By Jen Booton
AUSTIN, TEXAS – Traditional sports franchises that ignore esports are failing to see the bigger picture and risk being left behind, a consultant for esports’ Team Liquid, partially owned by Peter Gruber and Ted Leonsis, warned last week at South by Southwest.
Nicola Piggott, cofounder of esports communication and consultant agency The Story Mob, said teams ignoring esports are being “irresponsible” and failing to see the bigger picture of how esports are going to become entrenched in mainstream society.
“When it comes to being a traditional sports organization, I think that if at this point you’re not taking that into consideration you’re not being particularly forward thinking,” said Piggott, who previously served for five years as the global communication head at Riot Games, makers of League Of Legends.
One of Piggott’s biggest clients is Team Liquid, which has significant backing from the traditional sports world. Golden State Warriors owner Gruber, Washington Capitals, Mystics and Wizards owner Leonsis and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik all co-chair Axiomatic, an esports and gaming investment group that took a majority stake in Team Liquid at the end of 2016. They’ve found success, with Team Liquid winning millions in prize money after sweeping the grand finals at The International 7 competition last summer.
In an interview with SportTechie in August, Vinik said traditional sports owners are investing in esports because of the “high overlap” between the two competitive sports, particularly when it comes to building loyal fan bases, such that when melded together they can drive synergies for both industries.
According to Vinik, with structure and input from experienced traditional sports owners, esports would eventually benefit from media coverage, merchandise and big-ticket sponsorships, while traditional sports would benefit from the access to esports’ younger demographics and deep streaming experience.
At SXSW last week during a panel discussing the connected future of sports and esports, Piggott said traditional sports teams should at the very least be taking the time to learn about the fan-player relationship of esports, which tends to be more intimate than has historically been the case with traditional sports. Many gaming athletes are in their late teens or early twenties and have grown up in a mobile-first world. They’ve made themselves accessible to fans by streaming their practice sessions and competitions on Twitch, and by oversharing their personal lives on social media. This has, as such, made their fans feel more connected and invested in their personal and professional success.
“The major thing sports can learn from esports is the relationship fans have with their players,” said Piggott. “I’d be looking really closely at how esports is building very fierce communities that are growing so rapidly.”
Andrew Paradise, the founder and CEO of esports platform Skillz and a nominee for Most Innovative Executive at last year’s SportTechie Awards, echoed something similar on the SXSW stage, saying esports teams have reached such success because the industry has supported a tight knit community that connects the player and fan.
Of course, many traditional sports franchises and athletes have already started to take this page out of the esports’ playbook. Popular athletes now interact with fans and share behind-the-scenes looks at their personal and professional lives through social media. Lacrosse star Paul Rabil and soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo have been among those who’ve used social media to build their own personal brands.
“I think players are starting to realize that social media is a way to connect with fans,” Milwaukee Bucks senior vice president Alexander Lasry said on the panel. “It’s something we use to connect with fans and give fans a behind-the-scenes look.”
But Lasry wondered whether esports athletes and teams will maintain the same level of transparency they have now as the esports industry starts to mature. Just as with traditional sports, there’s always the chance that as teams become more convoluted, they’ll start to constrict, he said.
Lasry, who directs the Bucks’ digital efforts and development initiatives, is focused on how to learn from esports’ expertise in video streaming to build the NBA audience. He believes traditional sports need to figure out how to leverage video streaming in a manner similar to esports to reach significantly larger global audiences. That would be particularly beneficial to the NBA, which has the biggest international fan base of any of the big four U.S. pro sports leagues. More fans watch games through NBA League Pass, a regular season subscription package that enables fans to watch out-of-market games, than any one team gets from their in-arena attendance, said Lasry.
“We’re trying to figure out: how do we tap into that market that esports has hit so effectively?”