To innovate in esports, UK-based Excel Esports is exploring and exploiting inventive strategies in its mission to be and remain an established global competitive-gaming brand”, declares CEO Wouter Sleijffers. Speaking exclusively ahead of this year’s Esports BAR+ Americas digital event, where innovation is a key theme, he discusses innovation in esports on many levels.
He delves into innovation at Excel Esports as an enterprise, innovation within the esports industry, as well as innovation in esports technology, which is appropriate, considering the recent confidence-boosting partnership deal the company clinched with British telecom goliath BT Group.
Yet, as Sleijffers points out, instead of sitting on their laurels in an aggressively evolving business sector, individual professional-esports ventures have to generate their own disruptive tactics to help the sector grow.
The innovations that we’re currently seeing in esports are not copy-and-paste ideas from other entertainment verticals. They are endemic to what our ecosystem is and I think that is really important. Our ecosystem is developing in its own right and innovation is a big part of that – Sleijffers
Excel Esports – in gaming context
UK-headquartered Excel Esports is one of the world’s fast-rising professional-esports organisations with assets that include European teams scoring high points in tournaments centred on Riot Games’ League of Legends (LoL) video game.
It is one of the exclusive 10 franchised teams in the LoL European Championship (LEC) league and, since its 2014 launch, it has amassed a horde of LoL fans, including its 163,000-plus social-media followers.
This year, it expanded its repertoire into tournaments based on Epic Games’ Fortnite video game. The move included snapping up esports player Jaden “Wolfiez” Ashman, the British teenage sensation who won US$1m-plus by coming second at the inaugural Fortnite World Cup championship last year.
With XLHQ, its headquarters, located at Twickenham Stadium (home to British professional rugby), Excel Esports aims to be associated with the best in competitions.
Wouter Sleijffers – in gaming context
When Sleijffers became Excel’s CEO in January, he brought experiences that include more than four years at Fnatic, the UK-based rival esports organisation that Forbes magazine described as “the biggest esports brand in the world” during his tenure.
His resumé includes several years at global digital-payment systems specialist Skrill; he is an advisor to tech start-ups specialising in innovative fan– engagement services, affiliate marketing plus data analytics and marketing; and he is also a member of the Esports BAR advisory board.
Combined, his knowledge base comprises fintech, marketing and engineering expertise that could be used at any esports organisation.
In professional gaming, we are still in the formative stages. So, we will all benefit from sharing some of the more business-related innovations with each other – Sleijffers
XL innovation in esports management
Excel Esports was among the esports-team owners forced to cancel participation in live professional video-gaming competitions at physical venues when the Covid upheaval triggered compulsory quarantines.
But it still delivered premium entertainment to fans when the LEC’s Spring Split tournament in Berlin was halted on 13 March. Excel players shifted from the original venue, which was Riot Games’ Local Area Network-powered physical studio, to an online format via the Internet at their own training facilities.
Sleijffers explains why it was crucial to work with Riot Games, the LEC’s organiser, to keep the tournament going seamlessly. “The key thing was to maintain the competitive integrity as if it were inside the contained studio and that it remained an equal playing field for all teams and players involved,” he says.
Additionally, the players had to level up their mental agility to the standard of athletes in traditional-sports organisations, he adds. He compares their situation to professionals playing soccer in a stadium without any spectators because of the Coronavirus.
“That is the reality; in competitions, you will always come across challenges that you never expected,” he states. “As (former world heavyweight champion) Mike Tyson would say: ‘Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.’ So, the question is how do you recover from that.”
XL innovation – team management
Excel’s priority of placing the teams’ mental and physical welfare at the core of its business had impressed Sleijffers before he joined.
He highlights the personality tests given to the teams to make sure each player is assigned competitive-gaming positions that play to their strengths based on their individual nature and temperament.
While that in itself is not a novelty, I believe Excel Esports is one of the very few team owners that have a balanced approach towards such programmes. This is one example of where Excel is really progressive and innovative in things needed for a successful team – Sleijffers
Innovation – industry-wide
The digital-first professional-esports industry, including esports content, esports creativity and the esports culture, has by default been about innovation from its beginnings.
This will allow the esports business to be more resilient than other entertainment sectors during totally unusual situations, like the current Covid crisis, Sleijffers points out.
While other entertainment industries have found it difficult to adapt and react, I’d like to think Covid will make us more inventive. I believe there is quite a lot of innovation going on because what we’ve seen so far is that viewership is very much up there and better than ever before – Sleijffers
He is also impressed by the unique nature of the international gaming culture, which encourages viewers to show their appreciation of skilful players by communicating with them directly and even donating cash online.
The resulting intimacy and lifestyle has helped form and shape how original esports content is made for fans.
