With 2.2 billion fans worldwide and $124 billion in revenue, professional sports is big business. But ask Mike Sepso, senior vice president of Activision Blizzard Media Networks, and he says that's nothing compared to the potential of e-sports. By 2017 alone, Sepso says, there will be 2.1 billion gamers on the planet, who between them will generate more than $107 billion in revenue—and just keep climbing from there.
The key word here, though, is "potential." Right now, the e-sports market is worth $463 million—small potatoes compared to what a regular professional sports league generates (like the MLB's $9 billion in annual revenue). There's just not a lot of excitement around e-sports right now. That's something Activision Blizzard is trying to correct with EVE (Event Viewing Experience), an e-sports broadcasting platform that aims to give gamers the equivalent of what ESPN gives to sports nuts.
E-sports, otherwise known as professional gaming, is a purely digital form of athletics in which teams of video game players compete with each other in organized league play. E-sports has been around almost as long as gaming: Atari held a Space Invaders Championship all the way back in 1980. In the late '90s, games like Quake and Starcraft became so popular that e-sports became formalized, eventually leading to the creation of the first e-sports league, Major League Gaming—which Sepso cofounded. These days, there are hundreds of competitions each year, where thousands of e-sports athletes compete in dozens of games for prize jackpots that can sometimes reach the high six figures. These competitions, in turn, are sponsored by gaming publishers and hardware markers, which treat the streaming video footage of these matches as a form of publicity.
Although there are plenty of places to watch e-sports online, like YouTube or Twitch, the problem EVE is trying to solve is a complicated one. Viewers' appreciation of sports is going to ultimately be dictated by their knowledge of the significance of what's happening: Watching a game of baseball isn't very exciting if you don't know why all those fat guys with mullets are running around that diamond. But in the case of traditional sports, like baseball or football or hockey or basketball, a hundred years of cultural osmosis guarantees there's probably someone in the same room with you who can explain what is happening, and why it's important.
That's not the case with e-sports. Even though the top players use a lot of skills that can be transferred across different titles, the popular games change rapidly, depending on what new games are published in a given year, what publishers are sponsoring a tournament. An e-sports player might be playing Counterstrike one day, Modern Warfare the next, and Overwatch the day after that, with each game having its own rules, goals, and levels. Add in different gameplay modes and variants—there's a huge difference between Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and Capture the Flag— and e-sports broadcasters have to spend all of their time explaining the rules of the game to the people watching at home.
But broadcasters' time would be better spent on narratives, insists Sepso. "Most people don't really follow sports because of the technical capabilities of the players, or the strategy of the coaches," he says. "They follow drama and storyline, heroes and villains. We love the story of sports." Stuff like: Will Kevin Durant carry the Warriors to next year's NBA championships? Is Kobe Bryant really retired or will he come back? Will Rex Ryan finally throw over the regime of Bill Belichick?
And so on. That story is something sports broadcasters only have the bandwidth to convey because they're not spending all their time explaining the significance of what just happened in the game: The graphic overlays do most of the heavy lifting for them, keeping the viewer informed of data like player scores, team location, and stats. If it's on the screen, it's important.
That's what EVE is. A graphical overlay system, like the one you might see on Fox Sports or ESPN. EVE works by tying right into the code of a game, spitting out real-time stats, facts, scores, and trivia about a given game or player, which are overlaid on a live e-sports broadcast. So if a player is making a run for the flag in Team Fortress 2, EVE might spit out some stats on how likely the player is to capture it, given his career performance; or if a player gets a headshot in Counterstrike, EVE could immediately tell viewers at home what percentage of headshots that player has made in the last 30 days. The overlay gives you the significance of the play immediately.
In practice, the interface looks a lot like what you see in an NFL or NBA broadcast, just layered over a video game screen instead of live footage. It can obscure some of the details of a game, true, but there's a tradeoff: In many cases, EVE can explain more about what's going on in a game than the game itself—especially since, in gaming, user interfaces are usually limited to the perspective of a single player, not all the players of the game.
By automating stat-crunching and putting it on screen, Sepso hopes that e-sports announcers can really delve into the drama of the game. "That's what announcers are good at," he says. "Are the players pissed at each other? Is this player on fire, or is this other player performing badly because his girlfriend dumped him 30 minutes before they match? That's the kind of thing we want to know as fans."
It's also important from a business perspective: Arguably, e-sports hasn't taken off the way physical sports has because the players "feel" anonymous. Compared to the strutting, posturing titans of the field or court, e-athletes are rarely seen on screen and their personalities aren't often discussed. They just don't have good branding. EVE opens this up, not just by making it easier for announcers to tell stories about the personalities involved in any given game, but by constantly putting a player's physical face and reactions on the screen, alongside the game play.
Whether this will actually work is anyone's guess, but Sepso seems confident that e-sports has just as much potential as physical athletics. "We think e-sports is a multibillion dollar industry. We think next year, there will be 300 million global viewers for e-sports in general. We're at a tipping point, where e-sports are ready to be a business in and of itself." The only question, as far as Sepso is concerned, is how much EVE can and will do to tip e-sports into the mainstream once and for all.