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Gaming Influencers Are the Future of Esports

Lucas “Mendo” Håkansson was playing video games for work, but he was not having a good time. He’d sacrificed a lot to be a pro gamer, dropping out of high school to practice Overwatch for up to 18 hours a day. When the Houston Outlaws tapped him to play Overwatch professionally in 2017, he was thrilled. It seemed like his efforts had finally earned him his dream job. Then, reality struck.

There’s a reason why esports pros are called athletes. Håkansson’s schedule with the Outlaws was rigid. He woke up, warmed up, and then spent the rest of the day practicing Overwatch in a tiny, windowless room. “It was honestly a miserable experience being there,” he said. His contract limited when he could stream on Twitch; he says he had to keep the focus on the league, not himself. And always, there was the looming fear that if Activision Blizzard, Overwatch’s publisher, tweaked the game too much, he’d have to relearn his top characters—or be out of a job.

After a season in the Overwatch League, Håkansson quit esports to become a full-time content creator instead. He was quickly signed by another esports organization, Team Liquid—not just to compete, but to grow his celebrity as a gaming influencer. These days he plays another shooter, Riot Games’ Valorant, on Twitch, where he has 621,000 followers. Håkansson says he is happier and more stable now, and although the Overwatch League has increased its focus on player well-being, he predicts that more athletes will follow his path. (The league did not respond to our request for comment.) “I think that most people who can, will, if they haven’t already. And a lot of people already have.”

A number of top gamers are quitting esports to pursue what they see as more sustainable careers as Twitch or YouTube personalities. Damon Lau, head of esports at United Talent Agency, says he’s seen a growing number of people make the switch over the past two years. The calculation is simple: They feel they can make more money over the long term and with less grueling schedules by playing games on YouTube or Twitch for their fans. Athletes are looking at their industry, Lau says, and asking themselves, “Why can't I control my own career and control my own destiny and have the opportunity to build a business around myself?”

The shift goes beyond a couple dozen burned-out esports pros. Esports organizations, game publishers, and even sponsors are also slowly reallocating attention and resources from competitive tournaments to video game streamers. The movements reflect, at least in part, serious concerns among esports professionals about the health of their industry, and several told WIRED that they’re investing more in gaming content creators or influencers as a way to diversify their business.

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The esports industry brought in about $1 billion in 2020, according to gaming analytics firm NewZoo. However, historically there’s a lot of skepticism around big numbers associated with esports. For a 2018 report, sources told Kotaku that they believed most organizations’ valuations were inflated. While organized tournaments have drawn crowds of thousands to major arenas, and can reach substantial online audiences via YouTube and Twitter, revenue from live events is typically not enough to recoup their substantial cost. (This was the case even before Covid-19 shut down most large in-person gatherings, although—as in other industries—the pandemic has also accelerated many trends.) Construction costs for esports stadiums or fees for renting arenas are enormous. Players’ salaries can be gargantuan, often over six figures. Plus, buy-ins to big leagues for games like League of Legends or Call of Duty cost millions or tens of millions of dollars. Speaking with WIRED, two sources say most esports orgs operate at a loss.

Publishers too are struggling to recoup their investment in esports. Riot Games head of esports Chris Greeley told WIRED that Riot is “approaching breakeven” on its esports endeavors. And in an earnings document revealed during its trial against Apple last week, Epic Games said it overestimated its opportunities in esports by $154 million in 2019—the year it ran its $30 million cash-prize Fortnite World Cup.

Greeley says that esports is not some stretched-out bubble ready to burst. However, he says, “I think you're going to see a bunch of folks who are pivoting or shifting direction or shifting strategy to continue to move forward, the way any startup industry tends to do.”

Esports organizations typically associated with tournaments are now signing more deals with content creators. (Several top teams declined to comment on this over email.) Instead of competing as part of an Apex Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive roster, these gaming influencers stream on Twitch or YouTube, sometimes just chatting with fans and sometimes playing games at a high level. As part of their partnership agreements, teams help manage these gamers’ businesses, facilitate sponsorship deals, and even provide salaries.

