Esports Insights and Trends - April 2018

03 April 2018 Publication
Authors: Mary K. Braza Jonathan L. Israel Kevin R. Schulz

Staying current with emerging developments in the booming esports industry ...

Leveraging its long history and extensive experience in all aspects of the sports arena, the Foley Sports Industry Team is actively immersed in the booming esports industry. Our Esports Insights and Trends will be a recurring post which is designed to deliver to esports industry insiders and watchers up-to-date information on the latest trends and developments in the fast-moving world of esports. To that end, today’s post covers a variety of topics, including the intersection of esports with privacy, traditional sports models, science, gambling, college programs, and investment activity.

The development of high school esports programs and leagues is another sign of esports entering the mainstream.

College esports programs have existed for a relatively short period of time. However, there appears to be a sudden and widespread trend of esports programs forming in colleges across the country. One of the premier esports programs at a public university (also the first public university esports program) is at UC Irvine. The UC Irvine program’s success has generated residual effects that are benefiting a younger generation as high school esports programs start to develop around Southern California. These local high school esports programs have formed the Orange County High School Esports League in an effort to improve student engagement and education. The league is largely funded by a nonprofit foundation and receives a lot of support from UC Irvine.

However, the rise of structured and organized high school esports leagues isn’t just happening on a local level. Nationally, the High School Esports League (HSEL) is focused on improving high school programs around the country while supporting high school esports athletes who want to compete collegiately. As a means to these ends, the HSEL, one of the largest esports leagues in the world, has teamed up with the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) in order to “create a stronger path for high school esports athletes to move into the collegiate ranks as scholarship athletes.” This partnership should benefit both the NACE and the HSEL, as both organizations have a tremendous interest in the recruitment of high school esports athletes into the collegiate ranks.

Esports-focused venues are being built all over the world.

There is no greater monument to the esports industry’s tremendous recent growth than the literal monuments and buildings being built to support and facilitate esports programs and events. As with traditional sports stadiums and arenas, local municipalities are investing in esports by way of esports venues. Recently, Cyberport, a technology start-up incubator managed by a government-owned company in Hong Kong, set aside nearly $6.4 million to invest in venues for esports. The government has done this in the hope of becoming a regional and international destination for esports. A planned 4,000-square foot venue should help accomplish this mission.

While Hong Kong’s investment in esports venues may be setting an example for other cities around the world, it is actually behind the curve compared with the western Chinese city of Chingqing. In December, Chingqing opened the world’s first purpose-built esports arena and is now beginning the second phase of the massive project. The innovative arena seats 7,000 people and features glass walls with LED screens that allow the outside of the building to transform into a giant screen. Eventually, the arena will also include a hotel and an incubation center.

Support for esports in China isn’t just coming from municipalities either. The China Sports Venue Association (CSVA) recently added an esports department to “focus on the establishment of professional esports venues in China.” Organizations like the CSVA act as a catalyst for the formation of esports venues by pairing geographic markets with an interest in esports with development partners that are interested in building new or repurposing existing structures into esports-centric venues.

Massive investments in esports venues aren’t just happening in Asia, however. Back in the U.S., Arlington, Texas, has announced plans to build the largest esports stadium in North America. The city believes this investment will pay off by spurring new development and engaging the community while also attracting esports tourism. It may be only a short period of time before other U.S. cities start to follow suit in a big way.

Esports markets that were once behind the rest of the world are quickly starting to catch up.

Japan is one such market that is quickly making strides to become a world leader in esports. After years of suffering from a gambling regulation that inadvertently forbade esports tournaments with any significant prize offerings, Japan has finally legalized esports tournaments with large prize pools. The removal of this legal hurdle should instantly spur growth of the competitive esports scene in Japan. In fact, the chief investment officer of Hong Kong-based Oasis Management Co., is an early believer that competitive gaming can become an extremely lucrative business in Japan. The hedge fund boss Seth Fischer is buying up stock in companies like Capcom and Square Enix Holdings in an effort to capitalize on a market that has yet to recognize the esports trend in Japan. While Fischer doesn’t expect esports to immediately send stocks skyrocketing, he does expect that esports will become a significant earnings driver in the next few years.

