Ten years ago, few people believed that playing video games as a competitive professional sport could become a billion dollar industry. Yet this is precisely what has happened.
Within just one decade, the esports industry has grown tremendously and is expected to make more than a billion dollars in revenue in 2019. Many investors are looking at the industry as a new investment opportunity and are establishing new esports teams to compete in official tournaments. To understand how these esport teams have achieved such financial success, this article will analyze the competitive online video game, League of Legends (LOL). This game’s success is remarkable–viewers recently spent a total of 10.65 million hours watching the games in just a span of 8 days during LOL’s biggest international tournament, the League of Legends World Championship. This is a result of both the game’s international popularity and an organized league structure that has made esports teams willing to compete.
The Revenue Side
Many esports teams make a majority of their revenue, approximately 90%, from sponsorships and advertising. These revenue streams include sponsorships in exchange for advertisement on the player’s jerseys, similar to those of traditional sports. For example, the energy drink brand Red Bull and the smartphone company HTC have jersey sponsorships for Cloud 9, a legacy esports team. These sponsorships allow companies to gain nationwide recognition, and potentially international recognition as well if the esports team qualifies for international tournaments. While jersey sponsorships are not as effective as they would be in traditional sports since the camera is not centered around the players, the main reason why they still sponsor esports teams is due to the teams’ strong social media presence. In the digital age, esports teams allow sponsors to target demographics that have been traditionally difficult to reach through standard marketing tactics. Millennials typically watch less television and listen to the radio less often than older demographics, increasing the importance of social media marketing. Players and sponsors will typically collaborate on advertising campaigns; Grubhub, for example, recently posted several videos on their YouTube channel featuring Cloud9 players. Research has found that the average age of esports viewers is 29, with 39% of the total audience in the 25-34 age range, thus illustrating the effectiveness of marketing towards a young audience through esports.
Prize money in esports is increasing at an incredible rate. While prize pools amounted to a mere couple thousand dollars at most in the past, they now reach several million dollars for large competitions. League of Legends for example distributed a total of $4.9 million for their World Championships last year to teams according to their final standings. This money does not go directly to the players, and most of it is absorbed by the organization as revenue. The esports team in this sense acts like a company, with the players as employees on yearly contracts. This meaning that the liability/ownership of any team related events are all held by the team owners. Domestically, teams in the North American League Championship Series (NALCS), after the franchising starting from 2018, are entitled to 32.5 percent of the league’s revenues. Half of this is evenly distributed, while the other half is allocated according to each team’s standings and viewer/fan engagement contribution. The way in which the last component is measured is not explicitly stated, but is predicted to be mainly related with the peak and average viewership of the team’s games throughout the season. The fan base growth incentive is a big priority for the League’s organizers, with several the questions they ask new teams being: How does the team plan to engage with and acquire fans? What’s their strategy for providing value to fans through merchandise, content and other opportunities? Why should fans support them? The league only allowing teams who plan to work on fan engagement to compete.
Each esports team similar to traditional sports offers apparel and other related merchandise. These include jerseys to t-shirts, and also other gaming related goods such as mouse pads which target their unique audience. Teams take various approaches such as the 100 Thieves, a new team formed in 2018, which uses a “hypebeast” style of merchandising, with high prices and limited quantity. This has been very successful for them with apparel selling out within 20 minutes of release. This is not surprising considering the low elasticity of demand that a lot of these core fans have. By setting price high and quantity low, 100 Thieves also attempts to make team merchandise into a Veblen good, a good that is demanded more when prices are high, as the good has value as a status symbol. One issue stopping many teams from getting larger income from this sector is that esports stadiums are still very small compared to traditional professional sports. Since less fans can attend the actual games in person, it lacks incentive for fans to support teams at the stadium by wearing merchandise. A research paper, “Comparison of eSports and Traditional Sports Consumption Motives” by Donghun Lee, Ball State University and Linda J. Schoenstedt, Xavier University, addresses this difference in esports and traditional sport fan behaviors. In their analysis, it is shown that compared to traditional sports, esports consumers spend relatively little on sport merchandise and attendance. Therefore it may be fair to assume that this is not an area of priority from the esports team’s perspective. Merchandise will most likely stay a smaller portion of the team’s revenue in the long run, even as the industry continues to mature, due to the fundamental differences in consumption and fan support as discussed. This fact further justifies 100 Thieves’ stance on team merchandise as a component that improves their team value rather than one that significant profits can be made through.
Although very small compared to the other sectors, esports teams also make money through content creation on platforms such as Youtube and Twitch. Popular teams like Team Solo Mid have regular videos on how the teams are doing, and these videos rack up above 100,000 views each. With advertisement revenues on each view, the teams can keep funding high quality videos. Teams like Team Liquid take this onto a higher level by partnering with 1 Up Studios, an esports production company, showing just how much care they put into this sector. The income from this sector is very small and for some teams is a loss, but its spillover effects are huge in terms of reaching new audiences and expanding their fan base. The fan base, as we can see, being the number one priority in attracting sponsors.
The Cost Side
Many new esports teams require significant investments (on top of sponsorships) in order to pay for the costs listed below. While raising cash for esports teams was very difficult in the past, this is becoming much easier with esports becoming more recognized. Cloud 9, recently raised $50 million through their series B funding round, led by Valor Equity Partners. They intend to use this money in constructing their training facility which they will also use as an office. Individuals are also investing large amounts of money into teams through these equity investments. Entrepreneur Scooter Braun and artist Drake recent became co-owners of the 100 Thieves through it’s Series A funding round. With this addition, this new team has had a total investments of more than $25 million in just one year.
