ESL continued to build on its US footprint with its partnership with the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) for the E3 Esports Zone Powered by ESL last week, a stage that featured Zenimax’s Quake Champions competition as well as Super Evil Megacorp’s Vainglory collegiate championship.
Craig Levine, CEO of ESL North America, told AListDaily that this more formal setting for esports evolved because the ESA heard from more game companies that are now developing titles with competitive features and esports in mind.
“What ESA heard from their members is that esports is a growing part of their business and they wanted to find a way to activate that at E3, the industry showcase,” Levine said. “This event allowed us to take existing games that are out there and showcase some high-level talent and competitions and blend it with that next generation up-and-coming game.”
The fact that the stage was open to the public—15,000 paying public attendees were at this year’s show—also played into this activation, which is part of a multi-year deal between ESL and ESA.
“If E3 didn’t have a public component this year, I don’t think it would have made sense to do this sort of esports activation,” Levine said. “We certainly could have looked to do something a little bit more of showcase, a little more shootout-oriented exhibition style, but having the opportunity for fans as they’re coming in and experiencing and seeing all the new games, to then also get a flavor of what the competitive horizon looks like, makes a lot of sense.”
Quake Champions was shown to CS:GO pro gamers behind closed doors at the Intel Extreme Masters Finals in Katowice, Poland earlier this year. Levine said ESL has been working closely with Zenimax and id Software for several months now.
“On a very personal level, our ESL leadership is comprised of gamers and we all grew up with Quake, so to have the opportunity to jump back in with that arena-style shooter was incredibly exciting,” Levine said. “There’s an opportunity in the esports landscape. You have great team shooters like Counter-Strike, which is a little bit slower than Quake Champions. You have MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2, you have RTS games like StarCraft and you have digital card games like Hearthstone. Now with Quake Champions, there’s the one-on-one gameplay and the new team mode.”
ESL has partnered with Zenimax to host the regional finals for Quake Champions in both Europe and North America to identify the top talent for both the one-on-one and four-on-four team format. They’ll also work together for the $1 million Quake World Championship at QuakeCon in Dallas.
“We’re really bullish on seeing where Quake Champions is today and the opportunity that it has to continue to grow [as an esport],” Levine added. “There’s been an incredible amount of interest from a lot of the existing esport organizations both in the US as well as in Europe. I fully expect there to be a lot of familiar team and player names in this QuakeCon competition.”
With Valve’s CS:GO continuing to dominate the first-person shooter competitive gaming landscape, Levine sees viewership overlap with Quake Champions but not cannibalization.
“What’s so unique about Counter-Strike is the established history, heritage and fandom around it with fans so deeply invested in their favorite players and teams,” Levine explained. “Quake has an opportunity to be an additive in a similar way that new games like Hearthstone or League of Legends created a new segment to appeal to. I don’t think one success is going to come at the expense of the other.”
With the esports audience expected to reach 500 million fans worldwide by 2020, and this year’s Intel Extreme Masters registering as the biggest esports event in ESL’s history with 173,000 attendees and 46 million viewers, Intel has expanded its ESL partnership.
“The Intel partnership is probably the most exciting announcement we’ve ever made as a company,” Levine said. “It really is a landmark deal for us. We’re working together with Intel as our global technology partner, so they’re going to be powering our events, our studios, our broadcasting operations, and really working together to continue to push esports overall.”
ESL and Intel are in the twelfth season of IEM, although Intel’s esports sponsorship predated that long-running global tournament.
“We’re also creating this Intel Grand Slam and the response has been absolutely incredible from the Counter-Strike community,” Levine said. “We’re taking 10 of the world’s biggest Counter-Strike tournaments from IEM, ESL One, ELS Pro League Finals and DreamHack Masters, and the first team that wins four of those competitions gets a million dollar prize bonus on top of the $200,000 to $250, 000 prize purse each of those events has. Counter-Strike has had the biggest growth, thanks to this open ecosystem. This is an opportunity to tie it together with a bigger narrative. Our ambition and hope with this is to create the equivalent of the Triple Crown [in horse racing].”
This expanded brand partnership also opens up new ways for companies to get involved in esports. Levine hopes this Intel deal serves as a blueprint for other companies to follow.
“When you see the accelerated investment and interest from different brands, seeing the success that Intel has had on the market since they entered it is a great example of great success,” Levine said. “They’re like the Nike of esports. They’re doing some incredible programs and they’re committed to the space.”
Although endemic to the tech space, Levine believes Intel’s mass market brand also paves the way for non-endemic brands. ESL has continued its partnership with Mountain Dew for a second season.
“Mountain Dew, Comcast, Totino’s and other non-endemic brands have had positive experiences and it’s our expectation to continue to work together with a lot of those great partners moving forward in different ways,” Levine said, pointing out the Gillette custom razor activation at IEM in Katowice earlier this year. “We have a great platform for brands to really get involved with esports touching everything from the big events to the broadcasts to the influencers in an authentic way. Esports is so quickly moving, so it takes a little bit longer for them to really understand and get comfortable with what that first stepping off point is. But we’re seeing continued interest and expect it to continue to grow.”