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Re:Cover Predicts: Major Esports Growth in 2020

Before getting into the article below, we at Re:Cover want to apologise for our lack of articles over the last year. While a huge passion of ours, life kept us incredibly busy last year. We both saw growth in professional and personal lives, and with the new year starting, what better time to start up the site again. We will continue to write risk/cyber focused articles, but will mix that in wit general esports news and chatter for topics that pique or interest. Thank you to our readers, we hope to provide more content in the upcoming year.

The turn of the new year brings with it opportunity for continued esports growth and development. With the traction esports gained last year, including the highest ever prize pool (~US $15.5 million) given to Origen for wining the DotA 2 international, we are on track to see continued growth for esports at large in 2020. However, not all indications are positive. Below, we have provided our own predictions for growth or decline in five major esport titles for 2020, with a short rationale explaining our thoughts and analysis.

Note: DotA 2 and StarCraft will be included in future articles.

League of Legends

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The League of Legends World Championship hosted in Paris. Photo courtesy of Independent.

Projection: Continuous steady growth

League of Legends (LoL) celebrated its 10 year anniversary last year, and continues to be one of the most dominant esports worldwide. LoL esports now supports multiple tournaments including: seasonal leagues in all major and most minor regions, world championships, mid-season invitationals (MSI), rift rivals and all-stars events (among others). The World Championship – the largest LoL event of the year – saw record numbers of 21.8 Millions Average minute audience and 44 million peak concurrent viewers. Both numbers are up from 2018. Esports Charts, a website that performs in-depth analysis of viewership statistics, compared the 2018 world championship to 2019 and noted that peak viewership increased 94% and overall hours watched increased 66%. From the worlds viewership statistics alone, it could be easy to conclude that LoL is in for another great year; however that wouldn’t be telling the entire story.

In-line with the viewership increase, the major regions noticed improvement and investment across the board in 2019. The LPL (China) launched dedicated esports stadiums for teams on a city-based model, mirroring that which we see in conventional sports. The European league (LEC) re branded from EULCS in a long-term partnership model with record-breaking seasons. LCK (Korea) is now hosted at LOL Park in Seoul, a newly developed esports stadium. The LCS (USA) continued to increase their corporate partnerships with Honda joining Statefarm and Alienware as major sponsors. Riot Games also globally partnered with major brands this year including Oppo and Louis Vuitton, releasing a clothing line and in-game cosmetics with the latter.

While the world championship and major regions are flourishing, some minor regions, notably the Oceanic region (OCE) is suffering. The opportunities available to players and teams alike in OCE is dwindling, with Riot Games ending team stipends and removing player minimum salaries ahead of the 2020 season. Viewership for the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) peaked at 14,778, a tiny figure compared to those put up by other minor regions and major regions. As a result, many of the OPL’s talented players are seeking opportunities abroad, with seven players now playing in the LCS, LEC or NA Academy (ry0ma – 100 Thieves, FBI – Golden Guardians, Lost – TSM, Triple – Flyquest, k1ng and Fudge – Cloud 9 and Destiny – Origen). In terms of overall League of Legends esport success however, this is merely a drop in the ocean and should not impact the global LOL environment in any meaningful way.

As part of Riot Games’ 10 years celebration, they teased a range of new games that will be released in the upcoming years including a card game (Legends of Runeterra), a first person shooter (Currently dubbed “Project A”), an unnamed fighting game and what appeared to be a MMORPG. Combined with the recently released Teamfight Tactics (a chess like top-down strategy game-mode), Riot Games have created unbelievable excitement for their future releases. Re:Cover esports predict that League of Legends will continue to grow in-turn as Riot Games other genres attract newer players to their games, including LoL.

In summary, the continued growth of LoL esports tournaments, corporate partnerships and upcoming Riot Games releases should bolster the already strong hold League of Legends has on the esports landscape. The lack of investment in certain parts of the environment is worrying, but will not slow the growing titan.

What we would like to see

Riot Games manage all leagues, tournaments and league affiliates for the current League of Legends environment. We are Re:Cover would love to see Riot release the choke-hold they have on LoL esports and allow more opportunities for international tournament play, especially for teams that do not qualify for worlds or the mid-season invitational. A return to tournaments like IEM and Dreamhack offer the perfect opportunity for mid-table ranking reams to bolster their brands, or for high-performing teams to increase their international exposure (the last time League of legends was played at an IEM tournament was in 2016). The players and teams would also benefit from the international experience, and new jobs and opportunities would be created for on-air talent.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

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Team Liquid win the IEM Grand Slam. Photo courtesy of IEM.