Player and Staff Salaries
As esports becomes more major and accepted worldwide, player wages have increased significantly. While in the past, there were even cases where players were not paid any money other than prize money distributed, nowadays taking the example of LOL, players are paid more than an average first year undergraduate. The current minimum salary of players in the NA LCS is $75,000. Many of the more established players have higher wages, some rumored to go up to a million. This is very similar to traditional sports, where the high competition rewards “superstar” players, giving them significant negotiating power to demand high wages. Another factor for the bidding up of wages is the high labor mobility of esports players internationally, with many teams in the US having players from Europe or Korea. These players are attracted to the high wages and better job security North American teams offer, and are physically able to do so. On the other hand, there are also other costs related with labor, such as coaches and other staff. While these are smaller costs individually, they are larger in number. The number of non-technical staff is starting to increase in supply with the recognition of esports teams as a fairly stable company, so wage growth for these non-player employees is unlikely to match the pace of superstar player salaries.
In order to increase productivity of the players, many of these teams have chosen to take a “gaming house” system, where players live in the same house and train up to 12 hours a day while other living issues are all sorted out by staff including chefs and cleaners. In order to reduce costs in this section, teams like 100 thieves have signed partnerships with housing related companies like Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. On top of gaming houses, other teams have purchased training facilities such as Team Liquid’s Alienware training facility so that they can train in a setting specifically made for esports. This is another example of just how close esports is coming to traditional sports.
As mentioned in the revenue section, while content creation is a source of revenue, it is also an area where teams invest a significant amount of capital and man power. Many teams have marketing teams working with the social media accounts of the team, and graphic design teams to make content such as posters of their players to advertise. The importance of content creation is almost equal to team performance as it is how the team can attempt to gain fan bases. For example, teams like Flyquest while lacking recent success, have managed to maintain popularity by producing content around their veteran players. Though players are the ones operating in the public spotlight, esports teams typically have dedicated teams operating behind-the-scenes to cultivate larger fan bases.
A recent big cost for NA LCS teams was franchising costs. The NA LCS changed the structure of the league by setting the team limit to 10 permanent teams, who will not face risks of relegation as they would have in the past. The cost in exchange for this right was $10 million, a sizable price tag for the organization. This cost is a fixed cost which could be amortized along the many years that the team competes in the league. The benefits of this $10 million is that they can expect to make long term projects around their esports teams, improving them from a mere short term investment. While there are concerns on the league’s level without relegation, it is a format that many major teams in the US use such as the MLB or NBA.
Analysis of the revenue and costs of esports teams we can see that things are moving towards traditional sports with a lot of the costs becoming long term investments into the teams. It can also be seen that with 90% of revenues coming from sponsors, a lot of these costs go into the final goal of making the teams more popular. There are two main ways by which teams can do this, through better content creation and marketing, or by competitive success. The positives are that teams can meet these demands with long term planning now that traditional league structures such as franchising have been implemented. The franchising also incentivizes teams to improve their competitiveness and viewership numbers through prize money distribution. The enthusiasm of new investors and the fact that is it in a small bubble phase right now will also contribute to making esports into a sustainable industry in the future.
A different concern is the demand side of esports, especially whether or not esports consumption will continue growing. Looking at the general trend, viewership seems like it will continue increasing exponentially as shown in the data provided by Newzoo. However it is necessary to understand the reasons for why these people view esports and if it will continue.
An interesting study shows the differences in esports and traditional sports’ consumption. The report “What is esports and why do people watch it?” by Juho Hamari, Max Sjöblom, attempts to explain the reasons for viewing esports through the Motivational Scale for Sport Consumption (MSSC). They found that from the components of MSSC, watching sports as a means to escape everyday life, knowledge acquisition related to the sport, novelty of new players and teams, enjoyment of aggression and the aggressive behaviors the athletes exhibit, were the four highest positively and statistically significantly associated factors with the frequency of watching esports. What is particularly interesting is that this last factor, the aggression enjoyed by viewers is something that become less visible in traditional sports as they become modernized. For example, Major League Baseball has taken major steps to reduce injuries at the plate, with them implementing the collision rule in 2014 which penalises physical contacts on purpose at home base. Many sports are also implementing video replay systems in order to accurately penalize rough plays, this being emphasised most recently in the Soccer World Cup. This aggression on the other hand is automatically implemented in most video games in the form of kills or attacks. Famous esport games that build around aggression include shooting games like Counterstrike or more mild games like Fortnite. What this means in economics is that esports and traditional sports are not substitutes to each other from a consumption perspective. Therefore there will be no need for esports to steal consumers from traditional sports, reducing one of the huge potential obstacles to esports expansion. However, this also means that esports will need to make conscious efforts to amass their own consumer base as it will not simply be able to attract the same consumers as traditional sports, one of the major issues the franchising of League of Legends is attempting to tackle.
In conclusion, the demand (viewers) and supply (esports teams) for esports seem to be moving towards a more sustainable growth model with the supply side understanding what their priorities should be – competitiveness and popularity, and incentivizing it through methods such as franchising and prize money distribution. It should also be noted that while using the word “sports”, there are key differences in consumer behavior that push it into prioritizing sectors such as content creation over merchandise. Performance may catapult esports players to initial fame, but it is personality that keeps viewers coming.