The eSports Phenomenon Every Event Professional Should Learn From with IMG’s Tobias Sherman
I’m just going to assume you’ve all heard the buzz about this eSports thing. The question is, have you reeeallly listened? Because… if you’re in the event world and you’re not paying attention to those computer geeks and their games. Here’s a newsflash: their events are selling out the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. Oh yeah, they’re also selling more merch online than some NBA teams online.
So the question is: What can we all learn from them?
But first, check out these stats:
- 31 Million Viewers watched Game 7 of the NBA Finals (largest viewership ever) (ESPN)
- 43 Million Viewers watched the League of Legends World Championship Finals. (LOL)
- The League of Legends World Championships sold out the Staples Center in 12 minutes.
- 2015 Revenue for eSports: $325 Million.
- 2016 Revenue $463 Million.
- 2019 Projected Revenue $1.1 Billlllion. (newzoo)
- There’s over 131 Million active eSports Enthusiasts and another 125 Million viewers. (newzoo)
- This might be the most interesting: League of Legends fans contributed $3M of the $6 Million dollar prize pool for the players. (LOL) That’s freakin’ engagement!
- Owners of the Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Wizards have all purchased eSports franchises.Soooo… I’ve been wanting to sit down with one of the pioneers behind all of this madness for a while. And there is no better person than the IMG Global Head of eSports, Tobias Sherman.
LET’S SET THE SCENE
First off, the discussion around a massively growing industry like eSports could last for days. From the production quality, to live streaming, to fan engagement, to player salaries, to sports psychologists (yep), franchises, etc. but my goals for the conversation was to dig into:
- How this correlates to the rest of the event world and what we can learn.
- What’s next for the industry and how it crosses over with other live events.
- The potential of augmented reality and virtual reality for all events.
- How critically important fan engagement has been to the growth of the industry.
- The importance of taking risks, a little career advice and more.And if you have ever picked up a joy stick, you should definitely appreciate this. I sure did.
eSports event production 101: It’s all about the fan experience. The fans have driven this astronomical growth. Photo Cred: Blizzard
You ready to do this Tobias?
You better believe it.
Where did you grow up?
How would you describe 15-year-old Tobias?
Energetic and excited about everything.
So at 15, what was hanging on your wall in your room?
I had a poster of Mark Foo, who was the surfer that died at Mavericks. He was dropping in on a massive wave that was the insert into Surfer Magazine. It was their tribute to him. Next to that, I had a Pulp Fiction black and white of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson standing there with their guns drawn, which was awesome.
All the way from Pulp Fiction and Mark Foo to the IMG Global Head of eSports. Photo Cred: Mrs. Sherman
What would your friends say about you after knocking back a few pints?
Somewhere between asshole and best friend ever. It runs the gamut, I think that those would be polar opposite explanations, but they would somehow be fitting.
If you were a video game, what would you be and why?
I would like to think that I would be Mario. It’s a classic that never goes out of style. I don’t know if that is who I am but that is definitely who I would want to be.
What drew you to the world at eSports?
It unlocked 15-year-old me, I think that’s what drew me in. Before I experienced it, I had this preconceived notion about what it was. And when I saw it, it was radically and dramatically different than what I had anticipated. It was just amazing.
I had this epiphany that made me do a complete 180. I was like, “Wow.” It was like the big aha moment all at once where I got it.
eSports Event production 101: appeal to that 15 year old in you and you’ll hit all ages. Photo Cred: MLG
Explain that more.
It’s competitive entertainment. There’s a physical element, it’s sports. The apparatus doesn’t matter, whether it’s a football, a baseball, or a mouse and a keyboard. There’s a physical one-to-one connection that resonates through to an end result with team A and team B or person A and person B. It’s a sport. You’re not going to get through your life without competing in something. It’s just that you have to get beyond those preconceived notions. eSports has the ability to resonate the competitive nature humans are programmed to admire and attach ourselves through all forms of competition. You can be 50 years old and like it. Or might not, you just need to give it a try. It’s like anything else. I don’t think it is as age gated as people would like to think. I think it’s great competitive entertainment.
With all of this crazy growth and attention, what moment really just blew your mind?
I would have to go back to when ‘League of Legends’ sold out the Staples Center. That was a benchmark moment. And they did it so fast. Then you follow up with Madison Square Garden and now it’s commonplace. You are expected to sell out at a major publisher driven venue.
So what is the viewership of these big events?
It’s pretty crazy. I want to say the total for the year was around 700,000,000 total across all the games? Probably more. I can’t think of the exact statistic. You’ve seen ‘League of Legends’ get upwards of close to 60,000,000 concurrent. When you look at the numbers, like I said, they are staggering. We’re going to see it localize more, but it is a global phenomenon.
So is there anything else about all of this that just blows your mind?
Yeah. It’s funny you mention that because when you look at it, it’s all fan driven. We don’t see publishers really lining up to help these teams sell merchandise, but they’re getting there. Everything that’s been done thus far has really been based on one thing, which is consumer appetite.
The main stat that really amazes me is the engagement. The engagement and reach are both very explosive. That clearly has led to certain eSports team outselling NBA teams online.
Which is mind blowing.
And. That’s without the needed support that comes with publishers knowing how to market these assets that they’ve acquired. So we’re just scratching the surface.
Photo Cred: ESL
What do you think have been the core catalysts to this explosion over the last few years?
FIRST: Justin.tv making the move to Twitch and just recognizing that this deserves its own platform was a huge one.
[For those who don’t know what Twitch is: Twitch is the world’s leading video platform and community for gamers. Each day, close to 10 million visitors gather to watch and talk about video games with more than 2 million streamers.]
