Kyle Giersdorf, or Bugha to give him his game name, is US$3m better off after winning the 2019 Fortnite world cup. The American teenager took home the largest-ever payout for a single player in an esports tournament. His win reflects the growing popularity of the game and the power of the esports market. British teenager Jaden Ashman shared US$2.25m with his teammate as the runners-up in the doubles competition.
The finals, at the end of July, followed ten weeks of competition involving more than 40m competitors and a total prize pot of over US$30m. The tournament packed out the 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe stadium at Flushing Meadows, New York’s largest tennis arena.
Fortnite Battle Royale is emerging as one of the most popular computer games with an estimated 250m players around the world. Essentially, it is a First-Person Shooter game (FPS) where players fight to survive in a battle against other human players. Unlike some other games in this genre, such as PUBG or Counter-Strike, its graphics are cartoonish, which means parents of teenage players are less likely to object to the content – it doesn’t look violent of feature excessive blood, bullets and bombs.
Fortnite is rising to prominence in an increasingly lucrative market. Out of 7.6 billion people on the planet, there are approximately 2.2 billion gamers. This includes social gaming, mobile gaming, as well as free-to-play and pay-to-play multiplayer gaming. Of these players, there are about 380m esports viewer fans – 165m of them regular viewers and 215m occasionals.
Epic Games, publisher of Fortnite, attracts players by making the game itself free to play. But they also sell “V-Bucks” to the players, which cost US$9.99 per 1,000 and can be spent on a variety of customisation and enhancements for players’ characters.
None of these influence the actual performance of the character in the battle – accuracy and pace still depend on the skill of the individual competitor. This is similar to most esports titles. But according to research firm Superdata, between its release in July 2017 and May 2018 Fortnite netted US$1.2 billion in revenue.
So what exactly are esports? They are defined as competitive tournaments involving electronic games – especially among professionals. Players compete in leagues or play for an audience on a live-streaming service in exchange for payment, which can range to several million dollars for the most successful players.
Top players and teams are well remunerated. Forbes reported that the “average starting North America League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS) player salary is now over US$320,000, with over 70% of the players performing on multi-year contracts”. An article in Business Insider in 2018 reveals that top teams such as Evil Geniuses earn more than US$10m a year in revenue. This is almost the same budget as a top second division team from La Liga, in Spain.
The recent Fortnite world cup had a total prize pool of US$33m and, as we have heard, the top winners took away several million each. Even players who ranked as lowly as 65-108 took away US$50,000 for their pains.
When it comes to training for competition, you could be forgiven for thinking that esports players are not like traditional athletes, building strength and endurance over long hours in the gym or pounding the streets. But, as the growth in prize money means the potential rewards for success grow ever larger, a new generation of esports professionals is finding that fitness aids concentration. Some of the more successful teams are even drafting in coaches from other sports.
I have connected with several teams and, even in those with low budgets, they are aware of the importance of their physical and mental well-being through nutrition and exercise to perform better in games.
Esports look to be here to stay, but the degree of success will depend on a variety of factors, including general entertainment trends, industry governance and the possibility of government censorship in certain regions. To help the various players in the market understand consumers better and react proactively to changes in the business environment, it is essential to highlight the critical value of esports data – something that I have been researching for some time.
The huge and rapid growth of esports – and the massive revenues this promises – are thought by many industry insiders to be indicative of a bubble. Commenting on headlines which implied that gaming tournaments were “bigger than the Superbowl”, Sebastian Park, vice-president of esports with the Houston Rockets (which owns a majority stake in professional League of Legends team Clutch Gaming) said recently: “When I read a lot of these papers, I don’t know where they derive 50% of those numbers”.
For the health of the industry, it’s critical to be able to establish how different esports industry stakeholders are collecting data and information from the fans to understand their behaviour and consumer trends. There has been speculation that Nielsen, which has been collecting data on TV viewing since the 1950s, is working on a solution. This could be the next big step in establishing esports credibility.