Exclusive: The Collegiate eSports Opportunity
Story of the Week: Without getting into the politics of the US Education system we can all agree on one thing: it’s expensive. Student loans have exceeded $1 Trillion and surpasses both auto and credit card debt. I tell this to parents about to face this dilemma: What if your kids go to college for free for playing video games?
This week, the Pac-12 became the first Collegiate Conference to officially announce their organization and broadcast of eSports. While the Big 10 had already organized the BTN Invitational earlier this year, the Pac-12 is taking it much further. Although a game, publisher, event or details are still lacking; this is a first step in establishing eSports as a sanctioned NCAA sport. Also this week, League of Legends became a sanctioned collegiate sport in Australia.
Collegiate eSports isn’t coming — it’s here and has been for a while. CSL, or Collegiate Star League, the biggest organization started in 2009. ULoL is Riot’s Campus Series for League of Legends with 500 teams participating this year and 32 competing in a bracket tournament culminating in a live event. TESPA and AVGL also have relationships with Activision-Blizzard.
What’s even more interesting is the formation of Collegiate Scholarships for eSports. I’ve uncovered 9 Colleges and Universities participating so far:
I spoke with Kurt Melcher, Associate Athletic Director at Robert Morris University and who created their eSports program to find out more.
How did Robert Morris begin to look at eSports?
I’ve been a long time gamer myself and been interested in eSports. I played a lot in college, console and PC, lots of StarCraft. Even after months of playing, these players were much better than me. I looked into CSL and ULoL and wondered how we could formalize this. [Being a game lover is a recurring theme. Columbia College President Dr. Scott Dalrymple introduced himself to students via a Madden challenge and championed their eSports initiative.]
In February 2014, I showed the Executive team a game on my iPad and showed them the demographics. We moved very quickly and had scholarships in place by the Fall of 2014. Also being at RMU for 15 years gave me the validation within the university to take on this new endeavor.
What eSports games and number of scholarships did you launch with in 2014?
We started with League of Legends and 35 total scholarships between Varsity and Varsity Reserve levels. 20 Varsity scholarships worth $20K per year and Varsity Reserve at $10K per year. Just like traditional sports, if an eSports player works hard, they can advance from Reserve to Varsity.
Wow. That’s over $500,000 in just your 1st year. What’s the total amount you’ve given out so far and where else have you expanded?
Yes. That also doesn’t include the $200,000 we invested into the eSports center on Campus. In 2015, we expanded to DOTA, Hearthstone, and Counter-Strike and grew to 53 total scholarships. We’re also looking into Heroes of the Storm but it’s not as established as the others.
This year, we’re estimating 70 total scholarships. For perspective, our Football team will be giving out 150 total scholarships.
That’s a great comparison. What’s been the reaction from parents?
That’s been very interesting. Of course they’re grateful for the financial assistance that the scholarships provide. But more importantly, its the sense of family and community that we’ve established.
I never considered that. A high school basketball player has more than likely spent years on a team and felt validated within their school and peers.
Exactly. RMU has over 50 kids that are just as passionate and hardworking as they are. They’re not alone anymore. Additionally, we make sure that school takes precedent before eSports. If they miss class they don’t play the next game.
What!? My Freshman year at the University of Miami was the year after they won the National Championship. I never saw a football player till after the season ended.
Yeah that’s not going to happen here.
How have eSports affected admissions to RMU?
It’s opened us up to a whole new student demographic. I don’t know if any of the new Freshman would have attended without our eSports program. Just like Football, it’s not a huge revenue generator for the school. But from a RMU mission perspective, eSports is a good ROI.
What’s the ultimate goal and the future of eSports at RMU?
Every kid in the NCAA tournament would hope to play in the NBA but its not going to happen. We want to provide our students with not only an opportunity in eSports but a degree as well. Adrian Ma was part of our program before joining Immortals. Derek Shao and Younbin Chung became part of Team Liquid Academy. They can always come back and finish their education.
I’d like to see a whole community and want to see the players progress, learn, and show commitment.
