports is indeed something like the new kid on the block. The link between digital developments and the subsequent growth of gaming in society and the football environment’s approximation to technology-based enhancements and monetisation opportunities has inevitably brought eSports on the agenda of many a club. For it offers those clubs the prospect of reaching different audiences, that are not only connected in a digital way, but also keen to consume and open for new technical solutions or offerings. Yet, eSports is no new phenomenon and therefore a certain respect to its unique culture is needed, if seizing all its promises shall be a success in the long term. We spoke to Reza Abdolali, CEO of blackbird eSports, about professionalising eSports, its marketing potential and whether it’s rather an obligation for clubs or brands these days. Also, he opened up on its influences on society, how eSports stars could overtake Cristiano Ronaldo or Tom Brady and what is needed in order to create a lucrative coexistence of traditional and eSports.
eSports: The hype, the numbers, the snares
Gaming has become a widely accepted everyday media outlet, with especially younger audiences growing up with numerous opportunities to play popular games and to watch popular gamers play on Twitch, YouTube etc. as well. Whether it is League of Legends, Dota2, EA Sports’ FIFA, Fortnite, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds or the new Apex Legends, the games industry is a multi billion Euro one; and it is growing continuously.
Only recently, the DFL have partnered with ProSiebenSat.1 to show the Virtual Bundesliga Championship on Free TV. Although TV isn’t a channel for the future, it does show that eSports has found its way to the middle of society, too. Even Google dived in and created Stadia, a gaming platform with few boundaries and the chance to play games via stream from virtually every device.
There’s a long list of modern day potentials you simply cannot overlook: Social Media – especially Instagram and Twitter for football clubs –, apps, podcasts, brand cooperations. So it’s only natural that clubs in their entity as brands are looking to leverage all of them to stay competitive. That’s why so many clubs have already formed their own eSports teams, sections, even academies. These are not only generating attention and engagement in Social Media and a connection to global gaming- and digital-affine audiences, they’re also bringing more sponsors and revenue drivers into the arena. Look at Ajax Amsterdam, who are great at eSports. Selling Ajax-branded gaming chairs – for about 400 Euro each – is part of the plan, while the club’s main shirt sponsor Ziggo now also pays for featuring on the eSports players’ kits. According to Statista, eSports market revenue will go through the one billion US dollar barrier this year.
Still, not every club is jumping on the eSports train. And they’re right not to, unless they have a strategy in place that honours the eSports culture whilst trying to enhance the own club’s brand. Investments shouldn’t be tied to questions like “How much will it earn us?”, although financial matters are certainly important. Rather, one should try to understand the history and future developments of eSports and then deduce potentials and measure application possibilities. We thought about getting more insight into the world of electronic sports. So we spoke to Reza Abdolali. He has the knowledge from different perspectives, having worked as a games journalist and for Virgin Interactive as well as leading his own agency Indigo Pearl. Last year he launched the full-service agency blackbird eSports which looks to professionalise eSports as it develops industry standards for companies and clubs alike. Experience from games, entertainment, management, Social Media and PR should stand them in good stead. They also offer a place for eSports talent from Germany, like Hamburg’s FIFA 19 Coop champion, also the inofficial German champion for that mode, Thiago Ludwig.
Reza gave us a lot of significant and thoughtful answers regarding the eSports environment, potential and its development in the future. It could even be number one sports sometime, couldn’t it?
Spielmacher: eSports: Sneered at years ago, accepted now – where is this sport going in the next 5 to 10years?
Reza Abdolali: The eSports sector has undergone massive growth in recent years. There is no comparable phenomenon within the gaming sector. Meanwhile, eSports is an integral part of youth culture, which unleashes an enormous pull. In the coming years, this trend will increase many times over. There will always be more prominent sponsors who engage in eSports to a much greater extent. This in turn leads to even more visibility and thus a larger audience and higher popularity, which in turn has a positive influence on the room for manoeuvre and the earning potential of the eSport athletes.
Without question, in the coming years, we will see continuing, impressive growth and professionalisation of the area, which will affect and influence all aspects of eSports.
Spielmacher: Which tangible necessities for adjustment come up for clubs and brands today? Or should it be yesterday? There is marketing potential, isn’t there?
