Thursday 14 December 2017

Now pay for play can make millionaires out of gamers

Serial entrepreneur Ferdi Roberts wants to unearth Ireland’s gaming talent
Serial entrepreneur Ferdi Roberts wants to unearth Ireland’s gaming talent
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

Nine million dollars. Ponder that figure the next time you shout at your teenager that they've been wasting too many hours playing computer games.

That $9m is the top prize in the world's most lucrative esports tournament, which features teams of "cyber-athletes" - mostly fresh-faced youngsters - competing at frenzied pace in games such as DOTA2 and League of Legends. Yes, esports is a profession now and make no mistake, it's coming to Ireland, especially if serial entrepreneur Ferdi Roberts can help it.

The genial 46-year-old Westmeath man should know, as a veteran of Silicon Valley start-ups. Having sold his US-based software services firm in 2014, Roberts' nose for a new venture landed on the burgeoning market for videogames conventions. He spotted that Ireland in particular, and Europe in general, lags the US in terms of satiating the demand for game spin-offs.

"I could see a real opportunity when I came back here to Ireland and Europe," says Roberts. "It's still relatively nascent. There are a number of established ones like Insomnia and EGX. I was looking at it from a business perspective, so if you're Sony or Microsoft or Razer, you're having to deal with lots of dis-integrated providers on a pan-European basis."

So Roberts founded GamerCon, which next week will host 25,000 ardent attendees at the Convention Centre Dublin, having originally estimated a crowd of 8,000. The two-day convention features hands-on opportunities with dozens of new and classic games, guest appearances from prominent Irish and international YouTubers, esports competitions, merchandise and a live appearance by rising Irish band All Tvvins.

But even before the event opens its doors, Roberts has his eyes on bigger prizes. Believing Europe is ripe for tapping, he plans similar events in London, Madrid and Berlin over the next year.

But these conventions may be no more than a Trojan horse for Roberts' grander schemes.

"I expect the expo-type events to continue to be popular but I would be very surprised if the esports side of the business doesn't eclipse that within two to three years. The growth is huge."

With millions globally watching - and willing to pay for - live streams of competitions, "the audience potential is orders of magnitude greater outside of the live event", he says.

He knows, though, that he needs the competitors first. Players in many countries such as US, Britain and South Korea have piled into live esports, with the top teams earning millions out of prize pools built from sponsorship and audience contributions.

Ireland has its own tiny scene but Roberts wants to find the real talent.

"All of the activity to date in Ireland has really been hobbyists clubbing together," he says.

Roberts plans three regional esports heats around Ireland, with the final at GamerCon 2018, to unearth the players with the most potential. He even hopes to provide esports programming to TV channels keen to attract a young demographic.

"More formal talent management for these digital superstars is required. We're developing a talent management part of the business. That will involve bringing on established talent as well as identifying up and coming talent.

"Running these live events gives us an opportunity to identify potential stars of the future, not just here but also in other countries."

If this business plan all has a familiar ring to it - to make Ireland a hub for emerging tech trends - Roberts readily admits he was inspired by Paddy Cosgrove's Web Summit.

"What got me set on this path was one of the ideas I was considering when the Web Summit moved to Portugal was: What's going to fill its place? It's fair to draw that comparison in terms of our desire to build the team here and replicate the model not just on a pan-European basis but globally."

He now employs up to 30 people on a contract basis in Dublin, many of whom will stay on after GamerCon to expedite the European expansion.

"We've built a team of industry professionals that can bring large-scale experience to the events."

New research last week showed the Irish games market is worth more than €240m annually, by some estimates more than the cinema and recorded music industries put together. Maybe it's time to start taking games-playing seriously.

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