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Intel, ESL and the future of esports in the UK

Last week, over 300 leading figures from sports, technology and esports attended the biggest esports business conference in Europe: ESL London. During the two-day conference, the esports industry’s best and brightest took part in discussions and debates surrounding the most pressing issues facing their field. 

The primary focus: what does the future hold for the thriving esports industry? An economy which, according to Newszoo’s 2018 Global Esports Market Report, is expected to be worth almost one billion dollars in the coming year. That’s a year-on-year increase of a whopping 38%. 

We caught up with Intel’s UK gaming & esports lead Scott Gillingham, ESL COO Rob Black and ESL’s UK managing director James Dean at EGX 2018 to chat about where they see esports heading in the next few years and why the UK has fallen behind the rest of the world. 

A brief history of esports

Esports (or electronic sports) are professional, organized video games competitions. In other words, people play videogames against one another competitively, often for large sums of money and prestige.

While the assumption is that esports are only a recent phenomenon, in reality the first esports competition was held back in 1972, when Stamford University students competed in a Spacewar tournament. But, while the quiet rumbling of future craze were present, the 80s focused more on beating high scores and enjoying videogames as entertainment rather than something you could make a career out of.

However, as gaming became more popular, the ’90s became the first decade when esports (which wasn’t a well-known term then) began to really take off, with companies such as Nintendo and Sega holding professional gaming tournaments. This is also when we began to see the money becoming a factor in professional gaming – people were no longer merely playing for kudos but for $15,000 jackpots. 

It was from the noughties that we began seeing what we now know to be modern-day esports. As streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube took off, people began to show interest in not only playing videogames but watching them too. In addition, prize pools got eye-wateringly large. The Dota 2 tournament earlier this year had a prize pool of over $25 million, making it the largest in esports history, and the total prize pool for esports tournaments in 2017 was $112 million. 

And this is only the start, as Newzoo predicts that global esports revenue will reach $906 million in 2018, with North America account for $345 million of the total and China for $164 million. 

In addition, Newszoo’s report suggests this figure will grow to $1.4 billion by 2021. But how does the esports industry expect to achieve this growth and where does the UK fit in?

Gathering the Intel

Two of the UK’s major driving forces behind esports are Intel and ESL, who partnered up 12 years ago to create the Intel Extreme Masters, which is the longest running global pro gaming tour in the world.

The Intel Extreme Masters originally started with an attendance of 500 people in 2006, but by 2017 that attendance had grown to 173,000 people – a staggering 53% increase from the previous year. In addition, this year’s IEM had a viewership of 1.8 million in the UK.

“One of key things is supporting esports and helping esports grow and I think our partnership does that very well,” Intel’s UK gaming and esports lead Scott Gillingham told TechRadar.  “It’s our way of giving back to the community – by putting on big esports tournaments.”

“Being able to sponsor these big events and creating those events with ESL is something the community love, appreciate and get behind.”

However, Gillingham acknowledges the UK esports industry has a way to go to catch up with its US and Chinese cousins despite being the fifth largest gaming market in the world.

“You look at some of the top four – the US, Asia etc – they have very big game business but they have big esports leagues,” Gillingham explains. “I think a lot of that has been the investments into those leagues and maybe in the UK we’ve had that stigma about esports and it’s kind of been a little bit behind because of that. But it’s now growing. 

“This year has been a big growth in esports. We’ve had ESL one – again partnered with Intel we brought that tournament with ESL to the UK. I think people are a bit dubious whether it was going to be a big tournament and the whole tournament sold out in 24 hours. It was the fastest selling tournament for ESL globally and over 24,000 people attended that event. So yes, it’s a little bit behind compared to other countries but it is growing and we are seeing that develop.”

It’s all well and good to appeal to appeal to those who are already gamers and who understand the industry however, as esports grows, the gap between those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t arguably grows increasingly wider. That’s where influencers, or gaming personalities, play a major role. 

“We have Sacriel, JackFrags and the TechChamp [among others],” Gillingham explains. “That’s another route of getting a message out there and also showing people that gaming is fun.”

Growth spurt

So how do you bridge the gap and encourage young people to pursue a career in esports? “There’s a lot of perception to it,” ESL COO Rob Black explains. “I think actually this year is probably a tipping point for us.”

ESL has been trying to do just that, working with Intel on a campaign called Memories which showcases videos on how the biggest names in esports got to be where they are now.

“Sujoy is on there and he was like the first pro gamer from the UK – that was in 2000,” Black tells TechRadar. “People don’t really know that we’ve got a heritage in esports and I think it’s important for us to acknowledge the fact that we have history there, and that we have a lot more talent and a lot more people in esports globally than is obvious.”

The Memories campaign is part of ESL and Intel’s goal to get more young people involved in esports and to understand the industry involves more roles than being a gamer. Alongside this, ESL UK ran a Future Generations competition at EGX 2018, which seen the company searching for the best young talent in esports commentating. 

“The only way they can [progress]  is if they’re being given a platform,” ESL’s UK managing director James Dean explains. “You can’t go from playing in a bedroom to playing on a stage. You have to progress so that’s where the importance of grassroots is.”

“We’ve been working with universities in the UK to help students to understand that working in esports is way more than just being a player,” Black continues. “We have 40 people in ESL UK at the moment and we’ve got accountants who like gaming, a paralegal who likes gaming, so there’s a lot there that’s not just your standard run-of-the-mill ‘I could be a player or a manager’.”

Grassroots is at the heart of sustaining a skyrocketing industry such as esports, especially given the industry is so new that it’s difficult to estimate where exactly it will go in the future. So how do you evaluate which steps to take? 

“The community dictates that,” Black tells us. “In that regard, we will always follow what people want.”

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