Esports BAR+ Americas speakers shared experiences in gaming innovation, inventiveness, experimentation and groundbreaking results during Covid lockdown and for future plans.
“At Formula 1, we have innovation in our blood; we’re constantly innovating within esports,” declared Julian Tan, Head of Digital Business Initiatives & Esports at Formula 1, during a fireside chat at this year’s inaugural Esports BAR+ Americas virtual event.
He was speaking to Sky Sports journalist Rachel Brookes for a session called “More Than a Race. An Innovative Mindset”. It focused on how esports innovation enabled F1 to continue entertaining devotees with a digital version called the Virtual Grand Prix after the Season 2020’s real-life races were cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“One of the advantages of being able to explore the space of esports is that the opportunities within esports is really as endless as you want it to be,” Tan added.
The Virtual Grand Prix, including the races in China, Bahrain and Australia, was an indisputable hit with fans. It proved F1, undoubtedly the world’s largest motor-racing tournament and a pioneer in live motor-racing on linear TV, is a runaway success in competitive gaming while still having one of the largest global TV audiences, reaching a cumulative audience of 1.9 billion TV viewers globally in 2019.
But, as Tan pointed out, the digital innovation that underpinned the Virtual Grand Prix required labour-intensive commitment. “The challenge was definitely immense, but it didn’t scare us. We needed to fulfil our responsibilities to our fans. We had to move quickly to develop something that was scalable,” he said.
Other Esports BAR+ Americas speakers gave could not resist giving F1 a shout-out for its achievements during their own sessions on competitive gaming innovation:
“F1 is one of my favourite examples,” stated Phil Hübner, recently promoted to Chief Business Development Officer at Sweden-based esports-tournaments platform operator Challengermode.
“I’ve always been bullish about virtual racing and the racing simulators because I feel like it opens up a lot of doors to people that could not otherwise afford to race. And so, for me, it is the future of that sport.”
The Virtual Grand Prix – a real esports achievement
The Virtual Grand Prix was possible because the real-life F1 championship owner, the Formula One Group, had already invested in video games, including the F1 racing-simulation series published by UK-based Codemasters Software Company.
In 2017, that investment was extended into professional esports, the award-winning Formula 1 Esports Series, which boasted a US$500,000 prize pool in 2019. This formed the foundation on which Tan and his team created the Virtual Grand Prix and replicated the excitement of real-life global motor-sports tournaments in a simulated world. Invited to participate were F1 superstar drivers like Pierre Gasly from the Alpha Tauri-Honda team, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, and McLaren’s Lando Norris.
F1’s Virtual Grand Prix was also able to engage with mainstream consumers as well thanks to the participation of celebrities from the worlds of other sports and music. These included soccer greats like Thibaut Courtois at Real Madrid, Arsenal’s Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and, from the music business, Liam Payne, a member of pop-band sensation One Direction. Viewers could watch the action on streaming services via Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, the F1.com website plus coverage from broadcasters, like the UK’s Sky Sports.
For Tan, the digital experience has been considerable in his job to inject more innovation into F1. “Now we have a huge amount of learnings that have come out of lockdown,” he stated.
“Gaming and esports have enabled us to unlock as a sport, whether it is the ability for us to unmask or unveil our F1 drivers in new ways, which you could not possibly see behind a helmet.”
And the ambitions do not end with the Virtual Grand Prix. They will inform F1’s future strategy. “We’re constantly using what we learned over the past few months to see how we can use esports more widely going forward. We are excited at being able to use some of these learnings and see how we are going to evolve our wider fan-engagement strategy within the sport.”
Taking A Lead Position Through Innovation
If F1 esports is now also about the drive to win digitally, this session on esports innovation centred on how digital tech and media helped esports organisers deliver the best in competitive gaming during the Coronavirus crisis.
As Philippe Laurent, CEO of Easylive.io, the cloud-computing live-streaming broadcaster, observed, organising esports tournaments did not need to be disrupted by Covid-19 thanks to disruptive tech offered by companies like his. Cloud-based technology allows esports-events operators to be inventive in doing business remotely in a scalable way.
“Luckily for esports, you have online competitions where you don’t have to have people on site. And there have been a couple of innovative features because of Covid,” he said. “For example, remote languages and remote speakers mean you could have someone in Maine playing Moto GP and another person in London playing with her to target a Spanish-speaking audience. They could have a third person located in downtown Mexico City dubbing over the content. With the cloud, many of our customers managed to achieve this type of workflow to deliver an international audience.”