Thanks for speaking to me Kurt.
From 1 school in 2014 to now 9 in 2016, there will be accelerated growth in Collegiate Scholarships. John Yehling, AD of Athletics at Missouri Baptist University, tells me that while they’re starting with 8 scholarships in 2016 they “hope to keep growing and get to 50 in a year or two”. Simply stunning.
What I believe is even more interesting than the vertical opportunities (High School, Pro Gamer) are the horizontal opportunities that emerge very similar to traditional sports. Let’s take a look a these:
This month IMG’s training facility, that has seen athletes like Andre Agassi and Cam Newton train there, opened up to eSports teams starting with Complexity Gaming’s Call of Duty team. As a youth tennis player growing up in Florida, this facility in Bradenton was the Mecca of Sports Training. Just like traditional sports, eSports requires the same focus on health, nutrition, brain enhancement, and team leadership.
Game Without Pain based in Toronto is also looking to address the physical and mental needs of Pro Gamers by connecting them with health professionals in house and through their virtual academy. They’re also launching a 6-month Free trial for those interested.
In addition to overall health, nutrition plays a key aspect in athletic training. While any number of health products, companies, and retail outlets can address this, 2 brands have taken the eSports lead.
- Quest Nutrition sponsors Team Liquid and has a dedicated Twitter account with 24k+ followers.
- Soylent began investing in eSports last year and expand further below in Sponsor Spotlight.
My belief in why these products work for this audience: Convenience and Cost. Both are portable, can be thrown in a backpack, and retail for ~$3.
The use of Adderall and Ritalin has already been known in the eSports world. Last year, ESL began drug testing before events. Trying to fill this gap are products like GFuel and the numerous caffeine and sugar beverage companies, which is the most crowded Brand vertical within the industry. There could be another option with Nootropics, which are basically “brain cognition enhancers”. Companies like GoCubes and ZestTea take your normal dose of caffeine, mix it up with other chemicals, to produce a more focused and less jittery type of buzz. Considering the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on Red Bull in my life, the LTV for this market and this audience is potentially huge. Well what’s the difference brain cognition enhancers and pharmaceutical medication? We’ll save that for another time.
I’ve said previously that a big brand like Nike or Under Armour will/should enter this space in the next 2 years. There are already companies targeting this market like Ultimate Media Venture’s ULT gaming brand. Taking a more scientific than lifestyle approach is REACTIVE Wear, which is working on performance gear for Gamers.
I spoke with their CMO (who is in Medical School) and got a 30 minute primer on how blood flow affects athletes. I won’t try to explain it here but it’s fascinating.
Speaking of performance gear, I think there’s an opportunity for Stance, the official sock of the NBA and MLB to target this audience. They initially started with Extreme Sports personalities and Pro Gamers have a great overlap. Just socks you’re saying? Some Stance socks sell for $50 each and the US market is a ~$2B industry.
Let’s take performance gear a step further and look at the emergence of Wearable Technology like Athos. What if you were watching a Call of Duty match and a player’s heartbeat was next to their gameplay data? Hi Sundance.
Game Data and Analytics
Sticking to the technology theme, there’s been a few companies looking at automating high school and collegiate game film. One of the early leaders is Krossover, which has raised $35M from the likes of the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Cavaliers. From a tech perspective, eSports has to be easier as you get direct access to game data.
Not only do I think Krossover will get into eSports, it’s not a coincidence Krossover’s CEO was at a NBA Playoff game with an eSport team owner. [Side Story: In 1995 I was an intern at the Miami Heat and worked in the same room as the “video guy” who slaved away on game tapes. His name was Erik Spoelstra. He would have loved this tech.]
Taking the game film analysis further, I mentioned Dojo Madness last week who are getting data directly from League of Legends to provide coaching via a Mobile app. Xsolla pictured above allows virtual coaching across a number of eSports titles. Just as traditional sports are implementing coaching technology, eSports is perfectly suited for this.
