The elephant in the esports room

The elephant in the esports room

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Boasting a R1.5-million prize pool, the VS Gaming Festival saw a thousand FIFA 17 players battle it out Gallagher Convention Centre, Midrand in July. 
Image: Scott Peter Smith

Esports globally and locally has shown some phenomenal growth. There is almost a gold rush frenzy as brands and companies get their heads around what esports is and how they can take advantage of this “new kid on the block” that is taking the world by storm.

But with a future that looks rosy, there is a growing elephant in the room, which needs to be talked about.

The good stuff is this global industry is approaching the US$1 billion mark in value and is grabbing headlines from Forbes to ESPN. The upside of esports looks fantastic: multimillion-dollar tournaments internationally, with large audiences, and multimillion-rand tournaments locally from several providers. In fact, after Telkom launched its million-rand Masters tournament in January 2016, Mettlestate, Kwese and the Nu Metro-backed Orena all launched their own million-rand or more tournaments.

Locally esports is grabbing its share of headlines, too, with the likes of TimesLive, eNCA, Supersport, SABC and Kagiso Media all getting in on the act.

Understanding the market

But about that elephant – you almost have to pinch yourself to remember that Twitch only started in 2011 before quickly shooting to fame with its almost billion-dollar buyout by Amazon. And with all the growth signs pointing to an amazing future, this new kid on the block is, in many ways, still an adolescent.

There are 170,000-plus people in South Africa who log onto Twitch each month and consume more than 25 hours of content on average.Detonator Media

Esports’s first major challenge is that prize money isn’t always translating into an audience. Sure, there are big pullers, including the $20 million-plus international tournament and the million-dollar majors etc., but if you look at the tens of millions of viewers those events are pulling in the context of a global audience, then the impact of prize money has, is in fact, been limited. A lot of other things need to be done to build an audience, too, and these are the areas esports is coming to terms with.

We’re seeing it locally too. The afore-mentioned organisations have thrown a lot of money at tournaments, but their concurrent stream numbers average in the low hundreds, not in the thousands or tens of thousands where they need to be.

The event numbers, while growing, aren’t (yet) significant either. The inaugural Rush esports event, hosted by the rAge expo organisers in July, was not brimming with visitors. Nor was VS Gaming’s R1.5 million prize pool showcase FIFA event, held on the same weekend. The Electronic Gaming Expo headlined with the VS Gaming Dota 2 Masters Finals, but only grew by a few thousand visitors this year to close on 16,000 people over the weekend. It will be interesting to see whether the Kwese and VS Gaming Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments at the rAge expo in October draw significant crowds.

If you contextualise the big international competitions’ audience numbers in terms of a global market, then local tournament stream and event numbers start to make proportional sense in terms of esports’s actual current reach within the local context.

Content is king, but it’s about the journey too

According to Detonator Media, there are 170,000-plus people in South Africa who log onto Twitch each month and consume more than 25 hours of content on average. That number has grown by 50 percent in the last year, which would have any media agency licking their lips. The problem for local esports tournament providers is that these viewers aren’t watching local tournaments.

That would suggest esports locally has a marketing challenge and very likely a production challenge as well.

When Riot Games, who runs the biggest esport in the world, League of Legends, visited South Africa to investigate whether to launch local servers (which they ended up not doing), they said an interesting thing: South Africa is an island in a globally connected village.

What they mean is that South Africa is so far from everywhere else in terms of gaming, which affects our ability to be connected to the global gaming market.

And this sits at the heart of the issue for the South African esports industry. It’s very hard for our players to play internationally. Furthermore, our society is disconnected from the growing esports culture in North America, Europe and Asia.

We have to come to grips with the fact that South Africa is not Europe or Asia and maybe big stages and large prize pools aren’t what’s needed yet. Or, at the very least, we need to think about what else we should be doing for esports locally.

Dimitri Hadjipaschali from the Bravado Gaming CS:GO team preps before playing at the Rage Expo, Cape Town in March 2016.

Dimitri Hadjipaschali from the Bravado Gaming CS:GO team preps before playing at the Rage Expo, Cape Town in March 2016. 
Image: Scott Peter Smith

It’s obvious that there is a growing local esports audience on Twitch who are not watching local content and that alone means a rethink is needed. Then we need to think about our own narrative.

You see, Europe has a narrative. Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner, the world-famous esports presenter who hosted the Telkom Masters last year, once called the LANXESS Arena in Cologne the “Cathedral of Counter-Strike,” where 17,000 watch the biggest CS:GO tournament in the world each year. But it didn’t start like that. It started with the ESL trying to sell 100 tickets to a match in a small make-shift production facility.

It feels like South Africa tried to skip past that phase to the big stages, big prize pools and esports superstars. In fact, how many people even know that Detrony, Sonic, JT, Elusive and Fadey are from the top CS:GO team in South Africa?

Make no mistake, this esports adolescent will be a world changer. But it’s still growing up and locally the esports industry needs to know who it is, how it’s different from its first-world cousins and, most importantly, how does it create its own narrative to reach a South African audience?

Steve Whitford is an esports specialist at Red Oxygen

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