New Sports; The Required Evolution of Esports

Tobias Sherman
Jul 12, 2018 · 9 min read

The term esports no longer accurately defines the industry nor the culture we have become.

“esports is teams with a few thousand dollars arguing among each other over how to keep some money from a game they don’t own; sports is billionaire’s arguing with millionaires on how best to feature the sports they own to make more money.”

-Thorin 2014

For almost a decade I’ve been asked the same question at every panel, sponsor discussion, or general assembly around esports. “Is it a sport?” My reply has remained consistent since the first time I answered: “Who cares what you label it? It’s great competitive entertainment”. Except that doesn’t work anymore. The “esports” industry is begging to evolve, the players and fans are demanding it grows. The powers that be are resistant as ever to change and innovation, choosing stagnation and old practices for the sake of ease. With success comes a particular comfort zone that is hard for companies to break out of, but this leads to focusing on today’s bottom line without looking to the future.

As a symptom of both the scale and speed at which esports has grown commercially, some publishers have merely tried to bolt on an esports theme to their game. Others decide to marry old models together with lopsided value propositions, selling franchise spots for a single title at an extraordinarily high fee, rinse and repeat with another game. Many feel this strategy prioritizes short-term capital over long-term sustainable success and doesn’t offer traditional sports teams a genuinely collaborative seat at the table. Announcing massive franchise fees makes for a great headline, however it causes concern industry-wide that this is pushing esports toward hype over substance; you still have to applaud the commitment in my opinion. Time will tell how that one plays out, and regardless it’s still just one model. I’d be hypocritical if I acted like I didn’t swing for the fences every time I was at bat.

Still, esports has become ego over innovation, fear of missing out over sincere interest, silencing opinion over free exchange of ideas, and short-term money over long-term value. The only way this changes for the advancement of the industry as a whole is by a fundamental change to the core philosophy of how competitive video games are categorized. For this reason, I’m changing my company’s philosophy and direction; I hope other leaders in the gaming industry will be brave enough to follow suit. That change starts with a new label and definition that sheds the confusion, fragmentation, and stereotypes associated with esports.

A brief recap of how we arrived here.
Esports was built by the community ground up, with the vast majority of publishers either outright ignoring it or being dragged kicking and screaming into it. The exception to this rule is Riot, whose early commitment and contribution to the industry lead to a benchmark moment that demanded the mainstream take notice. Love or hate Riot, everyone had a slide in his or her company pitch deck of the Staples Center selling out. That didn’t just happen, that fantastic moment took commitment, effort, and risk. That moment was only made possible by standing on the shoulders of giants like Sundance DiGiovanni, Mike Sepso, Carmac, Adam Apicella, OGN, GOMTV, and everyone that dedicated their lives to being part of the creation of video games as competitive entertainment.

There has always been tension in the esports industry. The tension between publishers and the once cottage industry, tension between fans, athletes, general gamers, and of course tension between all the individual teams. Alongside this tension now lives a healthy dose of ignorance, inflation, and hype. As a community, this tension never slowed us down; we became only more determined to innovate. It seems everyone today is trying to get into esports or claiming to be an “esports expert.” However, when you strip away the hyperbole, there is a lot left to be desired. Esports is confusing to sponsors, traditional sports team owners, and the media because it lacks coalescence.

We need to do better, and we owe it to the fans, competitors, and team owners to create something worthy of the passion, blood, sweat, and tears of those that brought the industry to where it is today. That creation, in my opinion, needs to be centered around a better label and definition of the industry.

The genesis of “new sports” by definition
new sports is to sports as new media is to media

new media
noun
noun: new media; plural noun: new media
means of mass communication using digital technologies such as the Internet.

sport
noun
plural noun: sports
an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

new sports
noun
noun: new sport; plural noun: new sports
an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others, using digital technologies such as the Internet, competitive game titles, and VR/AR for entertainment.

“New Sports” is the natural evolution of esports with a focus on building sustainability ground up. This means media, brands, tech, and traditional sports teams working together to form an ecosystem that can flourish and benefit everyone. Done correctly, the fans, players, brands, publishers, and ownership all get what they desire which is a fresh competitive entertainment product that captivates audiences young and old alike, with the emotional equity that only sports can provide.

What’s the actual difference between “esports” and “new sports” and how do we make the switch?
I knew I wanted to build esports titles at Foundry IV from the ground up with the definite and purposeful intention of solving significant issues within the industry. My personal “a-ha moment” came when I realized that esports defines a moment where we were all trying to be validated… by everyone (publishers, brands, television, traditional sports teams, and so on). That validation has arrived, and “competitive entertainment” isn’t going to cut it anymore, because without a clear intention and vision we will never achieve sustainable success. That is why I believe the term “new sports” is a better definition of our industry and a representation of our evolution. It says, “ok, we’ve made it”; now it’s time to do the real hard work and build products designed to meet the needs of today and the future. An important aspect of “new sports” is that it leaves room for the inevitable marriage of tech and traditional sports to evolve under a new banner. VR, AR, and whatever “R” that comes next all have room to blossom. “New Sports” is more than just an evolved name for “esports,” it’s a statement that acknowledges that this great industry needs nourishment.

