Global lockdowns due to COVID have put an emphasis on entertainment in general this year, with gaming and esports both seeing significant boosts. The games industry is still predominantly male, but the number of women playing games and participating in esports continues to grow. In fact, Interpret’s most recent data from NMM: Global Profiles® indicates that female viewership worldwide climbed several percentage points during the pandemic and is approaching 40% of total esports viewers. Women in the UK and South Korea have shown especially strong interest in esports.
Not only is this a positive sign for diversity in the esports business, but professional teams now have an opportunity to appeal to more women in a sector that’s been catering mostly to men. Gen G, for example, is expanding its partnership with female-focused social app Bumble and will be launching an all-female squad, under Team Bumble, to compete in Valorant (Gen G previously launched Team Bumble in 2019 to compete with an all-women’s team in Fortnite). Gen G’s news came hot on the heels of Cloud9’s decision to launch its own all-women’s Valorant team, Cloud9 White (the male team is being renamed Cloud9 Blue).
These are the kinds of moves that will have a direct impact on the long-term health of the esports ecosystem. As more women play and watch esports, a variety of non-endemic brands are likely to enter the space (or return with a new approach) and help expand the sponsorship market. Cloud9 White has already gained the support of AT&T which is invested in “contributing to real, meaningful change in the industry by giving this powerhouse team and other talented women what they need to succeed.” AT&T first got into esports by partnering with ESL Mobile in 2018.
Traditional female athletes are recognizing business opportunities as well, just like their male counterparts. WNBA star Aerial Powers recently launched a “Powerz Up All 2K Female Tournament,” which enjoyed over 26K views on the first day of NBA 2K competition. Powers, who was signed to Ford Models’ Esports and Gaming division, intends to use Twitch streams and esports to promote diversity in gaming. Interpret fully expects the trend of women in esports to gain more traction, especially as key stakeholders realize that a broader audience will be vital to their business.
GPS manufacturer Garmin has introduced a new smartwatch as part of its Instinct product lineup: the Instinct Esports Edition. At $299, the new esports-focused watch is designed to appeal to aspiring and professional streamers and esports pros alike, as it actively monitors heart rate and stress levels during intense gameplay or competition. For streamers who believe that their audience would find the information entertaining, Garmin also offers a new PC streaming tool, STR3AMUP!, for the creation of overlays that let viewers know their heart rate, stress, and “body battery” level in real-time.
While biometric data might seem gimmicky to the average viewer or gamer, as with traditional sports, esports athletes must train for many hours per day and understand how to gain an edge in competition where possible. Instant feedback and long-term data trends on an esports athlete’s body response can allow that player to make necessary changes to ensure that they are competing at the highest level possible during competition.
On its official blog, Garmin pointed out over the summer that esports players can endure over 50 different stress factors during competition and that this contributes to burnout for the esports pro whose career lasts barely more than three years on average. “By tracking, analyzing and making necessary adjustments in their lifestyles based on data provided by their Instinct or fēnix smartwatches, these athletes can shape how their bodies react to the physical and mental pressures of their sports,” the company said.
Health-based technology and performance analytics is likely to be a growth area within the burgeoning esports industry. Garmin is smart to capitalize on this trend, especially if it’s able to position its brand alongside esports ahead of competitors like Apple, Fitbit, and others. Garmin recently partnered with Astralis Group for its new Instinct Esports Edition, and earlier this year sponsored Polish esports organization x-kom AGO. Interpret’s New Media Measure® shows that nearly two-thirds of the Garmin smartwatch userbase already plays games, but just 8% regularly follows esports, so there’s clear room for esports growth among Garmin’s audience.
Year-in and year-out, League of Legends dominates the esports landscape. The LCS Summer Split drew the highest viewership since 2016 with nearly 35 million hours watched, and the 2020 Worlds Championship in Shanghai has been off to a good start as well with at least five matches from the first stage surpassing 1 million viewers. It would be easy for Riot Games to stand back and watch its empire flourish, but the company is actively looking towards the future with new gaming experiences.
Tactical shooter Valorant is one such title, and it’s already on a good path, especially as teams and content creators like Shroud flock to the game while abandoning old standbys like CS:GO. Riot’s digital card game Legends of Runeterra is another contender to grow the publisher’s esports pie. Riot recently announced an official seasonal tournament model for the game and noted that it would have an update on professional play early next year.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Riot’s new games, however, is Wild Rift, a recently released mobile version of League of Legends, which could piggyback on the brand and success of the MOBA. In fact, in Korea the publisher has already aired a commercial for Wild Rift that leverages the star power of League star players (most notably Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok). Given the ubiquity of smartphones, mobile esports has the potential to be massive – across Asia, it’s already a big deal with titles like Honor of Kings, PUBG Mobile and Clash Royale.
In America, MOBA games like Vainglory tried to popularize mobile esports but it hasn’t quite taken off yet. Riot is aware of this and has wisely partnered with heavy hitters Apple and Verizon for a Wild Rift Twitch Rivals event to showcase the game – and of course, to spotlight the new iPhone 12 running on Verizon’s 5G service. According to Interpret’s NMM: Global Profiles®, MOBA is a very popular genre among mobile gamers and esports fans, especially in China, but it still sees more interest on console and PC. The gap between console/PC and mobile for MOBA play among esports fans in America, however, is quite small suggesting there’s plenty of room for MOBA growth across all platforms among esports fans in the U.S.
