E-sports are heading to the Asian Games and probably Olympics – but cashing in on the revolution might be more difficult than it appears

Amid the rush to get on board the gold rush, there are many unanswered questions about professional video gaming

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 April, 2017, 10:59am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 12:34pm

Like most people over the age of 30, it is safe to assume financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po and Tourism Board chief Anthony Lau Chun-hon have only the vaguest notion of what e-sports is, though they are among Hong Kong officials earnestly talking it up recently.

They’ve heard what the rest of us have: those crazy millennials love it and there seems to be loads of money involved, so let’s get a piece.

To those of us not born in the 21st century, e-sports is basically professional competitive video gaming. But should we be taking it so seriously? Is it a sport? And how can we cash in?

Those questions were discussed a Business of Sports Network (BOSN) event at KPMG’s offices this week, attended by many from ‘traditional’ sports, plus staff from Riot Games, the Tencent-owned company that produces the most popular e-sports game in Asia, League of Legends, and officials from Cyberport, Hong Kong’s hi-tech hub which is researching possible benefits of e-sports.

Harmen Brenninkmeijer, managing partner of Dynamic Partners, hosted a fascinating panel with Derek Cheung, CEO of Hong Kong ESports, a leading local company, and Tom Broom, a senior VP at IMG, the sports marketing giant which is making moves into the field.

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“It requires a lot of passion and dedication and training,” said Cheung to the criticism that video games just aren’t sport. “It’s like chess or car racing – not as physical but you need a lot of mental training.”

“You can hear people a bit snobbish about sport who say it should be physical,” said Broom, who has launched an e-sports TV show with IMG.

“I asked that when I first got involved of a Singaporean colleague and his response was ‘You Brits love darts – that’s not a sport, it’s fat guys throwing arrows at a wall!’” Fair point.

The figures bandied about might be hyperbolic but certainly drown out negative voices: there are claims that some eSports events attract more viewers than the NBA finals, that the market will be worth US$1.49 billion by 2020. Professional football teams have signed pro Fifa 2017 video game players and are launching their own teams; the NBA has teamed up with its computer counterpart. Amazon bought Twitch.tv, the main streaming site for e-sports, for US$970 million in 2014. Douyu TV, a Chinese imitator, raised funding worth 1.5 billion yuan last year.

Every Chinese tech company worth its salt is moving into e-sports, including Alibaba, the owners of the South China Morning Post. There are supposedly over 400 million online gamers in China, with more than half regularly watching eSports.

Fans streaming in their millions to e-sports

The Olympic Council of Asia [OCA], in partnership with Alibaba’s Alisports, announced this month that eSports will be a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games – which will be held in Alibaba’s home city of Hangzhou. Since Alibaba is sponsoring the Olympics for US$800 million until 2028, many surmise the International Olympic Commitee, desperate for millennial eyeballs, will soon follow suit.

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Thomas Bach, the IOC chief, seemed not too convinced in comments this week, though he was tempted by e-sports’ “high engagement with youth”. But the BOSN panel agreed the Asian Games could be a game-changer. The LA 2024 bid team has expressed its interest in e-sports.

“It’s very interesting,” said Broom. “I know that some of the other big multi-sport federations are watching this space. The Asian Games might be the first mover worldwide [but] their counterparts at other levels and other events will be watching that and thinking ‘We need to do that too.’

“That’s when it will get into the boardrooms and self-perpetuate and become a really mature space.”

But is e-sports really Eldorado? Like other new technologies, actually making big money from it might be trickier than it seems.

“Our [TV] ratings are actually quite low,” Broom admitted, with e-sports fans accustomed to watching online.

“Most of the money made in sport is from pay TV – most of the e-sports platforms are free streaming. Is the media proposition going the right way? Is this audience going to subscribe to a cable platform or OTT service or on a one-off basis?”

Whoever finds a solution might get very rich.

Then there’s another important concern raised by an audience member: in age of childhood obesity, should the likes of the Hong Kong government, the OCA and IOC be encouraging kids to sit in front of screens for hours on end? Do companies involved have a responsibility to encourage more active lifestyles?

Cheung said his players go through physical training, while Broom was rather more forthright.

“The blunt answer is [the e-sports companies] probably don’t care. They’re businesses – whether they become Olympic status sports or not it will be because the IOC realise it needs to stay relevant. But the publishers and all that – they probably aren’t going to care a great deal.”