Establishing eSports in the UK

Establishing eSports in the UK

Chester King, founder and CEO of the British eSports Association, explains why competitive video gaming is proving serious business for those involved…

A lot has been made of children spending too much time on video games over recent years but could it help turn your child into a sports star of the future?

eSports contributed almost US$500m to the global economy last year and is expected to reach the US$1.49bn mark by 2020, according to the latest research by Statista.

But what are eSports? Well, contrary to its name, the UK Government has in fact ruled that competitive video gaming isn’t actually a sport but a mind game.

Basically, teams of professional gamers who are paid to train day-in-day-out and are put on strict fitness and nutrition regimes similar to professional athletes, compete against one another for cash prizes.

The industry has proven to be a huge hit in Asia in countries such as South Korea, Japan and Singapore, in North America and even European countries such as Poland, Sweden and Denmark.

However, the UK is only just catching up on its counterparts as eSports continues to grow in popularity. So, just how big of a business could this prove to be for the economy?

We caught up with Chester King, founder and CEO of the the British eSports Association, the national body for eSports and competitive video gaming, to find out.

He told BQ: “We see eSports as a credible activity in its own right. We’re not trying to replace or rival sport but are trying to promote eSports as a beneficial alternative to passive media. 

“There are some really brilliant skills learned from playing eSports and our definition of eSports is human vs human playing competitive video games. 

“They aren’t games of chance but games of skill. We’re positioning it as a mind game or mind sport, sort of like a Chess 2.0.”

When it comes to sport, there aren’t many businesspeople out there with a pedigree similar to Chester’s. After graduating from Roehampton University in 1993, he joined the family company, International Group.

International Group is a global business which owns and operates country clubs, hotels, wellness facilities across the globe and also helps run events and hospitality businesses for companies from a range of sectors.

Through his work with the International Group, which Chester is now co-owner of, he has worked with some of the world’s top sporting brands and has really made a name for himself in the industry.

For example since 2002, Stoke Park (owned by the International Group) in partnership with ACE Group, has hosted The Boodles tennis challenge in June of each year, the week prior to The Championships at Wimbledon. 

Players have included: Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic, Boris Becker, Tim Henman and Pete Sampras.

And on top of this, Chester also played a key role in the creation and marketing of Wembley Stadium’s Corinthian Club (now called the Bobby Moore Club). 

He created the logo, all of the marketing material (above and below the line), the marketing strategy and customer journey planning for the Club from December 2004 to the opening in May 2007. 

So why the switch from traditional sports such as tennis and football to eSports? He explains: “I have two teenage children and my eldest, my son, is an avid gamer. 

“Over the years I’ve been watching him play on different games and saw how he was competing. He was quite a good amateur player. 

“But it wasn’t until one day when my brother-in-law and I, who is devout for Sky Sports News, were chatting about eSports and noted how there were a few things we thought it was lacking. 

“They had done a brilliant job, the publishers and the media platforms, but what it was lacking in the UK was a national body and also national teams to represent the UK on a global stage. 

“We had some good meetings with the Government and met with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) two and a half years ago. 

“We mentioned our ideas about doing some stuff in Rio but there was no national team and as a parent I explained how there was no guidance for parents to find out which eSports were the best and how to go about getting my children involved. 

“We were trusted with the authority from the British Government and then in 2016 the British eSports Association, which is a non-profit organisation, was born. We’ve now just applied for charitable status which if we get it next month would make us the first to be done so in eSports.” 

The ‘FA of eSports’ as I like to think of it is a not-for-profit organisation designed to support and promote grassroots eSports in Britain. The aim is not to push eSports as a sport, or as a rival to traditional sport, but as a credible activity in its own right.

However, one of the major challenges Chester and the team at British eSports have had to overcome, has been changing the perception of eSports among the general public. Much has been made over recent years of kids spending too much time on computer games but it could also be argued that it has its benefits.

Working alongside the government and some of the country’s top university’s and colleges, the team are currently in the process  of finishing some pretty in-depth research which proves eSPorts can have positive cognitive and other benefits when practiced in moderation. It also proves that eSports promotes teamwork and communication, develops communities and provides jobs.

Chester said: “We went to the eSports community and said ‘look, if there was to be a national body, what would you need from us?’ In the UK there are around six million people that play or watch eSports and the main feedback was ‘how can we help on grassroot development?’ and ‘how can we help govern?’ 

“We aren’t trying to govern the publishers because we feel they do a great job but we are trying to help schools and universities to create a structure and offer training and coaching to create British global champions. 

“We want to help with grass roots development, help raise funding and also promote eSports as a great activity and part of a balanced life when applied in moderation as well as creating British champions. 

“We have got a great advisory board now with experts from across the industry from journalists to developers and gamers and they’re all working on a voluntary basis to help give that bit of legitimacy to the eSports industry. 

“I think we’re about six months away from having some really good evidence from pilot studies and research we’re doing that will prove that eSports in moderation are better for children than watching TV or sitting on social media.”

The skills children pick up and develop from playing eSports are also rubbing off on other industries. In fact, McLaren recently became the first Formula 1 team to enter the eSports arena, announcing World’s Fastest Gamer – described as the world’s most intense and demanding competition for virtual racers. 

It’s a contest that will see the winner offered the best job in eSports – a role with the Formula 1 team as one of its official simulator drivers. The winner will be offered a one-year contract with McLaren to work in an official capacity as a simulator driver. 

