When Covid-19 sparked delays of four Grand Slams, a Euro Cup final and multiple medal presentations, one sport emerged triumphant from the disruption: esports. Given its perfect adaptability for a virtual environment, competitive gaming has become a critical entertainment force for a locked-down world. Now, two years on from the first Covid-19 outbreaks, esports has soared far beyond its entertainment credentials to sit at the forefront of both pop culture and social responsibility.
However, given the speed and unpredictability of both gaming and our post-Covid world, developers have to be agile enough to scale alongside the industry’s gargantuan growth and its consumers’ habits. Through this, developers have the chance to define a new standard of entertainment for 2022 and beyond: one that is a vehicle for good and a force for change.
The recent success of esports can be seen clearly in the numbers. According to gaming analyst firm Newzoo, the global esports audience hit 474 million in 2021, with its revenues reaching almost US$1.1bn. In South East Asia, this appetite for competitive gaming is even stronger: Newzoo claimed that well over half of people in the region’s online population watched game-related video content in the first six months of 2020 as the pandemic took off.
This exponential growth we are witnessing naturally means a flood of competition among players, esports companies and even brands vying for the industry’s lucrative advertising space. Essentially, the last two years have seen the industry become a gold rush, with numerous new teams, companies, and tournaments emerging. Just this month alone, gamers are competing in the first-ever South East Asia eSports Championship.
As with esports competitors, the companies behind competitive gaming need to stay well ahead of their rivals to claim the bigger rewards. In 2021, staying ahead of the curve requires more than just high numbers and chunky prize money: instead, it requires a nuanced understanding of evolving cultural trends and remaining a pop-cultural voice.
Gaming and esports are now recognized as part of the cultural mainstream, appealing to a wide array of demographics and with an even gender split. However, like any sport, only the diehard fans will tune into every match, every replay and every scorecard. For everyone else, there needs to be a vibrant entertainment aspect that can sustain interest far beyond the final boss battle.
And just as with any other sport, gaming boasts its celebrated figures and success stories. Who can fail to be unimpressed by the meteoric rise of the world’s top gamer Kuro Salehi Takhasomi – aka KuroKy – who made US$4.1m this year.
Gaming influencers and online personalities have their part to play in the cultural conversation: this year, 31.6 million followers tuned in to Twitch to watch their peers play League of Legends. Meanwhile, according to YouGov, 9% of consumers across 17 Asian markets follow gaming influencers, with India and Indonesia standing out in terms of numbers.
Gaming creators will not survive unless they can be part of this vast content creation and consumption ecosystem. Leveraging the gaming personalities and engaging widely with consumers will enable gaming companies to stay ahead of this curve.
The pervading gaming stereotypes may seem laughable when breaking down the numbers and demographics of 2021’s players. But unfortunately, these perceptions play out negatively in real life. Compare KuroKy’s multi-million-dollar earnings to the relatively meager US$296k made by the top woman player Sasha Hostyn and you see there’s an imbalance to be addressed. In addition, scores of female gamers are still reporting sexism and harassment on the platforms.
The industry collectively needs to get a handle on these issues and be at the forefront of safeguarding female players, while promoting wider gender and LBGT equality.
Although it is a major issue, promoting equality in gaming isn’t as hard as it sounds for developers; with the amount of audience data available today, developers can tailor games to appeal to a diverse audience, thereby improving appeal and access to bigger gaming experiences.
While many brands may fear to be seen as jumping on the ’woke’ bandwagon, it is clear that aligning with social causes and growing socially responsible teams will place gaming companies far ahead of the mark when history comes to be written.
With Netflix’s burgeoning interest in gaming content and the gradual return of physical matches, it is evident the industry’s growth is far from slowing down. Keeping up with this requires speed and agility, as well as constant engagement with both fans and the wider cultural conversation. With these in place, esports could be the change agent the post-pandemic world sorely needs.
Ferdinand Gutierrez is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Ampverse