Projection: Rapid Growth

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) esports has been defined by team dynasties for the last three years, with Astralis, Fnatic, Ninjas in Pyjamas, MIBR (formally SK Gaming) and Team Liquid all having their moments of magic and chances to lift the trophy. 2019 saw Team Liquid beat out previous record holders Astralis to obtain the fastest “Intel Grand Slam” (Winning four of seven possible IEM events), completing the feat in just 63 days. Astralis came back with a vengeance and won consecutive tournaments to close out 2019 and cement themselves as the super team heading into 2020. CS:GO has established leagues (notably ESL Pro League) for North America, Europe, Asia and other regions, but also has an impressive number of international events – IEM, Dreamhack, BLAST Pro Series, CS_Summit and Valve supported Majors.

2019 was a successful year for CS:GO. The IEM Katowice Major eclipsed all other events during the year, clocking in over one million concurrent viewers at its peak. According to Rivalry.com, The ESL One Pro League Season 9 Finals peaked at 422 590 viewers which made it the second highest viewed CS:GO tournament after the Major. According to ESL, the pro-league doubled its viewership from 2018 and ESL’s major tournaments increased viewership 90% across the board. Furthermore, Counter-Strike offers paid competition at varying levels, not limited to just the top teams competing in select tournaments each year. CS:GO has thousands of smaller, local events every year, with varying prize pool sizes. While each individual tournament does not garner thousands of views, combined they all contribute to the growing CS:GO esports environment.

Counter-Strike has existed long before the other esports mentioned in this article, cementing itself and an esports staple and proving that it is not going away anytime soon. With the increasing popularity of esports across the board and copious amounts of  tournaments held each year, we predict 2020 to be a huge year for CS:GO. The varying formats and rise and fall of popular teams keep the professional scene interesting for existing fans while the easily understandable game play and map objective make it a great entry point for new esports viewers.

What we would like to see

More esports related content. Due to the lack of heavily promoted leagues like in League of Legends and Overwatch, it is more difficult to find player/team related content that helps fans relate to players at a personal level. A FACEIT player profile for Robin “Ropz” Kool (mousesports) and an Intel Gaming exposé of Nick “Nitr0” Canella (Team Liquid) are perfect examples of content that allow fans insight into players lives, mindset and motivation. Re:Cover are keen to see more of this.

Overwatch

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The Overwatch League Challengers Australia 2018.

Projection: Stagnation

Overwatch League (OWL) started in 2018 and has shown continued growth in 2019. In September 2018, the league announced that eight new teams would be part of the OWL in 2019, with new teams based in USA, Europe, Canada and China. Looking at the viewer statistics for the OWL grand finals in 2019, the event drew in 1.12 million average viewers, up 16% from last year. Additionally, the league as a whole noticed an 11% increase in viewership for 2019 in the young adult demographic.

However, it was announced recently that many of the on-air talent including casters Christoper “MonteCristo” Mykles and Erik “DoA” Lonnquist and host Chris Puckett for the OWL will not return next year citing “Creative and philosophical differences”. The departure of some of the most prevalent members gives fans cause to worry about the future of the league, and the direction Activision-Blizzard are taking.

Reddit user “TheGasManic” made a comment on a thread in the Competitive Overwatch subreddit discussing MonteCristo’s departure and criticism of the subreddit’s analysis (). TheGasManic explains their opinion that:

the only press you can ever trust from publicly listed companies are quarterly and annual financial reports and investor briefing materials. Disclosed audience size and engagement metrics have been declining for almost a year.

We noticed that when doing research for Overwatch league metrics, we had a much harder time finding meaningful season statistics, and the numbers above are limited to the grand finals and certain demographics where a positive trend is demonstrated. TheGasManic continues:

Management adjusted financial outlooks down in 2019 and despite beating targets are still down YoY (Year on year). That likely means heads will be rolling internally, cost cutting will be in full force and creative control will be nearly 0 (zero) across the majority of titles. This is clearly my personal opinion, but it is backed up both media releases and leaks and based on multiple years of personal experience in big corporate.

TheGasManic continues to argue that the OWL is most likely focusing on immediate revenue rather than long-term growth, which may be why the league has seen many departures within the last year.

While the OWL grew 16% in total last year, the difficulty of finding meaningful metrics and statistical breakdowns of seasonal viewership make it hard to draw any conclusions on the extent of the success. With game developers and on-air talent departing the league citing creative differences, fan concerns that the league may be headed in a different direction could be valid. Additionally, it is unclear whether the drama surrounding Activision-Blizzard and the Hong Kong protests last year has played a role in decreased OWL consumption. OWL does have a solid foundation of dedicated fans, and the city-based team support model seems to be working so far. As such, we believe that viewership will remain constant; but unless Activision-Blizzard alleviate the concerns of OWL talent, players and fans, it is unlikely that OWL will continue to grow.