They will then work with engineers at the McLaren Technology Centre in Surrey and at grand prix circuits across the world to develop and improve the machinery driven in the real world by the team’s drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.

And this is just one example of how transferable the skills are into other sectors. Chester added: “I was recently talking to someone who is in charge of recruitment for the army and he told me how they are now looking for people that have better dexterity and people who are gamers tend to have better dexterity. Surgeons need good dexterity as well. 

“There is also a shortage of people with cyber skills in the UK and if you’re playing a game which is based on online problem solving then we’re developing these skills subconsciously. We have people with great cyber skills playing thee games who could ultimately become cyber professionals.”

And aside from developing skills in young people and also creating professional gamers, the industry is becoming  a real wealth creating sector in its own right and could soon be boosting the UK economy by tens, if not hundreds of millions every year.

Chester said: “There are a lot of production jobs in eSports. At the live events, when you host one, you’re putting on a live stage event. You have on-stage people called Shoutcasters who are live commentators as well as desk analysts, commentators for online and also the set up of the technical and production sides. 

“There are around 60-80 people working on the production of eSport events. You’re translating the commentary into about 20 languages, you’re broadcasting it online and sometimes TV, you have marketing, PR, nutrition, there’s a huge list of roles. We have a huge section on our website highlighting the different roles. We now also have headhunters who purely recruit for eSports.”

There is also huge potential for the players themselves to make serious money, as Chester explains: “In the UK at the moment there are two major companies, FNTC and Digitas. The way it works is players get paid a salary and also receive a cut of the prize money. 

“The highest paid player I’ve heard of earns up to about £250,000 as a basic wage a year and has incentives on top of that. In the UK, the average salary is around £20,000-£30,000 and then they also get 80% of the prize money from tournaments. 

“If you win the big tournaments, such as the US$9m tournaments, you’re earning a lot of money. Most people are earning a good living as they live in gaming houses where their food, accommodation and clothing is paid for. 

“At the elite level, you can earn very good money. Riot, the company who owns League of Legends, has salary bands for its teams, similar to the NFL, and do a great job. Traditionally people think that eSports players lose their skill sets in their early 20’s but the reality is that there really hasn't been the money there for people to carry on their careers. Once they leave University they have to get jobs to support themselves and their families and thats where they stop spending so much time on games.”

Which begs the question, why do so many young people drop out of competitive gaming once they finish education? Well, up until recently, it has been quite hard to break into the eSports industry and many have chosen to follow other career paths which may be worth less but could be seen as more sustainable.

However, Chester and the team at the British eSports Association, are confident that they can help change this stigma and turn eSports into a sustainable industry with real potential.

He said: “If it is to take off in the UK it is down to one thing. As a country we’re obsessed with sport and if it is to take off we need a couple of believer brands to help take it to the next level. A bit like Marlboro did with McLaren in Forumla 1 and Sky did with the cycling team. 

“Once businesses start recognising the benefits of eSports and just how big a sector it has the potential to be, it’ll spark a domino effect and more brands will start getting involved and investing. It’s not going to happen without sponsors but once we get a few of the big guys on board I think it will really take off. 

“The profile of the typical eSports player and viewer, 75% of them are male 16-25 year-olds, it’s an amazing demographic. They’re not watching much TV and they’re ready to start investing in their first car, mobile phones and bank accounts, it’s a huge opportunity to tap into this market. 

“I think what’s putting most brands off is the perception that it is unhealthy but we’re currently working closely with the education sector to prove video games aren’t necessarily bad. One of the colleges said five years ago they were trying to prove video games were bad but over the past five months have been proving that eSports, in moderation, is good for you. Once we have validation and proof that it can be good, we’ll start to see brands get involved.  

“I went to an event in March in Poland called the Intel-extreme Masters and over two weekends, 173,000 people attended the event live and 43 million people watched it online. If you’re a business, you have to be looking at these numbers and thinking ‘wow how can I be associated with it?’ One of the industries in particular benefiting is the film industry. Most of the advertising around eSports has been promotion of the latest blockbuster movies, it’s the perfect audience for them to tap into.”

It has now been just over a year since the British eSports Association was launched and having worked closely with the Department for Media, Culture and Sport and the education sector, the organisation has already put some pretty solid foundations in place to help take eSports to the next level.

So, what’s next? Chester concluded: “We are going to announce this year that we are going to create a membership scheme. We’ve done a lot of work with the community to find out what they would like it to look like and done some benchmarking. 

“It is taking a bit of time to get that right and we’re also hopefully going to launch the British Championships this year. However, because we’re dealing with around 30 publishers, it will take a lot of time to arrange. At the moment though, we’ve had lots of positive feedback. 

“We also want to try and increase the number of teams and by working with the industry, Government and education sectors we can make it happen. The more brands that come on board and put money in, the more eSports athletes we’ll start producing.  

“The two largest teams in the UK currently are FNATIC, which has multiple shareholders, and the other is Dignitas, which was bought at the beginning of the year by the company who owns Crystal Palace FC and the San Francisco 76ers baseball team. 

“They have a really amazing philosophy about their team, about nutrition, training, exercise and development, the whole thing. These organisations have five or six different teams or squads within them. They’ll have a League of Legends team, a Delta 2 team, they’ll have sub teams for different games. 

“The reason there aren’t too many teams though is the cost. The cost of running these teams is in the millions. They pay wages, cost of travel and living, the costs are really high. But working together with the industry, we believe we can change this and start producing some great British eSports players for the future.”

Interested in finding out more? Here's a clip of one of South Korea's top eSports events...