The Superbowl is known for being the annual event of the year in the US, with a staggering viewership of 100 million back in 2019. That same year, the competitive gaming event ‘League of Legends’, run by EXCEL ESPORTS, surpassed the famous sports event, drawing in an audience of over 103 million. So, as the gaming industry grows to £228bn worldwide in worth, what is the future for digital sports, versus the traditional?
At Chief Disruptor LIVE, we sat down with Co-Founder of EXCEL ESPORTS, Kieran Holmes-Darby, to hear about how the company was born in the local pub, what it meant to be digital-first, and the future of the gaming industry.
To kick things off, could you give us an insight into what EXCEL ESPORTS is?
Of course! EXCEL ESPORTS is ultimately competitive gaming in all areas - whether that’s a group of friends playing FIFA, or the League of Legends championship (which is watched by a higher volume than the Superbowl), our organisation includes every level that competitive gaming can be.
That’s incredibly high viewer ratings! What’s the story behind EXCEL ESPORTS’ growth?
I grew up playing video games with my brother, where it became the main thing that kept us bonded while we lived in opposite ends of the UK. Through those experiences, I found competitive gaming, which involved small prizes in tournaments. I did very badly, but met lots of people who were talented at it. As all good ideas happen (in British pubs), I spoke with my brother and realised there was an avenue for us to explore. We saw these concepts of gaming competitions were popular in Asia… so why not the UK?
Gaming is a huge market - bigger than film, television and music put together! So we decided to set up EXCEL (more as a hobby project at this point because I was still at university). As I finished my degree in 2017, there was an opportunity to make this full time, and in the last 3 years, the company exploded. Despite the pandemic, competitions could still go ahead, making the industry hugely more attractive during lockdowns.
So would you consider esports to be disrupting the traditional sports industry?
In terms of disruption, definitely yes. But I think in terms of being a competitor I’d say no. I believe esports and traditional sport can co-exist quite happily! I grew up playing both sports and video games, as with many kids growing up, so neither industry feels like a threat to the other. I would say, from a business perspective, we learn a significant amount from practical sports, including both their models but also mistakes. Saying that esports is its own phenomenon and should be treated and regulated differently, while still taking key learnings from different industries.
Let’s focus on those learnings for other industries - what can those outside the esports world take from what your organisation has achieved?
From our approach of development, we’ve been digital-first from the start, and natively our audience was anyway. I think that’s where traditional sports are looking at us for lessons to be learnt.
We did still have to adapt massively quite quickly too during the pandemic - we were putting on live stadium events, with incredible production quality. Of course, this had to be scaled back and be done remotely. We had to learn, but we adapted and we’re lucky to have the skills set in our industry to do so.
With such large-scale events, why don’t more people know about it? Are you looking to expand into other audience groups?
We are looking to focus on the new generation coming through because they seem to be the new audiences emerging, so we need to ensure we’re engaging with them in an effective way. People may not know about our events because they’re more niche, but as soon as you’re in the know, you soon realise there’s a great deal going on in the esports world. With how many people are part of this community, I’m not sure how it can’t be classed as mainstream anymore!
How do emerging technologies relate to how esports is being shaped today?
In terms of VR in gaming, we’re not there yet - there have been a few games that have been created well, but the technology isn’t fully up to scratch in order for it to be an immersive enough experience. So from a perspective of playing the games, we don’t want to include that aspect until it can promise a high enough engagement. However, from a viewership perspective, it’s super interesting especially in traditional sports, because there is an opportunity to increase spectator numbers and create higher revenue that way.
It will be even more innovative for gaming, with the potential for people to import themselves into competitive gaming events and watch that way. As soon as someone nails how we can do this, they will not only make a lot of money, but it will be the way forward. So VR will likely become more successful for the audience rather than the gaming itself.
Where do you see esports going in the next 10 years?
It’s a good question! My answer might surprise you because of how digital-first we’ve been so far, but I think esports will be on people’s doorsteps and at physical events as time goes on. We do a great job of being engaging online, but you can’t beat bringing people together to share a passion.
Kieran Holmes-Darby joined us back in October for Chief Disruptor LIVE.
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