The (inevitable?) rise of Esports – and mobile Esports
Although we’re not in a situation where esports is a dominant type of entertainment content yet, the growth trends are clear. Newzoo expects that by 2021 the global audience of esports enthusiasts will be 250M viewers, and total revenue to be $1.6B. Intuitively that makes sense. Video games have been an increasingly popular form of entertainment. In addition, the traditional broadcasting model is losing popularity and streaming channels are becoming increasingly mainstream media of audio-visual content delivery. ESPN might have secured the rights to Overwatch, but esports remains mostly associated with digital forms of distribution like Twitch and YouTube. So, both in terms of content and media ecology, esports is very favorably positioned to become an increasingly relevant form of entertainment.
In its latest quarterly report, Activision has put esports as one of its 4 growth drivers. But esports doesn’t make a significant and direct contribution to revenue quite yet. When looking at Activision/Blizzard’s revenue mix by distribution channel, in Q3 2018 the “other” category represents $160M out of a total revenue of $1,512M. “Other” includes revenues from MLG and the Overwatch league – but also revenues from studios and distributions businesses. So, it’s hard to put a dollar value on the revenue generated by esports – but it feels safe to say it’s still a marginal portion of their business.
Activision’s main strategy to increase revenue is to increase engagement (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, not all forms of engagement are equal – most of the discussions on revenue and engagement miss the part that consists in optimizing the dollar value of time played). Esports is another way to increase consumer engagement with Activision products. Activision is betting on a broader definition of engagement. Playing games from the portfolio remains of course a crucial aspect: in Q3 players spent on average 52 min a day in the Activision/Blizzard/King games. But watching the games being played is another way to engage with their content – and one with growing importance at that. Esports is not a strategic pillar for Activision because of the revenue it directly generates. It’s a strategic pillar because it increases engagement along different channels, media and forms of engagement. Higher engagement with a game means both more people playing their games longer, and more people watching experts playing their games. And so far, Activision titles are well positioned in viewership: Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and Destiny 2 are consistently in the top 20 of most viewed games.
Although EA is focused on developing a streaming and subscription service, esports was also a noteworthy aspect of their last earnings call. The FIFA eWorld Cup Final viewership increased 4x YoY and over 20 million players had participated in the FIFA 18 Global Series. Esports is a way to further engage players (or at the very least better identify the biggest fans): viewers play more and spend more in the game.
If you look at the most watched game in Twitch in 2017 (again, from Newzoo’s report) you see that esports is still mostly a thing for PC/console games. LoL/CS/Dota 2 are by far the strongest content in terms of viewership. The picture today is very similar (but put Fortnite at the top…)
In 2016 League of Legends had 100 millions DAU. On the other hand, It’s estimated Dota 2 has a peak DAU of approximately 700k users (as of writing this in December 2018). What these numbers tell us – in conjunctions with time viewed – is that hours viewed doesn’t correlate with the active player base. More importantly that strongly suggests that a big part of the appeal lies in the “viewable” qualities of the game. What’s interesting with Activition’s way of approaching the question of games and engagement is that your can be a player or a spectator. And both imply a different overall experience – and more importantly a different way to consume one same game. What makes a game fun to play isn’t necessarily what makes it fun to watch. And what matters in esports is that the game is fun to watch.
Mobile is underrepresented in this list – especially when considered in relation to total hours played. Hearthstone is a top watched game – but it’s not an exclusively mobile title. Also, in the mobile version, there is very little cross-reference with esports events and channels. There is no native embedding that informs you about esports related news or that allows you to access esports content. Vainglory and Clash Royale are the 2 mobile-only games to make the top list. Both ballpark with the same number of hours watched. Both have approximately 200 times less hours viewed than LoL. So there clearly is room to grow for the visibility of mobile esports. Because of this, and the continued growth of mobile gaming, it’s reasonable to expect this is the direction mid/hardcore mobile gaming will be going.
Vainglory does have this “native” integration of the esports content, but for the purposes of this post I want to discuss Clash Royale more. Clash Royale has a larger userbase and generates more revenue. There is also a higher level of professionalism and production value in the Clash Royale League. Last week the finals of the Clash Royale league took place. As of the writing of this post the 8+ hrs video on YouTube has nearly 3M views.
With the upcoming release of Brawl Stars, it will be interesting to see how Supercell adapts its esports strategy. More importantly for this post, Clash Royale is an interesting illustration of what features can increase the “viewability” of a game, and some common characteristics esports shares with more traditional forms of audio-visual entertainment. Broadcasting might be on the decline (which is not the same as dead), but there are some common aspects of content creation, “packaging” and delivery that are media agnostic.