In addition to watching the matches, what I like the most is telling the stories that portray the culture of gaming, the teams, the individuals,” he continues. “I think those are the wonderful developments that we are clearing seeing – Sleijffers
Innovation – esports content
The creation and distribution of esports content will also introduce media innovation. The burgeoning demand for esports rights among streaming platforms and linear-TV networks will cement, not fragment, the future of the maturing esports-media landscape – Sleijffers
Competitive gaming has to meet the demands of the varying broadcast formats, including livestreaming, live linear broadcasting, video-on-demand, downloads, subscription and advertising-funded models, highlights, or recaps.
There are the different content genres to consider. Will fans be drawn mostly to documentaries, in-depth analyses of competitions, behind-the-scenes shows, or celebrity personality profiles?
Additionally, creative partnerships with non-endemic brands will result in novel content the industry has possibly not seen yet. And the widening investment in esports-dedicated venues, as offered by recent Esports BAR delegates like US-based Allied Esports and France’s Disneyland Paris, could spur new ways of broadcasting esports content and events.
Gradually, there is an understanding that for esports, there is a lot to learn about how to bring that content to the different audiences. I really believe that a lot of innovation will come out of the broadcast because if there is one entertainment protocol where technological innovation can enhance a viewer experience, it’s in gaming and esports – Sleijffers
Innovation – streaming
Streaming technology is also the source of innovating in esports distribution.
However, Sleijffers adds, whether that platform is Twitch, YouTube Gaming or China-based DouYu, the events are invariably transmitted on the platforms that attract the most viewers. And viewers head towards the platforms with the content they want.
That chicken-and-egg scenario has spawned the existence of gaming search engines, which are known mostly to die-hard esports fans who use them to discover where the next competitive events are taking place.
Look at the search engines, there is a whole bunch of search engines. Yet, here comes the Catch 22: the tournaments are where most of the viewers are and where most of the viewers are is where the tournament organisers will want to have their content – Sleijffers
He explains why streaming platform operators equally need to stand out, if they are to retain those audiences, as demonstrated by the demise of the Microsoft-owned platform Mixer in July.
It invested heavily in content creators but couldn’t sustain that because it is very hard to get viewers away from another platform. Currently, viewers go to Amazon’s Twitch or Google’s YouTube because they know they will find anything they want there; so why look any further? – Sleijffers
And once you have an audience, Sleijffers advises the industry to look out for tech developments designed to keep fans hooked.
An example is Socios.com, a venture that uses technologies in cryptocurrency, blockchain and smart contracts to give fans a genuine say in the management and organisation of their favourite teams, such as voting power.
The current clients of Socios.com, where Sleijffers is an official advisor, range from top-flight international soccer teams FC Barcelona in Spain, Paris Saint-Germain in France and European esports organisation OG Esports.
It is democratising fandom. It is a completely new and radical concept based on the principle that actually exists with, for example, Real Madrid, where fans own the football club. In our ecosystem, I am confident there will be other examples of innovative fan engagement – Sleijffers
Innovation – high tech
In January, Excel Esports unveiled the latest of several major deals, including a multi-year partnership agreement with BT Group, one of the world’s biggest telecom multinationals.
Making BT its lead brand partner hinted at Excel’s future ambitions in the type of tech innovation that esports is constantly flirting with.
While Excel’s deal ostensibly includes BT providing Internet “connectivity and infrastructure”, Sleijffers emphasises that “this is definitely not only a partnership about broadband. This is a beautiful example of where we are not just doing a sponsorship partnership; this is a strategic partner that will help us to develop and innovate our journey to success”
Another partnership, with online payment service Neosurf, is part of Excel’s ambitions to develop its online store. The two companies have launched the Neosurf Cup, an annual pre-season UK-only tournament, to “provide another opportunity to activate our partnership and provide an opportunity for our community to be close-up with Excel players, staff and fellow fans”, Sleijffers explains.
Innovation – forward looking
The industry is also addressing other tech developments. The existence of the Collegiate Virtual Reality Esports League in North America and the ESL Gaming-backed online hub VR League illustrates how immersive tech is permeating competitive gaming.
Riot Games wowed the global entertainment business with its use of Augmented Reality during a live-music performance at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship final in Paris.
Wormhole Labs is breaking ground with its social-esports app, while Init Esports is overhauling sim-racing experiences in competitive gaming.
Data analytics already plays a key role in the management of esports tournaments, which target young digital-savvy audiences that devour statistics for entertainment. Algorithms will contribute to the way esports is delivered to viewers on broadcast platforms.
Increasingly, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, automation and robotics software are being used for esports coaching, gameplay analyses and forecasts.
In the future, Sleijffers foresees more tech disruption to innovate esports. However, innovation will fail to deliver if it is not complemented by human expertise.
We should not disregard the human element of mental performance, physical performance, teamwork, communication, and personalities. In the end, we are a people industry. Sometimes people forget that this is all about fan and viewer experiences. In the end, that is what this is all about – Sleijffers