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‘The bang for buck is so much greater’: Blast’s Robbie Douek evaluates esports’ 2021 prospects

The esports tournament organiser’s CEO previews the year ahead and looks at how competitive gaming can continue its upward trajectory after making a mark during the Covid-19 pandemic.

2 February 2021 Ed Dixon

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Few of us will look back fondly on 2020, so you have to admire anyone who can find the positives in such a bleak year. One of those people is Blast chief executive Robbie Douek.

“As a full year goes, it's been pretty damn successful,” he tells SportsPro. “We've sustained and increased growth, we've done some incredible things. On the whole, I'm very happy with the end result.”

Douek, who took up his new role at the esports tournament organiser in August 2019, is bullish and upbeat when reflecting on his first full year in the job. Over the course of 2020, Blast produced more than 800 hours of esports action – more than six times the amount in 2019 – and clocked up over 146 million views across its owned channels, with tournaments broadcast in 105 territories.

Indeed, Douek’s comments largely reflect the mood within the wider competitive gaming industry. Things have been challenging and unprecedented, but opportunity was still there to be grasped.

“If you'd have said to me at the start of 2020 that we'd be facing a global pandemic and then what that would mean to our business, to the ecosystem that we're working in, and the global state of the economy, I'd have said you were absolutely nuts,” Douek continues.

“As soon as we saw the reality of the situation we just completely pivoted our business to go fully digital. We'd spent so much time on the road in 2019. So then to actually not spend barely any time on the road in 2020 and go completely digital actually required quite a lot of groundwork and a decent amount of investment in technology.

“Everyone has moved everything digital, everyone's changed the direction of their business in that way.”

For now, this digital dimension will dominate, as shall a continued absence of packed arenas for the likes of the Blast Premier Global Final, which wrapped up last month, as well as the Premier Spring Groups, due to commence on 4th February. The former, incidentally, included the most viewed online Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) match in history, with a peak viewership of more than 687,000.

But if 2020 was about Blast diversifying its portfolio, which included branching out into the Dota 2 and Valorant titles, as well as producing a weekly show with Amazon Music, what is in the pipeline for 2021? More of the same, says Douek.

“It's about diversifying our incredible broadcasts, our digital product, to enable ourselves to be in further games,” he explains. “We want to develop a relationship with our consumers and our audience in a way that we've been able to do throughout 2020, but enhance that and continue to improve on our broadcasts and production.”

Growing Blast’s global fanbase is also on the to-do list, as is building on the company’s burgeoning brand footprint by attracting further investment. Last May, during the height of the pandemic’s first wave, the Danish and UK-based organisation secured €12.5 million (US$15.2 million) in a financing round. That momentum seems to be showing no signs of stopping.

“If you were to pin it down in a nutshell, I'd say we're looking at Blast being across multiple esports titles,” says Douek. “We're really investing in our technology and our ability to engage with our consumers through our own platforms. There's more to come in that space.” 

Currently, there are an estimated three billion gamers worldwide. Market researcher Newzoo expects there to be almost 300 million frequent esports viewers worldwide by 2023, with occasional viewers set to reach some 351 million people. One might wonder if Blast will either double down on efforts to appeal to groups familiar with video games, or cast the net wider towards those who cannot tell Counter-Strike from Call of Duty. For Douek, it is not as simple as that.

Blast plans to diversify its digital product and expand into other titles

“It's a tricky one because with esports fans and consumers, and then the wider audience, there seems to be an enormous amount of crossover between all these different sectors,” he notes.

“You can take, for example, people who like music and esports, people who like gaming and lifestyle activations. There is this enormous crossover between everything. It's kind of all moulded into one.

“I think the notion that there's this pocket of esports fans and then there's this mainstream audience isn’t true any longer.

“From a marketing standpoint, that's quite hard and to retain you audience is quite hard because you've got to make sure you've got the best product out there. But we've always set out with the mission that we want to try and attract new viewership to esports and gaming.”

An example of that is with the BBC. In November, the UK public service broadcaster partnered with Blast to show the company’s final three Counter-Strike events of the 2020 season, with more than 120 hours of action appearing on the iPlayer digital platform.

The deal added to the BBC’s growing interest in esports, having also shown coverage from, among others, the Rocket League European Spring Series and League of Legends’ UK League Championship (UKLC).

“I finally got it into my family's head what I do for a living and it kind of took the Beeb to do that,” jokes Douek.

With the BBC onboard, Blast now says it has a global portfolio of TV and online partners that have a joint reach of over 151 million households.

When we back out the viewership that a brand actually gets for the amount they're paying currently, the value is insane compared to what they're spending on traditional media and digital.

Streaming platforms, such as Amazon-owned Twitch, will remain the primary destination for esports viewership. But competitive gaming on traditional broadcasters, while not a precondition for growth, is something we could be seeing a lot more of this year and beyond.

