Esports have grown massively in the past twenty years. There was a time when professional gaming could only support a few large tournaments. The first major for Counter-Strike was all the way back in 2001, and boasted a $150,000 prize pool. By comparison, by 2019 the Intel Extreme Masters Season Xlll – Katowice Major 2019 offered a $1,000,000 prize pool, and that was only one of multiple majors in 2019 for just Counter-Strike.
Suffice it to say, esports is much larger and can support far more players, teams, and tournaments now.
With the increasing number of legitimate esports organizations, players, and events looking to get involved in the esport market, esport organizers are starting to look for ways to sustainably expand the reach of their games. Rather than holding simple qualifying tournaments, esports leagues are trying to build out regional league structures that can compliment their national or international competitions.
Regionalization is becoming the norm in top level esport leagues such as Overwatch League, Overwatch Contenders, Rainbow Six Siege, Call of Duty League, and the League of Legends European Regional League. The phenomenon brings a lot of challenges, but major esports organizations believe the benefits are worth the daunting task of regionalizing their competitions.
Regionalization happens in most sports where players are expected to play more than five or six times a year. Regionalization brings a lot of benefits to traditional sports and many of those benefits may translate into esports.
Here are a few of the benefits which regionalized competitions bring to esports.
Regions are best for the players
With the ever growing demand for esport competitions, many fans want to see their favorite teams playing consistently. Consistent play within an international event is very challenging for players. There is a reason the Olympics and FIFA World Cup don’t happen every year.
International travel is exhausting, international events are hard to organize, and the expectation that you will travel massive distances every week or every couple weeks for 6-8 months at a time is daunting to say the least. By making competitions regional, esports organizations can adapt to their players needs to create a sustainable travel schedule and also hold events that don’t require massive stadiums to pull off. Smaller events are just easier to organize.
Players don’t have to travel exorbitant distances to face their regional rivals, unless your regions were organized by Activision Blizzard (Got em). Regions can be helpful in avoiding the all to common visa issues involved with international tournament play.
Regions even help players gain recognition through success on their smaller circuits. Regional championships may be smaller events, but being a regional champion means something. Winning a division, region, or sectional tournament is a feather in the cap of players, even if the ultimate goal is still to win a major championship.
Not only can the regions be used to reduce the total travel, they also leave the flexibility within the region to do what’s best for their players without having to ask if that model is best for everyone.
Rainbow Six Siege’s regional structure, for example, comes with uniquely organized regions. The Latin American region plans to use primarily offline competitions, whereas their the Asia-Pacific region is planning on doing an online league. These can differ because they are serving two different markets with different needs.
I think that the flexibility available within a regional structure is essential to making esports capable of responding to diverse player needs in an ever-changing competitive landscape. In turn, this makes esports more sustainable for players.
If we made competing in esports a better experience for players, maybe we could stop the 19-year-olds from retiring on their laurels after second season in LCS.
Regions are best for the game
One of the coolest aspects to esports is the diverse playstyles, strategies, and flavors that different teams bring to the table. Regions contribute to the diversity of strategies, by offering a variety of test chambers for competing metas to emerge.
When America beat Russia to win the 1980 Olympic Gold medal in Hockey, what made that game so unpredictable was the clash of styles. America had an aggressive, blunt style of play, while the Russian team was more nuanced and finesse-focused. The resulting match-up was incredibly interesting to watch, because the teams play styles were so different.
As the old saying goes, styles make fights.
Hosting purely internationally focused events can reduce the diversity of playstyles into a single meta-game, simply doing what is best for the international scene. What is best for the international scene, however, is not necessarily what is best. Regional competitions develop metas separately, leading to more diversity when those big tournaments do finally come around.
I think that playing in regions encourages more dynamic counter-play. When diverse strategies meet at the national or international level, they create for more interesting tournaments through competing stylistic match-ups.
Regions are best for investors
Finally, for the only one that matters, it’s all about the money. Expanding esports to include more competitions at local, regional, national, and international levels is always going to be good for investors in the esports space. One of the key selling points of OWL’s localized city model was that it could bring in fans who otherwise would have never cared about esports.
If there are casual Cincinnati Reds fans, why couldn’t there also be casual New York Excelsior fans?
In Goldman Sachs 2018 report regarding esports, the report authors directly compared League of Legends esports and Overwatch League with the “four major western sports leagues.” The report pushes for a regional league infrastructure which can be elevated to the level of traditional sport broadcasts.
According to the investment analysis, not only does a regional franchised league bring in fans, it also offers more local opportunities to capitalize on those fans. Along with Overwatch League’s homestands comes ticket revenue, merchandise sales, and of course regional media rights which are the bread and butter of professional sports broadcasting.
Media rights are very valuable according to Andy Miller, the cofounder of NRG eSports. In an interview, he stated that he thought media rights would be the largest revenue stream for esports over time. Miller explained, “It’s so global, and the numbers are so big. I look at different opportunities we have with Overwatch League, where we sold the rights to Twitch deal in North America, and there’s other folks who are carrying this on terrestrial, and streaming in Korea and China. I only think we scratched the surface.”
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By focusing on the various regions and divisions the OWL has created around the world, they are able to sell a variety of lucrative media rights deals with relevant audiences in different regions around the globe. Regionalized competition creates interest in an esports league, while only having to deal with the headaches of international tournaments a couple times a year.
On top of the fiscal logic, investors also understand the traditional sports model better. It was wise for Activision Blizzard to push a more traditional league approach. Sponsors and investors are already confident in that approach, because it’s worked before.
Frankly, investors aren’t comfortable with non-traditional ideas. Esports is a scary thing to invest in, even when the numbers are clearly screaming that esports is an amazing opportunity. In the past few years capital has been flowing into the esports companies, even as the esports industry has been gaining legitimacy.
Goldman Sachs seems pretty sure the Activision Blizzard’s regionalized franchise model will be the blueprint for Esports in the future. I can’t say I disagree. Regionalization seems like a great way to sustainably host an internationally focused Esports league without burning out players or scaring away investors.