Esports was a movement composed of many different entities that achieved largely accidental success. “New Sports” is a more organized movement with the intention of building competitive products; products that aren’t forced into a competitive framework that is a thinly veiled marketing campaign for game sales. Instead, the focus is on building competitive titles with the necessary criteria fulfilled out of the gate. Necessities such as brand-friendly, media-friendly, player friendly, and perhaps most important of all SPECTATOR FRIENDLY!

What’s a specific example of the “new sports” evolution?
“New Sports” has an obligation to ownership, fans, players, sponsors, and media to create products that push the industry forward. Those products need to be specifically designed to ease tension between parents and children, and also between brands and publisher. Before I go any further, I want to give context on what I’m about to say. This is not intended to be political or infer any anti-FPS sentiment. After all, ELEAGUE did debut with Counter-Strike, and I’m not taking a position against FPS all of a sudden.

That said, we need more products that ease the tension between parents and kids; which means competitive products that don’t revolve around war simulation, red blood violence, and real-world replica weaponry. To be clear, I’m saying we need to add products to the market not take away what is currently out there. Building a game or “new sport” from the ground up that parents have an easier time getting behind will allow an aspirational environment to blossom. To thrive as an industry, we need parents to say,“this is my child’s passion and I want to support, enable, and empower them to take it as far as they can.”

If we combine the goal of easing tension between parent and child while working with brands during the design phase of a game to ensure compatibility and authenticity for fans, we’ll make great strides towards a much brighter, focused, and understandable future for New Sports as an industry. The great news is, in my personal experience, brands are energized and excited to be involved and have already added to some of the innovations we will be debuting in our products. The elimination of the old elitist mentality that only a handful of game designers know what’s best for a game is paramount to the creation of fertile ground for non-traditional thinking, which of course, breeds innovation. The inclusion of more and different voices is a great thing.

Athletes or not?
My kids don’t view these “influencers” as e-athletes, they see them merely as athletes, and I don’t believe that’s anecdotal evidence. They cheer for them in arenas. They agonize over a loss. They celebrate over a victory. Everyone comes together in a community to represent their love of a highly skilled competition that 99% of us lack the reflexes and decision-making ability to pull off. The emotional equity provided by watching peak human performance in new sports is utterly no different than instinctively jumping out of your chair watching Steph Curry drain a three to win.

I love poker, and I remember when that was being tossed in for consideration as a sport. While it was ridiculed, it did feel like there was something more to it. In the end, it fell short of “sports” but rested under the ‘competitive entertainment’ catch-all terminology. Games designed for competition require so much fast-twitch muscle response and decision-making it clearly qualifies as a sport. At a fundamental level, the pro level athlete will stand head and shoulders above even the best non-pro. The skill ceiling creates a differential that ensures that the pro will win 10 out of 10 encounters. Anything competitive that provides that level of physical performance potential is a sport.

At the end of the day, the tools used for competition are changing, and technology is influencing sports. The devices are digital not analog (for the most part), they utilize the latest tech, and they can be enjoyed globally over the internet both as a playing field and as a spectator. This sounds a lot like “new sports” and “new media” working hand-in-hand to me. There are going to be many New Sports created through gaming and the internet.

Why “New Sports”?
I see “new sports” as an opportunity to work together to build something better. It’s also an opportunity to allow the progression from fan to intern to a career that doesn’t have to pass through a publisher gateway meaning opportunities are more readily available across this ecosystem for people from the community rather than if they had to go through publisher X or Y.

Esports has become a loaded term. “New Sports” is easier to define, understand, and explain which makes it a great bridge to traditional executives that desire to understand and contribute, but stop once they see that “e” in front of sports. These executives stop because they can’t relate to it. Sponsors also become easily overwhelmed by the fragmented space, and have a lack of products to choose from; those products haven’t intentionally innovated for them, specifically. With money rushing into the industry, people are dishing advice in all directions while traditional companies are adding more noise by trying to brute force their way into the space. In reality, it’s not that complicated it just needs to be defined better. “New Sports” allows us to view the industry through the lens of sports without losing our unique identity.

New sports is also about moving the industry into the future while acknowledging and honoring the past. Forging a new path that brings everyone under the same tent because unified “new sports” allows us to stop the divisiveness and wasted breath on if esports is sports which ultimately interferes with progress. Eight years ago I told brands, publishers, sports teams, and anyone that would listen “get into esports today because tomorrow will be more expensive.” While this is still true today, we have a responsibility to create sustainable value, or we will see that trend start to reverse. At this stage of the industry, I would rather see 40 “one million dollar startups” launched from the community than one highly publicized franchise by a publisher. The good news is we don’t have to choose as enough resources are flowing in to do both.

In Conclusion
I’ve been preaching the gospel of esports for almost a decade. The industry has given me so much, and I am resistant to change for fear of losing that special something that esports has always had. The constant evolution and innovation were born of a necessity to work around the publishers and their inability to see esports as viable. Esports has become something different. While change is scary, it is also necessary and, thanks to the many amazing people that make up the industry, will lead to growth. Setting us up for success as the better defined “new sports” will capture the community element again, energizing innovation and collaboration centered around fair and equitable deals and products where everyone benefits.

Esports has always been sports, and it’s time we started treating it as such.

Tobias Sherman

Written by

CEO FOUNDRY IV | Co-Creator ELEAGUE on TBS | Original Global Head of esports WME|IMG