Ralf Reichert saw a future in competitive gaming back in 2000, long before eSports became a global phenomenon. The CEO of ESL, the largest eSports company in the world today, was in Katowice, Poland for the fifth straight year earlier this month. He’s watched as Katowice grew from an Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) tour stop experiment into the largest attended eSports event in the world for four consecutive years. Katowice has been home to the IEM Finals, where the top teams in League of Legends, StarCraft II and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are crowned. This year, over 173,000 people attended the event at Spodek arena and the Katowice International Congress Centre, which was built to support IEM. An additional 46 million tuned in to watch the competition.
With a contract to remain in Katowice through 2019, Reichert talks to [a]listdaily about the potential of replicating the success of this eSports competition and accompanying IEM Expo in other cities, in this exclusive interview.
How challenging is it to pull off an IEM event with a partner city like Katowice, especially given this year’s two-weekend schedule?
It’s a logistically monumental thing to do. About 1,100 people were working for us over two weekends and more than 4,000 flights have been booked for this event. So, it’s just a big thing. It’s probably as big as—from an organizational standpoint—as the Super Bowl, although I don’t know the exact numbers. It’s very different from the past expectations—that an eSports event is just a small thing. This is a global scale event, on a global scale logistics level, being organized with a draw of more than 100,000 people. You can’t find a hotel room within a 30-mile radius.
How do you envision this model from Katowice being replicated on another IEM tour stop or across another ESL brand in the future?
Our goal is obviously to replicate what we built in Katowice. It took us five years to get where we are, so the first one was much smaller. Other major events we’re doing in the US specifically is New York. We did this now for the third year, and we were sold out in a much smaller arena, but we sold around 8,500 tickets. So, it’s on its way there. It’s probably taking a little bit longer just because of the population around the city. If you look within 250 kilometers around Katowice, more than 50 million people live there. So the spread is actually extremely high in terms of accessibility. In New York, there’s a little bit more than 30 million people living in the same distance. So it’s logically a little bit harder, and much harder in places such as Cologne, where we managed to sell out with 14,000 people last year. That’s already one step further. We believe that with consistency, we can grow other events in terms of the model with the experience around it. Achieving the same level is a different question because Katowice became a European phenomenon where everyone wants to be, but we at least want to get close. And we believe that is possible.
What does the IEM Expo, which is a separate event, add to the attendance numbers?
The experience around it would start with the expo, which goes through the additional tournaments across other games. Then it goes over to where the YouTubers meet up, which then has cosplay contests and many different activities, comparable to a trade fair meets a festival. This is absolutely what we need to work on and improve for the other events, but that takes time as well. It’s not as easy as shouting and everyone comes. It’s really a give and take of the value you create, and then the bigger draw it gets, the more on-site activity you can do. Those on-site activities make it a better experience, which then draws more people.
What are some of the challenges that need to be overcome in areas like Brazil and Manila, where the infrastructure for big eSports events isn’t necessarily there yet?
That is just a question of iteration, honestly. We don’t plan to do Manila and Brazil this year, but we’re pretty sure that we want to try it next year again. The biggest lag there is technical infrastructure. That is the number one thing. We took a lot of learning from last year.
That’s when the internet went out during the tournament, right?
Yes. That happened, and there are ways to overcome it, but we want to plan well so that as these problems occur we’re prepared. But we’ll definitely go back to these places. We’re not only coming back to these places, but we’re going to three new places this year with Resorts World Genting (in Malaysia), The Verizon Theater in Dallas and Barclaycard Arena in Hamburg.
Manila is ESL One, where the model is to stay and come back the next year. Brazil specifically was ESL Pro League, which is more of a traveling thing like the Super Bowl. So, we’re moving that to Dallas and later this year, we’ll be going to Sydney with IEM.
Team NRG owner Andy Miller said that the new Sacramento Kings stadium was designed for eSports. What role do you see modern or retrofitted arenas playing in the growth of eSports?
For a stadium, it goes back to value and convenience. I’m pretty sure no one really knows yet how an eSports stadium should look like. A football stadium had a couple of hundred years to iterate the right model. So, it’s super interesting to see these things—super interesting for us to do something there—but I’m pretty sure we’re at the very start of that journey and that an eSports stadium in 10 years will look very different.
What he’s referring to is that it’s not solely built for eSports, right? This is a multi-purpose stadium, which has specific features built for eSports. That’s obviously an advantage that people will figure out who are great at building these arenas and improving them, how to make them even more eSports-friendly in that it will hopefully lead to more eSports events, and therefore for more content and bigger crowds.
What impact do you feel the recent Twitter livestreaming deal will have on your eSports events moving forward given the popularity of social media with eSports fans?
We expect it to be big and super successful. ESports has been growing fantastically on Twitch reaching more than 100 million people a month. For the next phase, and to reach the growth everyone is looking at and expecting, you need to go where the people are. We do believe that we can reach a new audience and attract a new audience there. We just piloted it this weekend, so it’s super fresh, but the feedback has been great so far.
Traditional sports leagues like MLB and the NBA have long seasons, but there are off seasons. ESports seems to be going all the time. Is there any fear of over saturating the ecosystem with any particular game?
It’s a very good question. There are not data points really that oversaturation is a problem. Specifically, looking at Counter-Strike, where there have been multiple tournaments going on at the same time, the viewership has been growing in four or five months now even though the amount of content hasn’t been lowered. One of the reasons traditional sports has these long off seasons, and actually this minimal amount of content compared to eSports, is because physically you can’t play more matches. If you look at the research around it, a basketball player can’t go beyond the limits of physical prowess of what they can do. And because eSports is not that physical—it’s mentally stressful—it seems like that barrier of how many tournament matches players can play is much higher. Saying that though, a lot of teams have cut back on the events they attend and the number of leagues they play in so that they can focus more. I do feel that there’s going to be a natural consolidation, where the best products and the biggest prizes will actually win, and therefore that will solve itself to some extent.