Valencia eSports Congress Recap

This weekend, DreamHack Valencia hosted the Valencia eSports Congress, a meeting of the minds for eSports. Present were sponsor representatives, league bigwigs, and team owners, and game developers--including Blizzard's own Dustin Browder. Paul "ReDeYe" Chaloner moderated five panels at the event, beginning each with an overarching topic, then letting the panelists both talk amongst themselves and answer additional follow-up questions from the moderator.

This is but a brief recap of the event, covering some major talking points of the conference. If you have time to watch a couple of the panels, I highly recommend doing so; you will get a lot out of hearing the discussions first-hand. I will also be conducting an interview with the moderator, Paul Chaloner, in the near future, so keep an eye out for that as well.

Also, I would like to thank SCVRush head staff member Nelle, who contributed the material for the third and fourth panels, making my job a heck of a lot easier!

image (Image Source: callofdutyesports.com)

1. Esports as a Global Phenomenon: Will eSports survive without an international body similar to FIFA?

Panelists

  • Russel Pfister - NASL
  • Won Suk Oh - IeSF (International eSports Federation)
  • Alex Garfield - Evil Geniuses
  • Tomas Hermansson - DreamHack
  • David Ting - IGN/IPL

1. Need for a federation

All of the panelists agreed to some extent that an international federation for eSports regulation would be a good thing, in some form. Alex was most vocal about this, saying that it would be a big step towards being able to promote eSports as one, unified product to both sponsors and consumers.

Only David directly stated that having a federation at this moment would be harmful, and touted the ability of a free market system to generate new ideas through competition, whereas a governing body might stifle innovation. But, he did say that eventually, a federation would be a great idea.

2. All about the money

As he did consistently in his other panel, David insisted on the importance of monetary flow, and based most of his points on this foundation. For example, he claimed that over time, the best eSports organizations would win out over time by showing that they are the best marketing entities.

He also said that the importance of game publishers in that regard is paramount, but does also believe that the insane prize pools put up by Riot and Valve are too high for the current state of eSports, setting unhealthy expectations for other organization.

3. Role of a federation

Alex made the most concrete statements about what the role of a first federation should be: that it could be a union capable of compiling analytics for any number of eSports organizations combined, so that we have hard number to present to potential sponsors and contributors.

Both Russel and David are of the belief that the nature of the consolidation will dictate itself over time, and will depend on the economic state of the industry at various points in time. Won thought it should be based on standardizing regulations and rules for competition, but was the only person to think so, at least as a starting point.

4. A good first step

Alex and Tomas were on the same page, as far as taking the first step towards making an international eSports organization was concerned; someone needs to step forward and propose a model, with Tomas going so far to say that the model should be formed by a union of players/teams.

Russel thought that dialogue between groups would be a good first step, but David firmly said that he would rather not focus any energy on such a venture at this point in time, and would not really chase such an idea until eSports are more sustainable.

2. eSports and Marketing: How brands find their target audience in eSports

Panelists:

  • Sam Matthews - Fnatic
  • Goran Hellgren - Telia
  • Christopher Mitchell - Razer
  • Matthieu Dallon - ESWC/Oxent
  • Michael O'Dell - Team Dignitas

1. The key demographic

The panel was in agreement that both the target--and conveniently most easily targeted--demographic for eSports was young males, with Chris saying that particular demographic is a 100% match to who Razer aims to deliver their product.

Goran also pointed out that standard marketing techniques, most crucially television, are becoming less and less effective as the younger generations shift over to Internet-centric media.

2. On professionalism

Chris in particular stated repeatedly that there is a huge spectrum regarding how professional teams are with regard to advertising sponsor products, citing EG, Fnatic, Dignitas, and Liquid as organizations that are quite good at sponsor representation.

He also quoted three facets of an organization a team needs to be able to market effectively to prove they are professional organizations: your players, your team, and your sponsors. Both team representatives agreed that training players to be professional was very important, and Sam went one step further, saying that players would be more professional if more of their income came from team salary rather than prize money.

3. Starting small

Another area of consensus was supporting smaller teams in an effort to grow the industry as a whole. Michael in particular was sympathetic, remembering the days where Dignitas was an underdog organization, and how he wants to help out teams in a similar position.

Chris talked about how Razer sponsors smaller teams in an effort to promote them to a point where they can gain other sponsors. Goran cited the importance of small, regional companies, saying they could support the small local teams in order to promote their own image.

4. How sponsor money should be utilized

The team representatives both agreed that the current focus on prize pool money is folly, and that the money form sponsors should be distributed more evenly. Sam emphasized the important of teams, saying that some of events' sponsored funds should go to paying teams, or at least backing travel costs, as prize money goes into the player's pocket, whereas money a team gains goes back into eSports as an industry.

Because of this, according to Michael, teams are forced to undervalue themselves when talking with their own potential sponsors, as they need the guaranteed money if they cannot gain it at events.