Fielding a roster of YouTube or Twitch celebrities can help teams attract more sponsorship deals, which still make up a significant part of their bottom line. Influencers tend to have larger and more engaged audiences than individual athletes, entire teams, and even whole tournaments. A Call of Duty League tournament might get 70,000 gamers to tune in, but a top streamer like Timothy “TimTheTatMan” Betar approximates that on any given day. For brands weighing where to put their money, those kinds of metrics make the choice easy.

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“It’s all about return on investment,” says Corsair CEO Andy Paul. “What we’ve seen with esports so far is that there’s not clear winners. There’s still a lot of churn.” Corsair’s marketing budget has gone up recently, and Paul says his team has been dedicating a higher percentage of it to influencers relative to esports teams. It represents a shift in Corsair’s sponsorship strategy from esports to content creation. Content creators are more charismatic, easier to identify with. “Once you get an emotional connection with somebody, you’re going to trust them when they say, ‘I’ve been checking out this microphone, and it really sounds good.’” If a streamer is on camera for eight hours using a Corsair keyboard, that’s a lot of exposure for the company. Under the stream, there is an affiliate link. At an esports tournament, meanwhile, it is more challenging for companies like Corsair to measure how many times the camera flicks over to a sponsored player’s headset.

Publishers—for whom esports is, at base, a marketing exercise—also have a lot to gain from an industry trend toward gaming celebrities. Both Fortnite publisher Epic Games and Riot, with its new shooter Valorant, are taking a more influencer-focused approach to esports. Fortnite’s 2020 Creator Cup gave viewers prizes for rooting for and watching their Twitch streamer of choice. For Valorant, which does not yet have a franchised league, Riot Games is supporting third-party tournaments for both content creators and esports stars. The publisher is also hosting watch parties, with top streamers like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek airing tournaments on their own streams and watching along with their fans (and sometimes earning more viewers than Riot’s own channel). Riot has several times chosen top streamers over esports pros as co-streamers.

“Folks on the content-creator side are bringing audiences that might not otherwise watch Valorant,” says Greeley.

For esports athletes, the shift comes with some risks. While influencers may help esports attract more sponsorships and viewers, some teams are dropping their rosters entirely for popular games while their bench of content creators balloons. And not every pro gamer who wants to can make their own switch to streaming, the way Håkansson did a few years ago. Succeeding on Twitch or YouTube takes more than some skill headshotting opponents. You need a certain charisma to retain audiences livestreaming when there are so many other options available. “They're simply just like different careers, even though fundamentally both are still playing video games,” says UTA’s Lau.

At the same time, esports’ embrace of content creators may open up the industry to new kinds of gamers. Players from underrepresented backgrounds don’t always feel supported in traditional esports leagues, even as they try to diversify. Some of them have found more success, and felt more comfortable, in streaming.

Take Ally Warfield. She was invited to join Magic: The Gathering’s pro esports league in 2019, after receiving the most tournament points of any woman in the world—as she refers to it, “the discretionary woman invite.” At first she was elated, but then, Warfield says, she had difficulty finding a consistent practice group among other pros, who were mostly older men. She felt extremely alone, especially after the league’s two other women left. (The league did not respond to a request for comment.) Warfield lost her spot in the league earlier this year, and with it her main source of income.

“I felt like I was set up for failure just from the get-go,” she says. Now, Warfield streams a variety of games on Twitch, including Valorant, and is planning on pursuing it as her full-time job.

Updated 5-13-2021, 10:58 am EDT: We removed a line from the original story that incorrectly said Epic Games brought celebrities like Travis Scott and Marshmello to compete in Fortnite for its Icon Series; Scott and Marshmello were in the game to perform music, not play competitively. 

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