The panel’s speakers agreed that broadcasting competitive gaming events this way permitted streaming platforms to stay active in live esports, while their traditional-TV counterparts struggled. Stefy Bau, CEO of Init Esports Inc., the simulated-racing esports agency, noted that the pandemic has forced esports stakeholders to innovate. This is an approach linear TV broadcasters and traditional-sports organisations experimenting with competitive gaming to reach younger viewers could benefit from, she said.
“I do believe the innovation is happening right now. TV and sports are looking to see how esports is able to retain such a high number of people watching the game.” Bau declares.
She also argued that even if traditional TV and sports’ attempts to be innovative via esports were at times clumsy, competitive gaming still benefited. “If you look at the positive side, League of Legends got exposure. Whereas before, people were asking ‘What is this?’. In a way, the esports part of it gained a little bit more exposure.”
Esports inventiveness will not end with these achievements, stated Phil Ranta, COO of Wormhole Labs, the social esports and gaming platform operator.
“There is still so much room for innovation in this space. Esports has to be innovative because it is unique. Anything that is unique has to innovate right down to how money moves around and how sponsors can play along,” Ranta said.
Online vs. Offline. How are Leagues Adapting Their Models?
This session explored the way esports leagues, which form the epicentre of competitive gaming entertainment, use gaming innovation to adapt to the constantly shifting gaming landscape, especially one currently shaken by the Covid-19 crisis. Competitive gaming organisers unnerved by the lockdown and quarantines will be heartened to hear fans were happy to move online to maintain their esports fix.
Data compiled by Esports Charts and unveiled at Esports BAR+ Americas were significantly positive. In April this year, live-streaming platform Twitch clocked 1.76 billion hours of esports and gaming watched per month. “Last year, it never hit a billion in a month. And this time, we are almost two times the number,” stated Ivan Danishevsky, Esports Charts’ Founder. This confirmed how the Covid shutdown had opened new opportunities for league owners. “Tournaments based on the following video games, F1, Dota 2, Call of Duty and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, have been breaking viewership records during the pandemic”, Danishevsky added.
For Chris Greeley, Commissioner of the LCS (League of Legends Championship Series) and Director of Esports at video-games publishing group Riot Games, adopting innovative strategies might take time, but it is inevitable. Despite the enthusiasm of linear-TV broadcasters like ESPN in the US for more esports content, competitive gaming entertainment creators will need to determine how to reconfigure games such as League of Legends competitions for TV viewing. “The LCS is not a product that is built well for linear TV,” he said. “There is no time out, there are no breaks, and no place for conventional commercial breaks and that kind of monetisation.”
“Reshaping the competitions for linear TV will happen but not at the expense of hardcore fans’ expectations”, he argued. “It was a really interesting conversation with ESPN about ways to take our product without making significant changes; we did not want the experience of our core user base on Twitch and YouTube to be impacted.”
Matt Arden, Head Of Content & Media at the basketball-themed NBA 2K League, also said there was broadcast-TV demand for his league’s competitions. In the NBA 2K League’s case, mainstream TV viewers familiar with professional basketball found it easy to follow the narrative within the NBA 2K game. He was confident TV broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors will adopt esports as the gaming innovation is introduced to conventional TV programming and entertainment.
He said: “We saw sustained growth and we had the most-watched ever season that we’ve had and added brands like DoorDash, GamesStop and SAP.”
Challengermode’s Hübner added that the escalating number of esports viewers should not be attributed to the Covid lockdown alone. “The reason why some of these companies are doubling down on esports and not calling this a fluke is for two reasons: one of them is that their eyes have been opened; they are interested in esports and they want to do something like this. Second, they want to be ready for when something like this happens again.”
Building The Bridge Between Esports & Music
“Innovation is triggered not only by new tech uses but also by new strategic applications of entertainment content like esports and music“, said Karol Severin, Senior Analyst/Product Manager at UK-based MIDiA Research.
His presentation featured data for Q2 in 2020, which illustrated that recorded-music fans and concert goers are “three times as likely to watch esports than average consumers. And both music segments are also more likely to watch esports than console gamers”. He continued: “It shows music is the right vehicle for esports to grow reach and cultural relevance through it as well.”
For that to take place, however, the two sectors need to build bridges, collaborate and form joint ventures to create new revenue-generating services and products to deliver, not to each other, but to third parties.
“The bridging opportunity is not about selling more songs or selling licensing deals or brand packaging deals to each other, but rather using some of esports and music’s unique assets to create something new that can compete in the attention economy and cater to each other’s industry needs.” Severin declares.
Watch the videos of these Esports BAR+ Americas panel sessions for insights into innovative esports strategies on our Twitch channel.