“It seems to me that the traditional broadcasters have realised that audience is very valuable to them,” says Douek. “They're going to lean in and try and create more with the content creators like ourselves and broadcasters with some of that content.

“What is a misnomer, though, is that when we look at our audience figures the core of that is still in the destinations that are specific to where you would watch esports.

“The mainstream stuff is a good validation for the overall growth of esports. But you're still going to see the bulk of your users on Twitch. They will want to go there because that's what they know and love. Although, our YouTube numbers are actually going up and up. Not that our Twitch numbers are going down, but YouTube seems to be making great strides in live.”

Blast chief executive Robbie Douek

So, with linear broadcasters opening their eyes to esports, will more nonendemic brands join them? Activity so far suggests they might. Notably, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) announced deals with Beko, Red Bull and KitKat for its 2021 season.

Adidas has also got in on the act, joining G2 Esports as their official sports apparel provider, adding the team to a portfolio that features soccer behemoths Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

There is clear reason for this influx of investment, as Douek explains.

“The interesting thing here is, when we back out the viewership that a brand actually gets for the amount they're paying currently, the value is insane compared to what they're spending on traditional media, and also digital,” he says.

“If you compare like for like, the bang for buck is just so much greater in esports currently.”

Esports may boast bumper viewership but, in contrast, that has still to translate fully into equivalent monetisation. This delay is partly attributable to Covid-19, but Douek believes the industry will catch itself up, possibly as early as 2022. Until then, he says brands are “getting a bargain”.

Douek hopes to have fans back in venues during the second half of the year

November’s Esports Survey Report, conducted by law firm Foley & Lardner LLP and The Esports Observer, also suggested a continued influx of investment. The study found that 73 per cent of respondents believe the pandemic will lead to more investment and deal activity in esports over the first half of this year, as continued restrictions see more consumers turn to consoles.

However, a note of caution came due to the continued inability to hold large in-person events, which was cited as esports’ biggest challenge.

The importance of getting fans back into venues is all too apparent for Douek, but he believes Blast can cope until that thought becomes a reality.

“This is the million dollar question. I think we'll hopefully be back in a land setting for the second half of the year in some part of the world,” he says.

“Is business going to fall away because we're not in a land setting? No. We can survive. But we do need to get back to normal.”

When that moment does arrive, Douek reckons the public will “absolutely flock to live music, to live entertainment”, adding that esports “fits bang in the middle of that”.

“We're in a fabulous place to be able to entertain the consumers we've got. But it's not a prerequisite to be able to turn on the lights. We can turn on the lights anyway, we can operate remotely.

“I think there's a world of hybrid here that's going to come through. Probably a bit of live with some studio audience. People are going to want to engage with the product but they might not want to be in a 15,000-person arena yet.” 

Douek’s assertions are a far cry from many of his traditional sports counterparts. Mediapro’s Jaume Roures rounded off January by conceding that the Spanish media giant needed to “rethink” its business, following the collapse of its broadcast partnership, worth around €800 million (US$974 million) per year, for French club soccer.

Perhaps even more disparaging were Roures’ thoughts on sports media as a whole. With traditional sport still reduced to a broadcast only product, the chief executive feared this could lead to permanent disengagement, even for a game as universal as soccer.

Blast has renewed its Betway partnership, with esports wagering expected to grow

As for the health of the esports ecosystem, Douek maintains the sector stands “a really good chance at making a great play at the future”.

“What I mean by that is, from east to west, there is so much money being piled into the ecosystem to develop arenas, aspiring athletes, performance centres, cafes, you name it. Pretty much every government now has some form of gaming or esports strategy,” he says.

“So I think you're going to see a cross spectrum of investment that's only going to increase. That will help businesses that are already in the space and it will probably help flush out ones that won't necessarily succeed.”

A potential avenue for further interest may come through betting. Last April, as punters were starved of their usual live action, global consumer surveyors 2CV and market analysts ProdegeMR predicted esports gambling revenue would double to US$14 billion in 2020.

Whether that came to pass remains, for now, unclear. But with the US betting market alone estimated to be worth anywhere between US$55 billion and US$150 billion annually, it is not unfeasible that gambling could be a key player in bridging esports’ vast viewership and comparatively light monetisation.

“We've just renewed our partnership with Betway for the third year. We're really happy with that relationship and it proves that there is value there,” says Douek.

“If you talk to people in the industry, there is a large amount of growth coming from betting on esports. It's a betable event. That is probably going to increase and the opening up of betting in America could also be very interesting from a monetisation standpoint.

“We'll need to meet the requirements and legislation to protect it as much as possible, but I think it’s in a good space at this moment in time. We'll see what happens.” 

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