3. Game Developers and eSports: How they have embraced the concept and changed their games accordingly

image Blizzard's own Dustin Browder made an appearance (Image Source: starcrafthero.com)

Panelists:**

  • Kristin Reilly - Hawken
  • Florent Castelnerac - Nadeo
  • Simon Benett - Wargaming
  • Alex Kokhanovsky - Natus Vincere
  • Dustin Browder - Blizzard

1. How gamers have changed games

The topics that were discussed at this third panel were primarily about the interaction between developers and the eSports community. It was mentioned that due to the development of player versus player modes in games, there is a natural progress into tournaments and eSports. Since game developers work to entertain, they were all amazed by the community showing what eSports can look like, and said that they neither can nor will walk away from that.

The free-to-play model was also addressed since it's a fast growing concept in the industry at the moment. The game developers were mostly positive to this new model, both as a means of reaching more players and providing an accessibility to eSports titles.

But, it was pointed out several times that there is a need to be aware and careful to which games one applies the free-to-play model; for some games, it doesn't fit or it can end up as a pay to win model, a nasty trap to fall in.

2. Players in game development

The discussion then went a step further into player influence on games, when Alex argued that developers need to be more connected to players, teams, and tours. By this, he meant that developers should ask pro players how they want the game to look, and they should ask teams how to better promote the game.

Also, developers should take input from tournaments regarding what model to run. This would result in new features and a huge audience for eSports, according to Alex. The developers on the panel agreed that it is a benefit having a well-developed community to reach out to, and to receive feedback fairly early, as it helps create a better product.

They also pointed out that too many voices makes it hard to hear the feedback. Florent suggested that eSports should not only have pro players, pro teams, and tournament organizers, but also pro eSports developers; the key is to listen to both sides and have a two way discussion.

3. Tools and tournaments

The importance of mutual collaboration was very much unanimous among the panel. To facilitate community contribution, developer-created tools are of high importance. Tools for creating maps, frag movies and shoutcasting, for example, were discussed and considered key for the furtherance of eSports. Dustin Browder pointed out that:

*"Community content is hugely beneficial and we will always put more power into the players hands... Brood War didn't have many patches but community balanced it through map design. That is just amazing!" *

However another aspect of the developer/community symbiosis addressed was developer-run tournaments, which the panel agreed on as a good thing; more tournaments will get more players involved in eSports.

Kristin, however, did warn about developers having their own agenda for their actions that might not always match up with what the community wants. Simon asserted that the community will always have more power because they know what they want more intuitively than developers, but developer run tours can bring some otherwise absent structure.

4. Whats makes a great eSport title?

The consensus answer for this question according to the panelists, in Dustin's words, was a game that is "easy to learn, difficult to master." This feeds easily into the eSports scene. A good eSports game must also have some base elements like an observation mode and replay system. Also, both watchability and balance are crucial for eSports games.

Another point made by several panel members was the potential for all gamers to be able to see skilled players and feel the possibility to see themselves doing the same thing and say "I can do that."

Besides the games themselves, the game developers all pointed to the communities as an important variable in making a great eSport. One mentioned example was that both Counterstrike and Brood War were made by gamers for gamers, and these games embraced many of the community values which made them strong and flourish for years. Florent emphasized that what is happening outside of the game means the most to a game developer:

"Our game makes people around the world meet, compete, get to know each other, like each other, and respect each other."

4. eSports and Media: Why are eSports the next big thing?

Panelists:

  • Kevin Lin - Twitch
  • Joakim Sandberg - SVT
  • Simon Whitcombe - CBSi
  • Stuart Saw - Own3d
  • Mark Reed - Heaven Media

1. Why is eSports the next big thing?

There were definitely distinct levels of confidence from the various panel members in the their answer to this question. The two representatives from the major online broadcasting sites, Twitch and Own3d, both considered eSports to be 'here', and a big thing. By this, Kevin meant that eSports is already a viable product, while also having a lot of space to expand.

Simon Whitcombe agreed, saying eSports possesses huge potential, and compared the concurrent viewers of MLG Anaheim to those of the online streams of the biggest US college basketball tournaments. The Swedish television representative whose station has been broadcasting DreamHack content on mainstream TV, stepped lightly and said that he believed eSports to be a 'good' thing but maybe not the 'next' thing.

Mark Reed took the middle road, claiming that eSports is there already, just that the public perception of gaming have rendered it incognito until now, but also warned the industry not to build up a sense of hubris from this position.

2. IPTV and Mainstream TV

Due to having representatives from both IPTV and mainstream TV organizations on the panel, the question was whether eSports really need mainstream TV or not. The first point made here was by Kevin, stating that the perception that gaming needs to be on mainstream TV for it to go mainstream is something that probably could lead eSports in the wrong direction, because what might not be mainstream today can be tomorrow, one example being YouTube.

Both Kevin and Joakim claimed that eSports does not really need mainstream TV, though Joakim did believe that mainstream TV needs eSports to be able to get to that segment of viewers. Simon and Kevin both saw the benefit for eSports to potentially get a bigger audience by reaching gamers that not yet taken the step into eSports through mainstream TV.

Simon also argued that advertising spent on digital media compared to traditional broadcast is still a drop in the ocean, and that there are massive advertising oppertunities on TV. Stuart then pointed out that more ads are viewed on IPTV relatively, because on mainstream TV, viewers usually switch channels when the advertisements begins.

