Esports are set to become much more professional in the years ahead. Initiatives in the Netherlands and elsewhere should make competitive gaming more interesting for players, viewers and advertisers. Corné Dubelaar, esports business developer at the digital firm Triple in Alkmaar, looks ahead.
“In another year or two, the market for esports will be mature enough for good ideas to start generating decent money,” says Dubelaar. “Right now, it’s really about conquering a position in the market. Triple’s owners, who are all passionate gamers, believe in the future of esports. They hired me, a former professional gamer, to set up the esports branch of the company. They said ‘You find out what the market’s like, decide what’s in it for us, and roll it out’.”
The first tangible result of Dubelaar’s quest is Team Gullit, the first-ever independent academy based on EA Sport’s FIFA game. The academy gives young esports players the opportunity to train under professional guidance. “Ruud Gullit stopped by our office one time when I also had a trainee visiting,” Dubelaar explains. “He was a thirteenyear- old and a big fan of the FIFA game. We asked him whether he recognised Ruud. “Yes, that’s Ruud Gullit,” he replied. He then proceeded to list all of Ruud’s statistics in the game. He was too young to have seen Ruud play football for real, but because of FIFA he knew everything about him. It struck me that this was an opportunity. Ruud’s fame may be waning among younger target groups, but in FIFA he’s still wildly popular, so we came up with the idea of building an esports team around him. There are lots of talented young kids around who aren’t yet able to join a professional esports team, and we believe that Team Gullit can help them bridge the gap between their bedrooms and a professional team. Youngsters are certainly interested in joining a professional esports team; we had 4,000 responses within 24 hours and applications are still trickling in every day. It’s true that we have to reject 95% of them, but we’re tracking the 5% who remain for our Team Gullit shortlist.”
Esports is a highly competitive and demanding environment. Getting to the top requires enormous dedication, which means it can be challenging to combine with schoolwork or a job. “From the outset, we’ve made a point of communicating with parents to ensure that our esports players are well balanced both mentally and physically,” says Dubelaar. “Besides spending time gaming, we encourage them to play (physical) sports themselves and to keep up with their schoolwork.” The future will show whether a generation of players can build lasting careers in esports; worldwide, only a few have managed it so far. The most well known example is probably Daniel ‘Artosis’ Stemkoski, who became a commentator after a successful career as a player. Dubelaar’s colleague, Maarten Sonneveld, has shown that a lasting career is possible in the Netherlands. “Maarten started out as a trainee in Triple’s marketing department, but we soon saw that he was a whizz at FIFA,” says Dubelaar. “He turned his skill into a job and has advanced from player to Team Gullit’s trainer/coach. I predict that genuine training programmes or alliances with top sports schools will make esports more professional. In five or ten years, we’d like people who want to be the best in esports to think of Team Gullit straight away. They should see us as the esports equivalent of the Ajax youth development scheme.”
Team Gullit is Triple’s first attempt to crack the esports market. There will soon be other teams, not necessarily related to FIFA or the Netherlands. “The Team Gullit concept can be applied to other games as well,” says Dubelaar. “We can also roll out more tools designed to improve esports players’ skills. Another initiative we’re working on is an esports news platform. There’s a lot of esports related information available all over the place, but we’re concentrating it, enriching it and building a backbone that brings tournament organisers, players, viewers and advertisers together. The demand is there, but the Dutch esports market is like a campground: the grass is neatly mown but the tents haven’t been set up yet. Opportunities abound but only a few parties are actively exploiting them. I think Dutch level-headedness plays a role. American companies are much more willing to take a chance on an esports initiative. I talk to a lot of Dutch organisations that would really like to move into the esports market, but then they ask me for a zero-risk business plan that guarantees profitability from day one. That’s just not going to happen. You have to invest first.”
Looking ahead, Dubelaar predicts that the most important change over the next few years will be a shift in marketing budgets. “Traditional media, such as television, radio, newspapers and magazines, are all losing ground to online media. That’s causing a lot of brands to ask where they can best spend their budgets, especially the ones whose target groups are male, 15 to 35 years of age, well educated and interested in IT. Television is no longer reaching that group, but esports is. I think that by partnering with esports, brands will be able to connect naturally with their target group.”
In other countries, especially South Korea, esports events are not only streamed online but also broadcast live on television. Their markets are big enough and mature enough to support this. Dubelaar thinks that will eventually happen in the Netherlands as well, but he questions whether television will still exist in its present form by then. “Esports is growing steadily in popularity here, so there’s certainly some interest in making linear TV esports programs. Still, we have to think hard about whether it’s actually such a good idea. After all, our target group hardly watches TV – instead, they follow esports on Twitch (an online streaming service for computer games, ed.). So why make a program for a medium that young people don’t even watch? I understand the reasoning: a television programme can generate advert deals, but you can close deals on other channels too. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a shift here as well, especially because the decision-makers are getting younger. Right now, a lack of awareness still plays a role. For example, many of the current decision-makers have never even heard of Twitch. I think that’s pretty significant. Besides Twitch, Twitter and Instagram are important social media outlets among esports players. They follow one another on Twitter, for example, and use Instagram for behind-the-scenes and casual photographs.”
The online esports experience has also led to a number of popular offline trends. “Here in Alkmaar, for example, esports players get together on Saturday mornings to play Fortnite and other games, and then they play football afterwards,” says Dubelaar. “It’s like a sports club for them, a place to go. The gaming arena in Alphen aan den Rijn is another interesting initiative. It’s a physical space equipped with PCs and PlayStation consoles where people can drop in any time to play with friends. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of these in a few years’ time.”
Dubelaar’s final prediction concerns the influence of the digital world on the real world. “Football players are already selling their image rights to EA Sports in exchange for cash,” says Dubelaar. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they started making more demands about protecting their identities in the game, for example to boost their statistics and get selected more often so that their marketing value improves. That is how FIFA can influence football players, clubs and potential transfers in the real world. Football agents and club decision-makers aren’t aware of this yet, but that’s where we’re headed. We’re already working with a former football agent to set up our own agency; we’ll contribute our knowledge of esports and FIFA, and he’ll contribute everything he knows about clubs, contracts, talent development and negotiations. Together, we can launch a business in no time that has all the necessary expertise.”
Founded in Alkmaar in 1998, Triple’s services include concepts & creation, product development, video and streaming, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, esports and data analytics. Triple works for a host of different A-list brands, including Vodafone, RTL, Heineken and Max Verstappen. It believes in long-term partnerships based on trust and innovation in a rapidly changing world. For more about Triple, visit www.wearetriple.com.
Entertainment & Media Industry Leader in the Netherlands, PwC Netherlands
Tel: +31 (0)88 792 65 20