A Look Back at E-Sports Insights from the 2016 MSBC

In 2016, the Michigan Sport Business Conference hosted its first ever session on e-sports, recognizing the increasing prominence of the industry. E-sports’ massive growth has since continued, gaining millions of new viewers and attracting the business of big name advertisers. To dissect what has caused the ascent of e-sports, as well as its future potential and challenges, it is useful to look back upon the insights from the 2016 panel. Some of the most enduring topics from the breakout session include traditional sports leagues embracing e-sports, and the challenge of turning e-sports into mainstream year round entertainment.

Imari Oliver, Matthew Kauffman, and Happy Walters participate in a discussion on e-sports during the 2016 MSBC.

Traditional sports leagues embracing e-sports

One interesting trend mentioned during the 2016 MSBC e-sports discussion was major professional sports leagues getting involved in e-sports. Panelists talked about how the NBA identified e-sports as a strategic imperative, and cited examples such as the Philadelphia 76ers purchasing Team Dignitas to show how franchises are preparing themselves for the future. They predicted that one day each NBA team might own their own NBA 2K sports team, signifying the league’s embrace of e-sports.

Earlier this year the panelists’ insights proved correct with the launch of the NBA 2K League, which features 17 teams owned by NBA franchises. Similar to the traditional NBA, each team was assembled through a draft, where 102 players were selected out of a pool of 72,000 hopefuls. From there, the league’s first regular season started in May and is scheduled to run through August when a champion will be determined by a playoff. Through its 2K League, the NBA is attempting to generate e-sports content that will allow it to capitalize on the sector’s growth while promoting the sport of basketball.

The NHL joined the NBA in creating e-sports content by launching the first-ever NHL Gaming World Championship this year. In contrast to the 2K League, the NHL solely embraced a tournament-style, single player format with individuals from the U.S., Canada and Europe competing to be crowned the best NHL 18 player in the world. Champions from each region converged for the final in Las Vegas, where a cash prize of $50,000 was given out to the winner. The tournament was successful in generating publicity, backed by the marketing efforts of the NHL and its global partners, including Bridgestone and Honda. Both the NBA and the NHL took ownership of their niches in e-sports, generating a strong entry into the growing industry.

Making e-sports relevant year-round

The NBA 2K League’s structured schedule seeks to counteract the cyclical nature of e-sports content, which was highlighted as one of the industry’s challenges during the 2016 MSBC panel. The reason e-sports tend to be cyclical is that, as the panelists described, the event schedule tends to revolve around a few major tournaments, much like professional golf and tennis. A major tournament organizer is ESL, the world’s largest and oldest e-sports company still in operation. The firm has marquee events scheduled every one to two months, selling out major arenas and revolving around popular games, such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2. In between tournaments, these games have international leagues with regular seasons, but they are currently not as prominent as the regular seasons of traditional professional sports leagues.

While e-sports have similar audience numbers to major sports leagues, such as the NBA, another major hurdle identified by the panel was claiming an equal space in mainstream culture. The challenges of this pursuit were shown early on in e-sports’ rise, when it failed to gain significant respect as a traditional sport and attention from major sport media outlets. Fortunately for the industry, e-sports have made strides in reputational growth since then. ESPN, as an example, now has an entire section of its website dedicated to e-sports coverage, while the industry’s content has spread across social media websites and streaming platforms, such as Twitch. Though e-sports are behind older sports in public perception, the industry is quickly gaining ground in entering popular culture.

Comparing the state of the e-sports industry from 2016 to now shows how it has begun to mature as big names in sport business have moved into field. Not only have major sports leagues, such as the NBA and NHL, gotten involved in the action, but formerly skeptical sport media companies have realized e-sports’ potential and given the industry more attention. With everything taking place, it is no surprise that major brands are starting to move into the field and sponsor teams, events, and individual athletes. With e-sports’ current trajectory it will be captivating to see what happens next.

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