The Next Big Thing Started Big

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard | 2.14.2017

Due to my day job, I had the opportunity to spend some time at RIOT Games recently. I knew that e-sports was popular but I didn’t know how popular it was until I spent some time with the RIOT Games folks. Afterwards I began to dig into the sport a little bit more and found some interesting parallels between e-sports the UFC and some of the bigger, established sports like the NBA.

The last ‘big thing’ was the UFC and you could argue that it still is. While the UFC was turned around by the near bottomless checkbook from the Fertiitta brothers and the vision of Dana White, it couldn’t have made it without the rapid adoption of the Internet in the mid to late 90’s. From bulletin boards to chat rooms to user groups, it was this medium that helped keep mixed martial arts alive while White and the Fertitta’s fought to get back the UFC back onto pay-per-view in the early 2000’s.

Full disclosure, I was a UFC employee from 2006-2013. 

Fast forward a decade and a half or so and e-sports is the now the next big thing. While the ‘athletes’ in e-sports wouldn’t last 30 seconds in the Octagon with a UFC fighter, most UFC fighters wouldn’t do well against any of these gamers either. But the Internet and global distribution are what both have thrived on.

It was a long, hard slog for the UFC to build up its global network. They built the brand up in America first and then slowly but surely locked in TV deal after TV deal in various countries around the world while also expanding their online distribution footprint to the point where they launched UFC Fight Pass in 2014.

E-sports on the other hand started globally because it was born online. From Asia to the Americas to Europe, it has been a global sport since day one. It is a sport that is thriving on over-the-top (OTT) networks like Amazon’s Twitch and Google’s YouTube.

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While networked gaming goes back two decades (LAN Party in the dorm anyone?) it has flourished in recent years drawing in several big name investors and sports organizations along the way to the point where the NBA is seeing this as a new vertical for the league and it’s teams.

Recently the NBA announced a partnership with Take-Two Interactive to launch a professional e-sports league with teams managed by current NBA franchises.

While other mixed martial arts organizations existed, the UFC was the premiere player. E-sports on the other hand have several big name players from the start like RIOT Games and Activision | Blizzard to name a few. Now with addition of the NBA and major soccer clubs like Ajax and Manchester City, there are multiple behemoths battling it out in the space.

The NBA wasn’t the first to see the benefit of e-sports or sign a major deal. RIOT Games, maker of League of Legends, signed a deal with the Big10 not too long ago to broadcast games between school sponsored teams. So Rutgers may not have a chance against Ohio State on the football field, but in League of Legends, only time will tell.

The investments by the NBA, soccer clubs, and the Big10 makes a lot of sense. Live sports have been under fire for a couple of years now. While previously seen as ‘DVR proof’, the recent decline in TV ratings for the NFL and the decline in attendance at sporting events has sent the leagues, conferences and even teams scrambling to find avenues of growth. While starting an e-sports team does not in anyway correlate to increased TV ratings or more butts in seats at a Denver Nuggets or a Purdue football game, it does provide the leagues, conferences and teams a chance to not fade into irrelevancy and leverage existing advertising and marketing partners by providing them a young desired demo.

This is good news for consumers and players in the e-sports realm. There is choice, diversity and no one entity running the show. It also means that e-sports will succeed by whatever revenue standard you put up against it. Wall Street and the NBA have a tendency to not bet on things that are doomed to fail and anytime you get college kids involved, there is no telling the innovation and growth e-sports could really have.

The NBA partnership with Take-Two and the RIOT Games deal with the Big10 can be a blueprint for other leagues and conferences to follow. If these can show short term success and projected long term growth, others will quickly jump on the bandwagon.

E-sports has an opportunity to be the biggest “sport” in the world due to it’s immediate global reach and massive backers. It is doing it differently by not having a concentrated center of power, an individualized rule set for each game and it’s reach across every existing sport and continent. Drop in the explosion in OTT providers from Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Live and you have the makings of something that can, over time, do something that UFC set out to do, eclipse soccer as the world’s dominate sport.

Further Reading

SF Chronicle

Venture Beat

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