3. Shoutcasters

A key element when it comes to eSports and media are the shoutcasters. Stuart, a former shoutcaster himself, said that in earlier times, people shoutcasted purely for the passion of it, but now people know that if they are good at it they can make a living on it in the future, and that is growing the industry.

The quality of existing shoutcasters, however, is somewhat uneven, according to the general opinion among the panel members. Kevin and Simon both was optimistic and hoped for Twitch and Own3d to become hotbeds for new talent. Kevin also argued that finding new talent is much easier within eSports since organizations like MLG and IPL easily can scout just by going to Twitch, reading on reddit, or going on Twitter and see what is currently bubbling up.

Since the quality of shoutcasters at the moment was being discussed as uneven, the question that followed was whether or not the existing casters good enough for mainstream TV. Simon was very sure that was the case, and insisted that the worst thing that could happen would be to get a lot of traditional sports commentators to cast eSports, and that it would be "an absolute disaster." Joakim agreed, saying they never hesitated on taking existing eSports casters for their broadcasts, since it is much about credibility, and using people that don't know eSports will lose the viewers trust.

4. Taking it to the next level

Many of the topics during this debate were on the subject of 'what comes next.'

Getting people to experience eSports means showing the passion that exists, inviting people and possible stakeholders to events, and events like BarCrafts were suggested as general ideas among the panelists. To further help eSports, the panel collectively argued that stories are important and needed within this industry. By letting the viewers know more information about stories, teams and events would create a deeper interest for watching their players. The responsibility for bringing stories to eSports was considered shared between the industry and the media.

The question of whether or not the road to the next step should be free or not was also debated. Most of the panel members claimed that free streams, and perhaps voluntary donations and ad-free choices, would be the way to go. Both Stuart and Mark said that trying pay-per-view would be risky and might harm more than help. Stuart stated that if the audiences wasn't big enough, then using pay-per-view would be like shooting ourselves in the foot. Simon pointed out that focusing on and pushing for the biggest possible audience by free stream was important, since big numbers are what's going to get advertising industries to invest in eSports.

A community question that was directed to the panel was how the community can help bring eSports to the next level. The big thing that was brought up was to get people to watch in any way, bringing people to events and shareingthe eSports experience. Kevin also suggested supporting players, teams, and organizations both live and online, but also encouraging game companies to grow eSports. Mark claimed that that the community also needs to be more open and embrace media to further the growth of eSports. We all have to cooperate to get eSports to the next level.

5. Building Bridges: Can promoters/tournaments work together to grow eSports as a whole, or is it a dog-eat-dog world?

image MLG's Sundance was one of many attending tournament heads (Image Source: businessinsider.com)

Panelists:**

  • David Ting - IGN/IPL
  • Sundance DiGiovanni - MLG
  • Russel Pfister - NASL
  • Matthieu Dallon - ESWC/Oxent
  • Ralf Reichert - Turtle Entertainment (ESL)
  • Robert Ohlen - DreamHack

1. The past, present, and future

Sundance and Robert were by far the most talkative executives on the panel, and shared the same opinion about the purpose of this congress: it serves as an initial dialogue for these big names from each organization to talk with each other at once, regardless of whether any decisions are actually made. David argued that eSports is still a dog-eat-dog world, but the others were more hopeful for the near future, stating the importance of sharing information in an effort to grow the entire industry going forward.

2. The matter of sponsors

The was unanimous agreement that sponsors are of utmost importance, and that the current structure of a number of somewhat competing events is best for bringing in the sponsors needed to continue the growth of eSports. Matthieu and Sundance specified the regional nature of sponsors, meaning that European and North American tournaments don't necessarily fight over the same sponsors, making room for multiple organizations to get involved.

However, they all agreed--even David--that some sort of information sharing coalition of tournaments would help with sponsor acquisition and negotation, because the analytics just aren't there at this point in time that prove the effectiveness of advertising through eSports.

3. Pushing innovation

Each tournament representative had their own ideas with how to push eSports into the future. Robert emphasized the value of cross-promotion. For example, if a MLG champion attends a DreamHack event, DreamHack will benefit from the player's gain in popularity via more viewers and interest.

Ralf discussed the importance of experimenting with formats and games to see what the community enjoys most, to truly refine the eSports experience. David maintained that different groups should remain different, to appeal to different types of sponsorships and get more companies involved.

Sundance pointed out a need to handle intra-continental balance, through a mix of competition and cooperation, because decisions made now cannot be made rashly, as they will affect the culture of eSports going forward in ways we may not be able to predict.

4. Establishing a legacy

Sundance made a good point by saying that eSports could just be a "fart in the wind" if organizations are not careful at this and every moment, and that this is best achieved by keeping a balance of competitive fairness and entertainment value in mind at all times.

To follow up, Matthieu pointed out that this is best achieved by constantly monitoring the community for feedback, as the community keeps the industry alive. There was also unanimous agreement that any profit needs to be immediately put back into eSports to improve the overall product, or else it will fall behind and fade out.

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