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Esports: if you build it, they will come

| By Joanne Christie
The 1989 movie Field Of Dreams has many lessons for those hoping to develop esports successfully, says Hai Ng of Neomancer

The 1989 movie Field Of Dreams has many lessons for those hoping to develop esports successfully, says Hai Ng of Neomancer.

Almost two years ago, a casino executive in Las Vegas started the ball rolling that eventually led him to ‘plow under’ a portion of his casino ‘field’ to build an esports arena.

Did he hear ‘the voice’? Like the farmer neighbours of Field Of Dreams’ Ray Kinsella, many in the gaming industry must have thought that Seth Schorr was out of his mind.

Fast forward to now. That first esports arena is alive and well at the Downtown Grand Hotel and Casino, albeit moved to a larger space off the casino floor.

Following in those footsteps, there is now a purpose-built arena by Millennial Esports just a couple of blocks away at one end of the Fremont Street Experience, an esports oriented bar, The Nerd, in the same building, and development is underway for at least two more esports arenas, with one right on the Las Vegas Strip at the Luxor on the site of the old LAX nightclub.

There has been talk about a possible esports arena in Atlantic City, and several gaming properties around North America are also considering esports venues on their premises.

Moving at speed
Before diving deeper into this, let’s just take a step back and see how fast this is all moving with some comparative history. All things considered, esports is still very much in its infancy, much less the interaction between esports and the gaming industry.

The first known competitive baseball game was played in 1846, but it wasn’t till 1871, 25 years later, when the National Association, now known as the National League, opened its first baseball park.

Looking at esports, if we consider the beginning of league-style live events with spectator participation, the timeline comparison is reasonably close. However, if we strictly compare a franchised league model in esports with baseball, we’ve gone from leagues to arenas in under a handful of years.

The last few months have also seen more significant movement towards franchised league organisations, which could lead to more esports venues, including arenas, further supporting the case for esports integration into gaming properties.

Riot Games, the creator of the popular esports title League of Legends, confirmed just a few days before this article was written that its 2018 North American League of Legends Championship Series will remain with 10 teams, costing $10 million in fees for the existing 2017 teams, and $13 million for newcomers.

At little more than a year old, Overwatch, the game from Blizzard Entertainment, also recently announced its Overwatch League, beginning its inaugural pre-season this December at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles with 12 teams.

With a reported buy-in of $20 million, the franchise has owners that include Comcast, New England Patriots chairman Robert Kraft and Jeff Wilpon, the son of the New York Mets’ principal owner. All in all, not an insignificant roster of seasoned investors and traditional sports industry figures.

The investment knob for esports has also been turned up to 11 with Team EnVyUs reported to have received $35 million from Hersh Family Investments and relocating from North Carolina to Dallas.

The clear positive is that all this money is fuelling not just purpose-built arenas such as the Blizzard, but also cool new team offices, production studios and other supporting spaces, and, perhaps more importantly, jobs.

Coming back to the intersection of esports and gaming, how is this all playing out? “Is this heaven?”

A Millennial match-up?
In the gaming industry, especially the brick-and-mortar side of the business, the challenge running through the minds of many executives is how to attract the next generation of customers — Millennials — considered the largest current generation in the US, numbering more than 75 million.

Trying to figure out what makes Millennials tick and, more importantly, how they spend their money, is enough to cause many boardrooms to go into a tizzy. But esports is popping up as one possible way to attract Millennials to gaming properties.

It might surprise some, but esports is no stranger to Las Vegas. The Evolution Championship Series, or Evo, has been at various venues in Las Vegas since 2005, with the 2017 event at the Mandalay Bay in July.

That said, Las Vegas has also seen its share of major esports events held there return worse than expected results, leading many to question the ultimate efficacy of an esports strategy for the city.

If Las Vegas can’t do it, is it viable for casinos and integrated resorts in other parts of North America to obtain tangible results from esports as a customer and revenue driver?

With the experience of organising several esports events at gaming venues and gaming events around the world under my belt, I think that there are clear synergies with the match-up.

Esports athletes and audiences have repeatedly conveyed to me that an integrated resort venue offers entertainment options, even when esports was their primary objective for the trip. So clearly there is tangible evidence that it can work, with well-planned events and venues bringing in revenue not just for non-gaming activities, but gaming activities as well.

