Top of their game: the booming sector that the real world can no longer ignore
With a growing audience of hundreds of millions, including many young Irish people, eSports has arrived in the real world, writes Fearghal O'Connor
When Shane Lowry raised the Claret Jug over his head at Portrush, it was potentially not the most lucrative win for an Irishman over the past week. Lowry may have pocketed almost $2m (€1.8m) for his famous victory in the Open last weekend, but a 15-year-old Dubliner, Josh 'Lolb0om' Juliano, could top that today.
If Juliano - known to eSports fans by his Lolb0om gamer tag - wins the Fortnite World Cup at New York's Arthur Ashe Stadium today, he will take home a prize of $3m out of an overall prize fund of $30m.
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Juliano is ranked as Ireland's best player in the hugely popular video game, but still had to win the right to qualify for the event at the sold-out 23,000-seater stadium, home of tennis's US Open, by ranking in the world's top-100 players.
Like an increasing number of real-world sports and other venues, the Arthur Ashe Stadium has swapped racquets and tennis balls for video game controllers and high-end PCs, to play host to highly competitive matches in a booming entertainment sector: eSports.
The online audience for the competition to see who is the world's best Fortnite player could surpass a million people and, regardless of where he comes this weekend in the competition, Juliano is guaranteed a $50,000 prize to take home to Dublin.
Speaking from his New York hotel room, he says that many hours of practice are now paying off: "I am confident. I have been playing very consistently."
Juliano plans to build a full-time career out of competitive gaming and hopes that the tournament can help him get a contract with one of the growing number of professional eSports teams that hire professional players to compete in tournaments across a range of titles.
According to Kilkenny-based eSports expert Trevor Keane, who has advised players including Juliano, the very best eSports competitors can and do earn as much as €30,000 a month from such contracts.
Keane runs Sportego, a tech firm that builds fan engagement and analytics for sports clubs, and he has been instrumental in establishing and advising eSports teams in Ireland and across Europe.
"For the really elite players in the UK and Ireland - those who are in the top five or 10 of any of the big titles - that can mean a very lucrative contract. On top of that, any of these players will have their own channel on Twitch and YouTube, which can generate big audiences.
"They get a share of revenue of the advertising and they can earn more again from subscriptions; eSports is similar to WWE wrestling where it is all about good entertainment and about sharing good content. That's what brands want to see and what fans want to engage with."
What started decades ago as local Donkey Kong tournaments for gaming enthusiasts in local areas has, in recent years, become a brand new entertainment sector that Irish companies looking to connect with a young audience should ignore at their peril, says Keane.
He says: "eSports has really exploded in the last eight to 10 years, fuelled by technology that allows for mass participation worldwide, be it through competing or spectating."
There is already speculation that eSports is to be included in the Olympics in the years to come, so it is perhaps not surprising that brands such as Mars, Mercedes and Coca-Cola have got involved in sponsorship deals.
Such deals are treated with great enthusiasm by a passionate and evangelistic fan base.
"There was a major competition in recent weeks in Germany that was sponsored by DHL," says Keane. "All the fans in the stadium were shouting 'DHL, DHL' the way football fans would chant the name of their team. You tell me when you have been to the Aviva Stadium at an Irish rugby match and you've heard people chanting 'Vodafone, Vodafone'."
Almost 600 million people worldwide watch eSports events, according to research. Most of those are casual gamers, but UK figures suggest that about 10pc of the population could be classified as 'enthusiasts', who either watch eSports regularly or participate in an amateur eSports league. According to Keane, the numbers for Ireland correlate, meaning the estimated audience for eSports here is 470,000, with as many as 2.5 million casual gamers engaging on some level.
"If you go into any household in Ireland, you will see a Playstation, an Xbox, a Wii, a Switch. If you sit on any bus or train, people are playing mobile games. That's casual gaming and it's a stepping stone to more formal competitive eSports," says Keane.
The boom in popularity of watching the elite players in competitive gaming matches has spawned the growth of eSports teams.
Anna Baumann is the managing director of Rogue, one of Europe's biggest eSports teams. She is coming to Dublin in September to speak at the One-Zero sports business conference that will be held at the Aviva Stadium. The conference will cover a range of areas, but eSports will be high on the agenda.
Baumann believes that eSports is becoming just as competitive as traditional sports and that the passion with which enthusiasts support the top teams and top players is becoming a very interesting prospect for brands, marketers and investors. The fact that the top players provide a constant stream of content for their fans across streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube presents huge opportunities, she says.
"If you were to watch Ronaldo on a 24-hour basis with cameras around him and you could follow his entire training, that is basically what we do. It is very comparable to sports teams, to what Bayern Munich does on a professional level in terms of training. We have a scheduled 10-hour day with the team, including mental and physical work and, of course, game training.
"On that level, you can absolutely compare it to pro sports. However, on top of that, because you have this digital component, fans are a lot closer to their idols in eSports than they are in traditional sports."
This, she says, has attracted investment from venture capital, particularly from the US, and bands like Imagine Dragons, who are looking for engagement with the same demographic, have also got involved in the sector.
For now, the Irish eSports scene is not as well developed, with only a handful of teams competing in elite leagues. One - County Clare-based Phelan Gaming - was established by Limerick IT student Ciarán Walsh, and it competes in a League of Legends tournament in the UK. Phelan has up to 40 participants, with a coach and two of the players drawing a full-time wage, with revenues generated from the increasing amount of streaming of video content that is produced from the team's activities. Walsh believes there is room for professional eSports teams in Ireland.