What we would like to see

Open and honest communication from Activision-Blizzard and the OWL league. Fans are entirely justified to worry about the future of the league with the vast talent departure from the league. Some clarity around the future state of the league and community input into what models would work best for viewers would go a long way.

Fortnite

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Fortnite Chapter 2. Photo courtesy of Gamespot.

Prediction: Decrease in viewership

Fortnite is the most popular esport title in the battle royale category, with Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf famously winning US $3 million dollars at the Fortnite World Cup last year. This win saw the 16 year old launched all the way to rank 12 on the top 100 highest overall esport earners, behind only DotA 2 international winners. For a single tournament, this level of winnings is unprecedented, especially in the first few years of an esport title’s tenure. The gargantuan prize pool points directly to the investment being pumped into the Fortnite professional scene, mostly by Fortnite’s developer and owner – Epic Games.

Fortnite’s growth was astronomical when the game caught traction with mainstream media. Boosted by streamers such as “Ninja” and “Tfue”, the game saw a massive spike in viewers in early 2018, before reaching its peak in July 2018, exactly when the first Pro AM event was held.

The Fortnite Pro Am held in 2018 reportedly drew in 1.5 million viewers, a staggeringly high number for the first major event. However, according to statistics posted on GitHyp, viewership dropped by 72% for the 2019 event, despite the high-stakes prize pool. This is supported by twitch viewer metrics for the Fortnite category as a whole which shows a steady decline in viewership since peaking in July 2018, with a sharp decrease occurring in August and September of 2019. Despite Epic Games efforts to keep the Fortnite content interesting by introducing “Chapter 2” earlier this year, the viewership has continued on the same downward trajectory.

Despite a loss in viewership, the most recent metrics Re:Cover could find for play count indicated that Fortnite’s player base continues to grow, totalling over 250 million in March 2019. As these metrics are nearly a year old now, it is hard to tell if this data set is still relevant, or whether it filters out inactive accounts. Regardless, Epic Games will need to innovate in order to see a rise in Fortnite professional viewership to ultimately return to 2018 levels.

What we would like to see

Something different. Fortnite is plagued by the fact that it is an esport that is more suited to playing rather than watching. The spectator model for Fortnite has not been perfected, and nor has the esports tournament design. Additionally, the battle royale category has suffered a decrease in players and viewership in late 2019, which could further impact Fortnite’s success.

Call of Duty

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The upcoming COD league. Photo courtesy of dexerto.

Projection: Early rapid growth with a steady decrease in late 2020

Call of Duty (COD) is venturing into a league format akin to the leagues adopted by League of legends and Overwatch. The COD league will consist of 12 teams in a franchised model, with each team paying roughly US $25 million to secure a spot. The intent behind the franchised model is to appeal to investors who may feel that a franchised ecosystem is a safer investment than a tournament based model (and judging from the recent success of LoL and to an extent OWL, this logic is sound).

The COD league should push call of duty esports further into the limelight for esports fans and investors alike. While a league previously existed, with additional tournaments hosted by Call of Duty World League (CWL), the league was primarily used for Call of Duty Championship seeding. With the introduction of the COD league, the league will have a greater impact on teams earnings and reputation, with the ultimate objective of winning the league via playoffs.

The announcement of the franchised COD league has been met with mixed emotions from COD esports fans. While players in the league will be compensated through salaries and job security is relatively guaranteed (as long as the player performs), the format leaves much to be desired. The COD league limits teams to competing only within the league, eliminating the highest COD talent from participating in externally-hosted tournaments. Furthermore, fans fear that the competition may be decided early in the season, and as the playoffs are based on placement during the regular season, there may be no incentive for lower seeded teams to compete once they can no longer realistically challenge for playoffs.

Additionally, many fans and pros feel that the current Call of Duty “Modern Warfare” is not ready for competitive play. According to professional players “FormaL” and “Karma”, the current map selection is not up to standard. Additionally, the game is plagued with bugs including poor spawn locations on certain game modes including “hardpoint”, a competitive staple. Fans also cite overpowered weapons and sub-optimised private servers as concerns that may prevent the game from ever truly being an optimised esport unless addressed by the game developers.

What we would like to see

Active support from the game developers. Call of Duty has the potential to be a widely consumed esport if the game developers helped iron out the bugs and glitches while focusing more effort on balancing the game to better suit the professional scene. We feel this is unlikely however, as Call Of Duty has a history of generally catering to the more casual player and focusing on releasing a new game roughly every calendar year.

Have a topic in mind you would like us to write about? Want to learn more about cyber security and how you can increase good cyber practices at your esports organisation? Feel free to contact the Re:Cover team at recoveresports@gmail.com, we are always happy to answer any questions you might have.

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