That said, not everybody is convinced that is the case. As mentioned earlier, there have been events that have failed; events held under arguably similar conditions and venues as those which succeeded.

Is there a method to it or does it all end up being a crapshoot? To adapt the saying of a much more modern baseball player, Yogi Berra: “It will work, until it doesn’t.” The secret is figuring out what makes it work, and when it doesn’t, if it is reversible or avoidable in future.

In some ways, the esports industry isn’t that different from the gaming industry. They are both relatively closed, and those who are not a part of the industry rarely know how it really works. But they look easy enough to figure out, right? Therein lies the minefield.

I remember back in the early days of the internet boom when every executive who was looking to expand and market into that new channel knew someone who had a kid or friend that “was great with that stuff”, and could get stuff done quick and cheap.

On the other front is that very expensive group with a long track record in a totally different industry, but they have that fantastic-looking presentation, our competitor uses them, and they agree with everything we’ve said — “Nobody ever gets fired for buying IBM.”

Today, there is a lot of that in the effort to bring esports into gaming. A quick search on LinkedIn finds more than 26,000 ‘people’ results for esports within three connections of my mediocre and neglected network alone!

It really shouldn’t be that difficult separating the wheat from the chaff, but it isn’t an effortless endeavour either. If you can spot someone who is a pretender in the gaming industry, chances are your instincts will work just as well when it comes time to spot a pretender in esports, even when you do not have any knowledge of esports.

There is consistency in human behaviour; poker players know it well — everyone has a tell.

The power of people
Regularly adapted or misquoted, “If you build it, he will come,” was the phrase the lead character from the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella, actually heard that led him to turn a significant portion of his farm into a baseball field, at high financial risk, but fortunately leading to a journey of discovery, epiphany, resolution, profit and a happy ending.

Often used by many as a mantra to invoke action, the pop-culture phrase “If you build it, they will come,” popped into my head when the esports gold rush started driving the creation of events, conferences, and now venues.

Having just watched the film before writing this piece, I’ve noticed there are other relevant similarities between the 1989 film and today’s esports phenomenon. From match-fixing, to authenticity, to motivations — the tale can be told for esports today.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the movie beyond appropriating and adapting its key phrase, it is that the person, or team, doing the building makes all the difference.

Anybody, given enough resources, can build a regulation baseball field in a cornfield, but to build one people will come to, that is something that takes more. As in the movie, there are some things you will have to discover along the way.

You’ll have to learn from mistakes. You’ll have to be open, yet objective, about the experiences you will face, and about where those experiences might lead you or drive your decisions.

Ray was a baseball fan, in spite of having rebelled against it because his father pushed him towards the sport. The same is probably true for the Terence Mann character.

Being a fan brings more than just understanding, it also brings “heart”. From a management perspective, it’s hard to measure and evaluate someone’s “heart” in a task or job, but often it is the most important factor.

“Heart” will also bring the right motivation and authenticity to the build. If I had to have a beer every time someone speaking about Millennials and/or esports uses the word “authenticity”, I’d really have to learn to like beer. But authenticity isn’t just about “not false”.

Looking at the hipster subculture would quickly reveal many contradictions if that was the case. Being authentic is also about being true to the spirit of it, and not having pretensions.

Ultimately, bringing in people with esports experience is just half the battle. The other half is being able to integrate those people with your gaming staff and your non-gaming staff, and that’s where one of the most critical roles come into play — the catalyst — the part of the team that makes the interaction between the two sides work more effectively. I’ve seen the best esports team combine with the best gaming teams only to fail and not know why.

I could go on, but this is an article and not a book, so I’ll leave you with this.

For what baseball is to Americans, esports could be for the world — finally, one collective sporting category that is equally enjoyed worldwide. Just like baseball, esports is now an activity shared between parents and their children. I’ve seen that spark in the eyes of players and, more importantly, I’ve seen that spark in the eyes of fans, and in the eyes of future esports athletes.

If we build it right, “They’ll come… for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up in your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.

Of course, we won’t mind if you have a look around,” you’ll say. “It’s only 20 dollars per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack.”

We cannot set out to build success; we can only set out to build something true to the sport; success is what people make of what we’ve built.

Hai Ng is iGaming Business North America’s fantasy and esports editor. He is co-founder of Neomancer, a unique technology strategy and management firm, and has over three decades of experience in the technology sector, with a decade in igaming. He tweets on matters of igaming as @HaiOnGaming

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