"If you look over in England, across Europe and in North America, this is already a job for a lot of people. A recent statistic showed growth in eSports employment of 300pc last year alone.
"I don't see why that can't happen for people like myself and my colleagues on my team. I have had a few guys who have worked for us who have gone into full-time paid positions on eSports teams, in Germany for example."
One of the key growth areas in the sector is the increasing link between 'real-world' sports franchises and clubs, and eSports teams.
Last week, ESPN reported that Kroenke Sports & Entertainment - owner of Arsenal Football Club, the Denver Nuggets basketball team and the Los Angeles Gladiators, an eSports team focused on the game Overwatch - had agreed to a deal that will see it acquire a slot in the US-based League of Legends Championship Series for $30.25m. League of Legends is one of the most competitive and lucrative video games and attracts elite players.
But football-based games such as EA's Fifa franchise have also opened competitive gaming up to a wide audience.
Around Europe, football clubs in particular have realised that this interest can translate into new opportunities. Two years ago, Keane saw an opportunity to create a Celtic eSports league and approached football clubs like Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Hibernian and Wolves.
"We paired up eSports players in the different regions and they wore the jerseys of the clubs and we created a weekly show to see if there was a demand. A year later, we had a new league partnering with football website Goal.com, with teams such as Man City, Ajax, West Ham and PSV Eindhoven, playing for a prize fund of €10,000. We had 100,000 people watching the final on Twitch. All in all, we had over a million views."
Keane has since gone on to set up an eSports team with Leicester City footballer Christian Fuchs, which ties in with the Austrian star's 'NoFuchsGiven' clothing brand. "All the third-party management of the team is done by us from Ireland," says Keane.
He believes that there is a major opportunity for Irish organisations to get involved in eSports and has undertaken research into the potential for a tie-in with eSports for the League of Ireland.
Currently, there are 17 countries around the world whose football associations are backing teams to compete in a league for the EA game franchise Fifa, on which Irish domestic teams feature, giving them a ready-made platform to get involved.
"There is a huge opportunity for the League of Ireland and that is something that is at the early stages of development. In Australia, for example, they created their own eLeague and they had more viewers of that than they had at real-life games over a weekend. That's because they created a really good product," says Keane.
He believes eSports present a great opportunity for Irish football to create a new revenue spinner. "This is the way the market is moving. Take Barcelona. They are famous as a football club. But they also have a netball team, a basketball team and an eSports team. That is how you need to approach eSports; it is an extension of your brand."
Increasingly, eSports is becoming part of the overall matchday experience at football stadiums around Europe, and the Norwegian FA - with the help of another Irishman - has seized the opportunity.
The association's head of digital services and strategy Pearse Connolly, originally from Dalkey in Dublin, says that now if Norway are playing Germany in football, a Norwegian eSports team, employed and managed by the Norwegian FA, will play the German eSports team.
The game takes place in a dedicated, purpose-built venue overlooking the pitch at the country's main football stadium in Oslo. A similar venue is planned for Bergen.
The Norwegian FA's push into eSports is a natural extension of its mission to promote football in that country, says Connolly, who began his career working for British Telecom and has wide experience in the pay-TV sector.
The link between football and eSports can seem strange from the outside, both for football traditionalists and for gamers themselves, but there are benefits for both sides, says Connolly.
"There can be pushback from the eSports community who are wary of their games being taken over by these organisations, but they also understand that if they want their game to be sustainable over a long period then it has to be institutionalised in some way for it to get organised. We treat them as a national team. We've provided a venue that overlooks the pitch. We have full broadcast production, Premier League commentators; we really went for it," he says.
But Connolly, a non-gamer himself, has come to believe very strongly in the product. "They are elite sports people. That's something that took me a little bit of time to realise, but then you get it. This isn't casual gaming. We have a coach for them, we look after their nutrition, we bring them in for training camps two days before tournaments. But on top of that, we treat them responsibly by not suddenly covering them with logos for sponsorship."
But sponsorship is one of the big attractions. Connolly is leading a digital transformation at the Norwegian FA, of which eSports is one strand. He helped to bring Spanish bank Santander on board as a sponsor of the eSports national team.
"What's never been a problem with this is the commercial interest," he says. "Sponsors are queuing up for this because they know that this is a target group that they have difficulty engaging with, and this is a great channel for them to learn more about this audience, which is very sophisticated. They block all ads, they do a whole set of things that are outside of traditional marketing, so companies need to find some way in. A national team or some sort of organised tournament is a good way to approach this for companies."
Back in New York, Josh 'Lolb0om' Juliano is preparing for his big Fortnite showdown: "Ever since I was little, I have played games. I started playing Fortnite for the fun of it because I was curious to see what it was all about. I never thought I would be professional. It's crazy."
His teachers and many of his schoolmates are largely unaware of the competition and what is at stake. For now, he likes to keep his real-world life separate to his online achievements.
But if he wins $3m in New York this weekend, that could all change very quickly. Nevertheless, he is not overly concerned and, like any other budding sports star, and perhaps similar to a young Shane Lowry, he is driven through hours and hours of practice by one main goal: "I want to become one of the best players in the world."
When he picks up his controller this morning in a New York stadium in front of thousands of people, he will have the chance to prove that he has done just that.
Sunday Indo Business