Clash Royale and esports
In this post I don’t want to talk about the business of esports, as much as the format of an esports program. A common theme for me is the continuity in format between “traditional” entertainment forms and mobile digital entertainment (read: games). More specifically, some of the aspects that make esports something worth watching are not new at all. Watching esports on your mobile phone, or watching a baseball game on TV while sitting on your couch might involve different types of media and objects of viewership. But both refer to the same form (audio-visual content) and build on similar emotions. More specifically, both sports and esports display shared codes and vocabulary – which are neither specific to the medium (TV or a mobile phone) and the program itself (Baseball or Clash Royale League). There are 3 main aspects I think are relevant when considering esports:
- Natively intertwine game and esports in the mobile app
- Have an in-depth commentary apparatus around the game
- Dramatize the action
In this post I’m not aiming for an exhaustive description of Clash Royale and its esports league. Rather, I want to highlight some key aspects I find are relevant to look at when trying to assess mobile esports and what can potentially make it engaging and entertaining to watch.
Natively intertwine game and esports in the mobile app
Clash Royale is the top grossing mobile game that seems to make the most serious bet on esports. First, the esports experience in natively embedded in the game itself. The “News Royale” section has an Esports tab.
There is an esports tab in the information menu, and when there is a live game ongoing there is a link to YouTube from within the game – sometimes with an in-game reward for watching the event live. You have to imagine a native streaming solution is next – but so far this is as close as it gets to embedding the esports experience in the player’s session. What illustrates a paradigm shift the most here is that users are actively encouraged to leave the app to engage with the game on a different platform, in a non-playing way. Ultimately, launching the app is not just about playing the game. It’s about engaging with it in the largest sense possible. Either through playing it, or through watching others play.
Have an in-depth commentary apparatus around the game
This is where the parallels with traditional broadcasting are the most striking. In this regards esports is mostly a declination of a common model of standard audio-visual broadcasting formats. You’ll find here some common and familiar tropes that have been around in sports broadcast on TV for decades. This is the narrative wrapper around the game itself – and ultimately there is more viewing time dedicated to the commentary about the game than the game actually being played.
The first thing that stands out is all the “commenting apparatus” around the game. Esports is about watching professionals play the game. But it’s also at least as much about talking about professionals playing the game. You have the commentators, the post-game interviews, the “behind the scenes” look into coaching moments. And of course, you have all the human drama – the history between players, the defining moments, the discursive elements of knowledge that become common knowledge: what’s meta and no longer meta, the unconventional plays or decks, the struggles a player went through in the past, etc.
Associated to this are the replays – the key moments that are analyzed, discussed and debated, and where games are decided. The key moments tie into gameplay, but they are especially relevant from the perspective of the “commentary machine”. A replay is an event that lasts a few seconds that is discussed for minutes on end, expanded, brought into a wider context, and given meaning in the context of a game, a matchup – or even a season.
The one thing that lends itself most to commentary is all the stats layers around the game itself. In this respect Clash Royale lends itself more than other mobile titles (there are probably fewer stats you could intuitively extract from a CSR matchup). Clash Royale is not so much a game of dexterity than a game about tactics – although the commentators are there to remind you how many active pixels there are on a board and how crucial precise placement is to victory. Ultimately, there are a few very tangible (and measurable) actions in a Clash Royal game. Stats provide a discursive anchoring for comments – and they also provide an opportunity to identify trends over time. The commentators of the Clash Royale League look at the action through the lens of multiple stats that help dissect each competitor’s play style and strength: most played card, but also elixir used on buildings, elixir leaked, etc.
Dramatize the action
In order for a game to be “esportable” its need to be open to some form of expertise. That’s why I’m going to go on a limb and say I don’t see a big future for Yahtzee or Bingo esports (even though I’m a huge fan). But of course there is no strict rule – ultimately anything could become an esports. After all, there have been (and still are) broadcast productions of backgammon competitions.
This is where I think lies the biggest esportable quality of Clash Royale. There is an intrinsic asymmetry between the viewer’s and the player’s experience. The best illustration of this maybe comes from outside esports: from poker. A poker player has to make his or her decisions based on the assessed strength of their cards, in relation to the assumed strength of the opponent’s hand. What makes watching poker so entertaining is that the spectator has a view of the entire playing field. So, the poker player’s move might be the best – or the most reasonable – given the partial information available. But that’s precisely what’s going to create the dramatic tension so engaging and compelling for the audience watching – and knowing that’s not the best move and a bad surprise is around the corner.
The asymmetry between the viewer and the player – who is making his/her choices on partial information – can be one of the greatest differentiators between the experience of a player and the experience of a spectator. It’s one of the great sources of tension conducive to the audience’s engagement and probably what Clash Royale has the most going for itself. Although in its current implementation there are some missed opportunities to showcase that asymmetry better and more.
Being able to create those surprise moments – usually up to the last minute – is one of the things that makes Clash Royale as a game fun to watch. And the ability to create surprise moments, to let the viewer see the struggles of the player and the misplays s/he does not see is key to creating a sense of drama. Being able to provide an asymmetry – a difference in point of view and assessment for the player and the audience – is perhaps the number one quality that is required to have a solid viewing experience – and the most conducive to mobile esports in the future.