Reza Abdolali: Of course, the rapidly growing popularity of eSports and the associated visibility are making more and more companies aware of the sector. Of course we have to deal with a young, consumer-friendly and well-funded audience that is fully networked and active through Social Media platforms. This demographics is highly attractive to companies and their products and services – the potential for marketing activities is huge. However, we always make a very clear distinction between companies that want to become advertisers in the context of eSports and companies or clubs that want to become active in eSports themselves. While the first venture is still relatively easy to manage – assuming you are well advised – true engagement and active participation in the eSports sector is a much more complex challenge, which requires many facets. With blackbird eSports, we have developed exactly this area into a business segment: the successful consulting of customers who want to get involved in the field of eSports.
Spielmacher: Why should clubs or companies take to eSports, anyway? Which conviction would they have to follow in order to reap the rewards in the long term?
Reza Abdolali: We are dealing with a highly networked, young target group, which is also very consumer-friendly and open to new products and services. The fact that games and thus also eSports from the pop and youth culture have become indispensable, makes presence in the eSports sector more and more a “mandatory event“ for clubs and advertising companies. A long-term commitment to this area is therefore increasingly being examined by a growing number of companies.
Spielmacher: Despite growing popularity and viewer numbers, eSports isn’t quite seen as equal to other sports yet. Isn’t it time to concede that status to the sports uncompromisingly now, in the digitalised world we live in?
Reza Abdolali: In my view, this question has never asked itself, because eSports has always been a sport for me. Not accepting eSports as a sport, in my opinion, is based on ignorance or fear of something new. To this day nobody has explained to me comprehensibly why chess and archery, for example, in contrast to eSports are recognised as a sport. Even less can I understand that German gold medal winners in sports shooting in the Olympic Games in this country are cheered and at the same time Counterstrike players are classified as potentially dangerous. Here, it is too unidimensionally thought, if you don’t question the tradition and don’t open up for digital sports.
Spielmacher: How would you reassure people of eSports’ sporting aspects and its probably overlooked benefits in this context?
Reza Abdolali: Of course, eSports differs at first glance from established sports. When you take a closer look, the differences become much smaller. To succeed in eSports disciplines requires the highest levels of discipline, perseverance, mental strength and, of course, talent. eSports athletes are the opposite of “computer nerds“, a picture that some media like to draw. The level of performance in many areas of eSports is now so high that, without a professional, highly disciplined approach to attendees, it is virtually impossible today to celebrate success at world-class level. This enormous willingness to perform and the absolute will to succeed are also features that are now attracting many sponsors to the area – because these are values that companies and brands like to associate with.
Spielmacher: With eSports looking to make its way into mass sports, which are intersections with more traditional sports that inject some familiarity for viewers or sceptics?
Reza Abdolali: The entire Modus Operandi, which has established itself around the eSports area, derives to a large extent from the traditional sports sector. The formation of teams and coaches, the way in which they are commentated on live – up to the background coverage is basically based on practices and experience from the traditional sports sector. The staging of the eSports athletes themselves as well as the involvement of sponsors is reminiscent of familiar formats. Spectators who are new to the game, or who would like to become active in eSports, will discover a variety of familiar characteristics. Of course this reduces the barriers to entry enormously – whether as a spectator or as an athlete.
Spielmacher: Is TV generally still as important for sports coverage as it once was and will eSports make its way to the stations? In Germany, ProSiebenSat.1 show matches from the Virtual Bundesliga on Free TV now.
Reza Abdolali: Detached from the topic of sports: linear TV is losing more and more importance and is already barely or not at all consumed by the younger target group.Conversely, TV is still important for sports in order to reach large parts of the population. After several generations of TV consumption in a similar manner over decades, media consumption has changed dramatically in recent years among the next generation. In this “transitional phase“, eSports is good at broadcasting on Free TV – especially in order to strengthen social acceptance in older age groups. For the young target group is already no longer particularly attractive to get offered eSports content in linear TV. Not least because they want to decide at what time they consume the content. The fixed broadcasting hours of the TV stations are more of a hindrance. The models of the future are already delivered by Netflix and DAZN today. Content on demand – at any time and individually.
Spielmacher: Younger generations celebrate gaming stars like football idols in their own right. Do you think players like F2Tekkz, Faker or Kai “deto“ Wollin will be able to become as popular as icons such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Tom Brady?