Look at what Kurt Melcher from RMU said about Heroes of the Storm — if there were more opportunity, they would invest more in the team. Activision spent close to $250M in Advertising in the US alone in 2015. Take a fraction of that budget and directly allocate into growing the game/eSport at the grassroots level and it can provide far greater ROI.
The consistent theme across every college entering eSports is that they’re starting with League of Legends. If I’m Riot, I double-down on this opportunity to work growing this scene even further. From their investment in ULoL, working with colleges directly, and supporting local University Cal Irvine, they seem to be heading in this direction.
As Brands are investing in the Pro eSports scene, there’s prime opportunity to engage gamers at the collegiate level.
- iBUYPOWER helped build the first eSports University Arena at Robert Morris and will also be providing financial support and 80 PC’s for UC Irvine’s new eSports home.
- Kontrolfreek will be providing $20,000 in total scholarships to 10 students for the Fall ’16 school year.
Finally, I could write 1000 words on this alone but based on the horizontal infrastructure outlined above, you can see the potential. Here are a few examples:
- Last year, 3 Swedish High Schools added eSports as a class
- High School in Bergen, Norway to offer eSports as an elective class just like Soccer
- This weekend, Robert Morris University held a High School Invitational with 8 teams
- In the US, High School Star League and High School eSports League have also been formed
The NCAA was formed over a 100 years ago. The 1st official NCAA Men’s Soccer tournament didn’t happen till 1959. Just as we’re seeing the early stages of professional eSports, a similar groundwork is being laid at both the high school and collegiate levels.
[I wanted to analyze E League’s TV and Digital viewership this week however another week of data will tell a better story and separate it from the noise currently. The initial results…surprising to say the least.]
Supercell Hiring For eSports Role
Clash of Clans and Clash Royale publisher is looking to hire someone to “Define and shape the competitive vision” for their current and future games.
My Take: “We believe that Clash Royale has the opportunity to take eSports to a place it hasn’t quite caught on…mobile platforms”. Dear Supercell, I wholeheartedly agree. Not only have I spoken about the mobile potential for eSports but I can’t stop talking about the eSports potential for Clash Royale.
One of the biggest challenges in making a game a mainstream eSports is accessibility. You can see the efforts E League is trying to get a new audience to understand Counter-Strike. My 8-year old son learned to play, not just watch, Clash Royale in 5 minutes. Further, Supercell must have pre-planned for the eSports potential based on the features they’ve baked into the game:
- Players get notifications inside the game when a tournament goes live like the Helsinki one in April
- This trojan horse — you can watch other players games currently directly in the game via Supercell’s TV Royale feature. Take a look at some of the view counts (Yes, View counts actually mean something here as it’s only completed Views from my tests):
Vainglory still has potential as a Mobile eSport but if any game is going to make it even bigger this year, it’s Clash Royale. You’re also going to see a major brand partnership before 2017.
Wenner Media To Launch Glixel, Website For Gamers
Rolling Stone publisher to launch gaming focused newsletter and website.
My Take: The first two newsletters have great art, focus on culture and long form pieces…just like the Rolling Stone for Gaming you’d expect. It’s good but what’s currently lacking in the Gaming/eSports media space that Glixel will address? With the challenges of launching new media ventures today and competing for digital ad dollars with FB/GOOG, it will be interesting to see how Glixel monetizes going forward.
SPONSOR SPOTLIGHT: SOYLENT
My Take: I always love seeing new, innovative brands take the leap into eSports. If you haven’t heard of Soylent, it’s basically a drink that replicates a nutritious meal at about $3 each. You can see why this audience would be perfect for Soylent: Quick, cheap and gets you full so you can keep going.
There was no info on this, so I don’t have the details on the overall partnership, but Soylent did tell me that “eSports is a segment we’re interested in”. In addition to being mentioned on ESports Arena’s Twitter, the most prominent features were product placement on the Analyst desk and In Game logo.
This is not Soylent’s first venture into eSports — last year they sponsored the ESL ESEA Pro League and ESL One Event at Madison Square Garden. Looking forward to seeing them do more this year.
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