Another burgeoning esports market is India. Already one of the top five countries in the world for mobile gaming, India’s blossoming esports scene should soon start to rival the Indian mobile game scene (which is predicted to be worth more than $1 billion by 2020). India is now firmly in the sights of major esports companies and organizations as they start to invest in the country in an attempt to stabilize and grow esports there.

The viability of esports in other global markets has been apparent to those in the traditional sports industry too, and it should be expected that traditional sports entities will try to use esports to penetrate foreign markets. NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum has hinted as such by suggesting that future NBA 2K league expansion teams could be based in foreign markets. Tatum’s proclamation of turning the NBA 2K League into a “truly global sport” comes just weeks before the inaugural season of the league is set to tip off. This notion may not be too far-fetched as the game appears to hold some international appeal and other esports franchises have already had success with international leagues.

New esports titles and organizations have the potential to quickly shift the market.

Let’s look at the recent emergence of Last Man Standing-type games such as Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. These are games that have basically come out of nowhere to become some of the most-played games on the planet. Fortnite came out last July and was an instant success. The game’s popularity became evident a few weeks ago when popular streamer Ninja teamed up with artists Drake and Travis Scott, as well as NFL wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, to play Fortnite and, in the process, log 600,000 concurrent viewers, a streaming service record. Obviously, the appearance of some very popular celebrities had a lot to do with the widely watched streaming session, but the fact that this even happened signals a shift in the landscape of pop culture.

Another Last Man Standing-type game, H1Z1, predates Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. However, despite once being fairly successful in terms of its number of daily players, the game has recently experienced an almost 90 percent decline in playership. The timing of this decline is unfortunate, as the publishers of the game look to kick off the H1Z1 Pro League, which should serve as an interesting case study in esports leagues. If the H1Z1 Pro League can find a way to thrive, despite having fewer than 10,000 daily players, it would suggest that there is more to a successful esports league than the inherent popularity of a game. If it fails, then it would appear that organic interest in a game is necessary to support a successful league.

While Last Man Standing-type games and first-person shooters seem to be dominating the esports industry, fighting games appear to be making a comeback in terms of popularity that could lead to some becoming esports staples. Fighting games are experiencing record sales and we’re starting to see sponsors and developers support them in the same fashion as other successful esports titles. The factors pushing fighting games up the esports ladder aren’t all external either. Capcom is a developer that has long been successful for its fighting game titles but has never really pushed an esports agenda . . . until now. Capcom’s CEO announced that the company intends to make 2018 “Esports Year One” as the company “move[s] forward to promote esports with the full force of [the] organization.” That’s a strong statement coming from a company that has the reputation and resources to make significant moves in the esports industry.

The attack on the status quo of esports.

The state of affairs in the esports industry is presently under attack, for better or worse, on a number of fronts. Due to recent events, including several school shootings, violence in video games is being made the scapegoat by some politicians for the fact that some people behave so heinously. One lawmaker in Rhode Island wants an additional 10 percent tax on the sale of violent games that have a rating of Mature. The extra taxes would purportedly go to fund additional counseling and mental health services in schools.

Even the president is getting involved in the discussion of violence in video games and its effect on children. Recently, the White House hosted representatives and critics of the video game industry for a discussion about violence in video games. The meeting started with a compilation of violent video scenes, presented in sequence without context, and was followed up with blame shifting and allegations of agenda pushing. It will be interesting to see whether either the legislative or executive branch assumes a more aggressive stance against violent video games.

Not only is violence in games being questioned, but so are certain gaming mechanisms. Loot boxes have been the topic of debate for several months and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has now taken steps to address the issue. The ESRB is tasked with assigning ratings and content descriptors to video game titles, such as “M” for Mature or “may contain intense violence.” Now the rating agency will include a content descriptor for Loot Boxes in an effort to educate (or warn) consumers, young gamers, and parents. This type of treatment is going to further the perception that Loot Boxes need to be regulated, but perhaps this will be the extent of the regulation required.

A look at some notable numbers from the last month.

The numbers in these articles are telling of much more than just investment amounts or net profits. The statistics and figures in these articles are suggestive of current or impending trends in the industry. The following articles detail noteworthy investments and revenue successes from various esports organizations:

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