Reza Abdolali: Popularity is always relative to the size of the target group or fan base, which helps a personality to become known. Thus, the prominence of athletes, actors or musicians stands and falls. At the end of the day, it is about visibility to a mass market audience. If this is given, for example through extraordinary success, sponsors with ever greater reach become aware of the actors – their cooperation then multiplies the visibility once again. So why should an eSports superstar, who is perhaps the best of his guild in a game celebrated by hundreds of millions of teenagers around the world, not gain such visibility? If you look at the high value of computer and video games within the youth culture, this development is actually only a matter of time. It’s important to keep in mind that many teenagers and young adults have grown up in media contexts primarily through games – games have a much stronger cultural anchorage for these younger generations than they did in previous ages.
Spielmacher: With society turning ever more digital and in consuming sports, too, could eSports eventually supersede other sports such as volleyball or handball?
Reza Abdolali: I would not tie this comparison to individual sports, but rather to major trends within the eSports arena. We will see many eSports developments in the coming years, which will surprise us a lot. Especially in view of the huge learning curve that particularly game developers have experienced in recent years, we can expect a completely new, even further optimised approach to the eSports sector. The result will be new generations of games that are even better tailored to the requirements of a modern eSports sector. That some of these games, and thus eSports disciplines, develop even greater visibility than familiar formats is out of question for me.
Spielmacher: A team like Team North, initiated by FC Kopenhagen and NordicFilms, has the look of an entertainment brand. Do eSports sections at football clubs have to go away from being “sections“ and start becoming their own brand?
Reza Abdolali: We are certainly only at the beginning of a long development. At the moment various approaches are being tested, which approach and which branding has a positive effect on the respective eSports company. Of course, the fact that eSports has a completely unique identity has to be highlighted. At the centre of this self-discovery and positioning of the teams is the value compass, which each club defines individually for itself. The resulting approach to a new area, such as eSports, is the focus and the link between an established and (globally) known football team and a new department. Which branding is chosen then, will be rather subordinate.
Spielmacher: As society is steering more towards electronic sports, could there be an imbalance in the future insofar as fans will probably watch and play more in digital contexts without having a physical offset? While FIFA or Madden NFL offer real life re-enactment, Dota2 or League of Legends make that impression harder to imagine.
Reza Abdolali: Internationally successful computer and video games, that emotionally appeal to millions of audiences around the world, are primarily cultural phenomena. Depending on the level of awareness of a game, these products can develop a gigantic traction and thus a maximum of visibility. A reference to the non-fictional world may encourage this development, but is by no means a prerequisite. A comparable media product would include the Avatar, one of the most successful films of all time – a media product that blurs the boundaries between film and game in terms of its tonality and is located in a fictional world. The trait of an eSports discipline, as opposed to the mass market, is thus based to a considerable extent on the popularity of the underlying game.
Spielmacher: What, in your opinion, are the most urgent aspects that have to be addressed in order to professionalise eSports?
Reza Abdolali: As the real sports sector does, we also need more standards in the eSports sector, both generally and internationally. These should not only define the eSportive coexistence, but also offer outgoing action recommendations and approaches. From the management of eSports athletes to sponsorship and the implementation of major eSports events, it would be desirable to establish more standards. Especially when you consider how many new players are pushing into the area, it would be important to be able to draw on some guidelines for recurring challenges and demands. It is not a question of prohibitions or commandments, but rather resources of best practices that have been agreed on both nationally and internationally.
Spielmacher: Change makes coexistence inevitable – we’ve seen that with radio and TV (rather audio and video streaming these days). Do you think eSports will evoke a power shift in the modern sports industry or rather help football (and possibly other sports as well) strengthen its future existence? Could you think of a favourable symbiosis?
Reza Abdolali: The traditional (competitive) sports sector has been a firmly established sector for many decades with fixed processes and rules. In direct comparison eSports is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, media usage has radically changed in the last decade alone. Traditional TV, for example, has lost much of its importance especially in younger target groups compared to Internet-based formats such as YouTube. The development and strong growth of eSports is clearly related to this development. Without transmission options such as streaming, eSports would not have developed these large ranges, and therefore not the meaning. So I think there are a lot of links between the traditional sports sector and eSports. I believe we are still too early in the process to speak of a symbiosis, which is possibly equally profitable for both areas.
Thanks so much for the interview, Reza. We certainly know a lot more about eSports now and will hopefully look at it more reflectively.