Chinese technology behemoth Tencent is proceeding with a previously hinted at merger that would create a games and esports streaming giant. Tencent already owns the developer (Riot Games) behind the biggest esports franchise in the world, League of Legends, and next year, it looks like it’ll control the biggest streaming platform as well. Tencent is the biggest shareholder in Huya and owns about a third of DouYu – the company is mediating a stock-for-stock merger deal that would combine these two streaming platforms and yield Tencent a 67.5% controlling stake.
The combined entity would dominate the Chinese streaming landscape with about 80% market share. This would effectively give Tencent the power to be a “gatekeeper” of any and all games or esports content that’s streamed in the country – and considering that China is home to about 1.4 billion people, the potential audience is certainly vast as esports continues to gain traction as an industry. To put the numbers in perspective, Twitch, which is the leading esports streaming platform in the West, has around 17 million daily average visitors, and is reportedly on track to reach around 40 million active viewers in the US some time next year. Huya, meanwhile already has 168.5 million monthly active users (according to its Q2 2020 fiscal report) and DouYu has about 165 million users.
A Huya-DouYu platform will dwarf Twitch when it comes purely to viewership, and that’s going to make it an extremely attractive platform for both endemic and non-endemic brands. It also provides content creators with the potential for larger audiences and the chance to grow their personal brands on a larger scale. Additionally, Tencent, which operates the START cloud gaming service, could enjoy significant synergies by integrating cloud gaming with live streaming on the platform (not unlike what Amazon seems poised to do with newly unveiled Luna and its Twitch platform).
China’s influence on the esports market cannot be overstated. Not only is the 2020 League of Legends World Championship taking place throughout October in Shanghai, but the country is continually at or near the top when it comes to game and esports streaming engagement, according to Interpret’s NMM: Global Profiles®. About 42% of the country streams either esports or game-related videos, far ahead of the US and nearby neighbor South Korea.
Vizio, one of the largest TV manufacturers in the US according to point-of-sale tracker The NPD Group (tied for 2nd with LG in smart TV ownership according to Interpret data), recently signed a deal to include Engine Media’s UMG.TV 24-hour esports channel with Vizio smart TVs that have the SmartCast operating system.
The deal gives Vizio, a brand known among gamers for offering good quality displays at lower cost, access to the growing esports audience while UMG.TV gains a promotional push and the potential for greater awareness and viewership among Vizio TV owners who hadn’t tuned into the channel before. Interpret’s New Media Measure® shows that Vizio TV owners don’t follow esports as regularly as owners of other TV brands, but this deal gives Vizio an opportunity to change that.
UMG.TV, which is also available via Google Play and Apple devices, offers both collegiate and professional esports, and it secured broadcasting rights earlier this year to the Gears 5 Esports Challenger Series and the Overwatch Collegiate Series. The upcoming season also features shows based on Madden NFL 21, NBA 2K, and indie sensation Fall Guys.
The streaming market led by Twitch – which enjoyed an estimated record 5 billion hours watched this summer – is highly competitive and the platforms are continually seeking ways to gain an advantage. Often that means signing popular content creators like CohhCarnage to multi-year deals, but Interpret expects deals of the UMG.TV sort, which leverage device integration, to become more commonplace as the esports pie grows. Streaming is one of numerous market trends Interpret is tracking in its brand-new Esports Replay® product.
Collegiate esports programs have been expanding across North America since 2014. In 2020, as the pandemic temporarily shut down traditional sports, many shifted their attention to esports, and that’s had a direct impact on numerous colleges across America. In the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen the University of Washington launch a dedicated esports program, Fairfield University open an esports lab, and the HBCU Esports Alliance (HEA) and CSL College partner to bring esports competition and academic opportunities to historically black colleges and universities this fall.
Additionally, there’s a growing opportunity for companies to help establish and service the collegiate esports community. Marketing group Playfly Sports acquired Collegiate StarLeague and WorldGaming Network last month so that it can offer esports advisory services and administrative support to schools. Playfly has explicitly said that it wants to help colleges find new revenue sources through esports since many schools have taken a huge hit during the ongoing pandemic.
Tournament organizers and technology providers can now look at colleges and universities as fertile ground to plant new seeds for their businesses. The State University of New York (SUNY), for example, recently teamed up with sports tournament engine platform LeagueSpot and broadband infrastructure company Extreme Networks to facilitate its 2020-2021 Esports League at SUNY colleges across NY. Similarly, the Unified Collegiate Esports Association (UCEA) has partnered with tournament organizer FACEIT to oversee its leagues for the 2020-2021 academic year.
Traditional sports have a vital grassroots component to fuel underlying interest. Leveraging grassroots enthusiasm for esports will not only benefit the industry, but it could become big business in the future just as it has for the NCAA with basketball and football. For students, engaging in esports activities can help foster social connections while also opening their eyes to possible career opportunities in the burgeoning field, whether in broadcasting, marketing, design, engineering, or playing professionally if their skills are strong enough.
Collegiate esports is a win-win for both schools and students, and interest is on the rise among young adults, with esports viewership approaching NCAA football levels, according to Interpret’s New Media Measure®.