Should we be talking less about esports and more about streaming?

As I was sitting back eating my popcorn and watching the latest Twitter debate regarding the Tfue/FaZe Clan saga a couple of days ago, this tweet from Tempo Storm owner Reynad caught my eye:

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Reynad was making a point about esports salaries for mediocre players, but what I found interesting was that he used “players with under 50k followers” not “players with X esports accomplishment” as the proxy for what constitutes a mediocre player. The main barometer by which Reynad judged a player’s worth to his organisation wasn’t how many tournament wins they have or how much prize money they bring in, but how many Twitch followers they have.

And you know what, Reynad’s probably right. In a business that runs primarily on sponsorship and advertising dollars, a player’s ability to draw eyeballs on Twitch is probably far more important to a team’s bottom line than that player’s competitive gaming accomplishments.

While being good at the game is an important part of what they do, for a lot of players (or should I say personalities) in gaming, especially the really big names like Ninja and Tfue, competing successfully in an esports setting comes a distant second to building their brand and getting viewers for their streams, where they make their real money.

This is fundamentally different from traditional sports, where on-field success is a pre-requisite to marketing success. LeBron James is the most marketable basketball player in the world because he’s generally acknowledged to be the best basketball player in the world. If he didn’t win a bunch of championships and put up ridiculous stats, he wouldn’t be the marketing juggernaut he is.

That’s not true for someone like Ninja, for instance, who is not by any means the best Fortnite player in the world (don’t get me wrong, he’s very good, but there’s a lot of players out there who are as good or better than him and more accomplished in competitive Fortnite), but is nonetheless by far the most famous and marketable name in pro gaming. Unlike LeBron, guys like Ninja and Tfue didn’t get where they are by succeeding at their chosen (e)sport competitively, but by being good at building their brand and providing an entertainment product to their viewers.

Indeed, aside celebrity pro-am tournaments that help get his name out there, Ninja by his own admission does not participate in esports on at a high level because the practice would interfere with his streaming schedule. Similarly, Tfue recently announced he will no longer be participating in competitive Fortnite because he makes more than enough money in streaming and content creation. If I had to come up with a traditional sports equivalent to this, it would be LeBron James quitting the NBA in order to focus on putting up YouTube videos of himself playing basketball against random people on street courts across the country. Not going to happen.

Indeed, the most successful personalities in gaming today have a lot more in common with talk show hosts or (*sigh*) social media influencers than professional athletes. They provide a nightly entertainment product and try to maximize their audience. Competition, of the kind we associate with traditional sports (or esports), doesn’t figure much into what they do.

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The future looking us in the eyes.

I think this is something that needs to be more widely acknowledged, as it’s key to the direction the industry will be heading in the coming years.

It’s been pretty clear for a while that there’s a lot of people out there who like to watch other people play video games, and we’re basically seeing a new form of entertainment evolve based on this fact. Until recently, though, I think the general assumption has been that the main way people would consume gaming content would be through watching people play competitively in “traditional” esports tournaments and the like.

However it’s looking more and more like that’s not true (for instance, Ninja had three times as many viewer hours watched on his Twitch channel last year as the entire Overwatch League) and that in the future the majority of the viewer hours, and thus money and attention, will go to the streaming and content generation side of the industry, rather than the pure competitive esports side.

All of this is to say is that maybe we should stop talking so much about the esports industry and start talking more about the “digital content creation industry” or some such, of which esports is a subset, as that certainly looks to be the way the wind is blowing. 

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