SECOND: Publishers finally getting in line, to a degree. They can’t seem to divorce themselves from their inward thinking of what’s best for the company is probably not best for eSports.
THIRD: and most importantly, what really drove it, was the the fans and the community. It is such a fantastic special community. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the most engaged, passionate community I’ve ever seen.
It’s really interesting that live stream helped to drive this massive growth in this one segment of the event world, while so many in the traditional event world are still trying to figure Live out. They’re either concerned about cannabalizing their business, while others are constrained by legalities and most are just paralyzed because they don’t know how to best use it. eSports had none of those issues, because it grew out of the community.
And I think that’s the big difference. The community was empowered and then just given the tools.
Where in the evolution of all this are we? I mean it’s already global.
It is global, but we are still in the Big Bang of it all. It’s going to continually grow in all directions, I believe. I think that’s a fair analogy if I can make it, but it’s still in the explosive area. However with explosions, there’s a ton of turbulence. That’s an effect of being in the evolutionary stage.
We are still at the very, very beginning. Still so nascent. Long way to go, a lot of different variables to tackle than traditional sports has. I would say that eSports, it hasn’t even seen its first birthday, but has lived 20 lifetimes at the same time. it is a very old, brand new industry, if you will.
So what’s the next for live experience of eSports?
You’re going to start to see more events that are more one-off music/pop culture mix with gaming. Those will start to pop up, but traditionally what we’ve seen are tournaments. Major League Gaming was the gold standard in North America for running tournaments and then we saw naturally ‘Counter-Strike’ massive events as well. So, it’s not just ‘League of Legends’ that are selling out stadiums but we’ve seen the same with other “majors” as well.
Photo Cred: League of Legends
So the publishers or makers of these games like “League of Legends” or World of Warcraft, pick a certain number of “major” events to be their flagship events for that year?
What is one strategic change in how the events and leagues operation that you’d like to see?
I have been really pushing for the franchise system. I think what’s important is to tell the story lines and establish the franchises early in these days where they’re going to be around for 20 years so you can tell the stories and have the history.
Photo Cred: eLeague.com
Do you think there will be actual eSports specific stadiums?
100%. eSports stadiums are going to be in the mix. This is where people start to laugh at me, which is why I think that I’m right, but I think you can look at them as mini-incubators. It’s a place that replaces the old arcade. The old arcades at malls have gone the way of the dinosaur, but now you can go and watch events, play in events, learn from pros, all these things. So yeah, they’re going to happen.
So like any other major pro sport, each franchise will have a home stadium and training facility, home and away games, entertainment, etc?
Absolutely! It’ll get there for sure.
Photo Cred: IMG Academies
When you talk about these live events, do you have teams competing virtually or are they typically all in one place?
As a team, it’s very important to see how you do in a live environment. Online is great, but it’ll never ever, ever mirror being onstage in front of 10,000 people with your team, ready to go into the finals. You’re not going to get that online.
Online is great, but it’ll never mirror being onstage in front of 10,000 people with your team.
For those in the live event world, what do you think is the most interesting thing to keep an eye on and potentially emulate?
Well, If I’m at a venue, it would be more of an AR experience. Everyone’s talking VR they’re missing the golden opportunity, which is the AR. If I can see an overlay of statistics while I’m watching a game, I can zoom in. If I’m up in the cheap seats, if you will, I should be able to zoom in. I would like to think that we’re innovating fast enough this could even be third-party application software.
When you look at the potential for what some of these AR hardware solutions have, being able to watch a game, see all the statistics I want, capture a replay. Being able to instantaneously click and share with all of my friends I’m at the game. “I just watched this happen. Oh my God, this happened live. Look at the crowd going wild around me.” That is the moment. That is the next level of engagement, which is more important than reach. That’s where it should be headed and if I’m in live events, I’m making damn sure that’s coming.
Now the second thing would be VR. How do I couple that, where if I’m not at the event, I can have that same experience like I’m sitting right next to you. If I’m in Germany, but I happen to be a big fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers because they’re amazing. Of course, I am going to want that experience.
If you were to give a State of the Union address to the event world, what would you hit on?
There’s no excuse not to innovate. We need to be constantly asking, “How do we improve the fan experience?” That should be the question. It amazes me how certain things come to fruition out of a place where you would least expect it. So push that envelope and try to provide a better experience.
There is no excuse as we scratch the surface of this massive change between consumption, and what the future brings in terms of entertainment and culture. If you have a product and you truly are fearless with it, I think that nets the best results.
[The reality is, that if you are in the event world, you’re in the entertainment business. So your competition isn’t just another music festival (if your in the music business), or another marathon (if you’re in the marathon business) or another professional sport (if that’s your gig), it’s all forms of entertainment. And with the numbers eSports is driving, you better believe that there is cross-over amongst those fans and whatever your world is. And… if they are getting a high caliber experience, or a really welcoming community from one type of event and can’t get it with the other. There will come a time when they look elsewhere.]
Now you’re talkin’ my language.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given?
I was a freshman in high school. My homeroom teacher Mrs. Mueller had one of her old students walk in and in full fatigues, full uniform. She asked him, “Do you have any words of wisdom for the class?” He said, “Yeah. In life, you get out what you put in.” I have certainly seen that in my own life, you get out what you put in.
Take risks and take big ones. Take big risks. When it comes to fans and making that fan experience better, take the risks on the big ideas. Whether that’s the AR idea, the VR idea, whatever it is, if you feel like it’s going to make the fan experience better do it. That’s something that we have an obligation to ensure that gets done right, but also that pushes the envelope. Taking a big risk is worth it. Somebody took a risk on eSports and look how great it is. Now we’re doing venues all over the world. Identify that next great thing and go for it. Don’t rest on your laurels.
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