2017 League of Legends World Championship marks end of an era
With so much recent esports news coverage focused on 2018 and in particular the rise of franchised leagues in Overwatch and the NA LCS, there has been a general sense that 2017 has been a year of build-up in anticipation for a new era for esports beginning in 2018. In that sense, the 2017 World Finals was a fitting send-off to an era that started with publisher-run video game tournaments attracting a hundred spectators being considered a significant success and ended with professional sports teams clamoring to buy esports organizations and an augmented reality dragon roaring at a 40,000+ crowd in a sold-out Olympic arena.
Given the massive number of League of Legends players hailing from China, the fact that Riot is owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent, and that more than one major esports event has faltered in China due to the challenges of navigating the Chinese market, stakes were high for this Worlds. Riot, however, delivered in spades on one of the most spectacular esports events of its era. The event featured AR wizardry, musical performances by Jay Chou and Chrissy Costanza, elaborate set pieces like a giant replica Summoner’s Cup championship trophy, and a cheering live audience the size of which has not been seen since Riot held its World Championship in the mecca of esports, South Korea, back in 2014.
With all that said, the championship match itself concluded relatively quickly with a 3-0 sweep by Samsung Galaxy in a rare blow and first-time loss in the Finals for SK Telecom T1, the most dominant team in League of Legends history with 3 world titles in the last 4 years.
Faker, SKT’s star player and the consensus best player in the world, showed a rare outburst of emotion after the matches by openly weeping at his computer after the match concluded, needing to be gently prodded by teammates to shake the other team’s hands for the traditional post-game ritual before returning to tears. Faker has never lost on his esport’s biggest stage before, so his outburst was both unexpected and also a rare public glimpse into the level of emotional investment and pride that a world-class pro gamer makes in their craft.
The heartbreak of watching a talented young man who has poured his everything into achieving a goal come up short was hard to bear for some fans, who criticized Riot for lingering on camera shots of Faker crying on the broadcast. Many other fans pointed out that this kind of heartbreak is a part of life, and the fact that Faker is so deeply invested in his craft makes him sympathetic and compelling. Either way, there’s no doubt that 2018 will begin with all eyes on Faker to see how he bounces back from the crushing disappointment of Worlds.
What the updated Overwatch viewer experience signals for the future of Overwatch esports
Last month Blizzard announced a slew of features intended to make the esports viewing experience better. The changes included team uniforms which make it easy to distinguish between teams, a third person camera intended for speedy heroes like Tracer and Genj, an overhead map which showcases macro player positions on a neat interface, and a replay tool that allows spectators to use a free-floating camera to highlight big plays. The features debuted this past weekend at the Overwatch World Cup during Blizzcon to overwhelmingly positive community reaction.
There are a few layers as to why I think these changes are impressive. First, the actual features themselves dramatically improve the viewing experience. Uniforms clearly delineate which team is which and who is winning. The third person camera, by giving a broader view of the action, makes fast-moving heroes watchable. The overhead map gives a clear view of how teams are positioned relative to one another, and the replay tool allows the audience to re-live hype plays. Even though these features don’t yet make Overwatch an amazing viewing experience, Blizzard deserves significant kudos for creating them ahead of their biggest annual event.
The bigger implication here though, is that Blizzard addressed community concerns directly, and included key stakeholders in the process. Hardcore players and casual viewers alike have been screaming about the game’s challenging viewing experience: it used to be really hard to track the action, differentiate between teams, and to easily understand who came out on top after team fights. Each of the new tools addressed a key concern and by openly including top pros and casters in the process, Blizzard proved they really care about the community’s feedback.
Blizzard also successfully communicated the announcement of these features publicly, which enabled this weekend’s World Cup to become the game’s all-time most viewed tournament. The changes were initially announced on October 26, with a social push resulting in the video hitting nearly 600k views. The week after, Overwatch released a more in-depth video showcasing the development process around the creation of specific tools. Again, a barrage of social media support pushed to the video to over 500k views.
With the entire community excited to see how these new features affected the viewing experience, the South Korea vs. USA match on Friday peaked at over 315,000 viewers (not including Chinese viewers) – the highest count of any Overwatch tournament in history.
And while we’re still some ways away from Overwatch becoming mainstream – this weekend’s tournament is just one data point – Blizzard’s willingness to address community concerns effectively, and their expert PR roll out, is a tremendous benefit to the esports landscape as a whole.
The Philadelphia 76ers sign the Independence Blue Cross as the first sponsor of their NBA 2K team
The Philadelphia 76ers, one of 17 NBA teams to join the inaugural NBA 2K league that will begin on May 1st, have begun signing team sponsors for their 2K team including Independence Blue Cross. Per SBD, Independence Blue Cross will receive exposure and activation within the NBA 2K virtual game/arena during 76ers NBA 2K-designated home games, including courtside LED signage and digital content of the players training at the 76ers’ practice facilities.
While HyperX has become the official headset partner of the 76ers NBA team, it will be interesting to see what percentage of new esports team partnerships come from existing sponsor relationships. Given the NBA 2K league is in its’ infancy, it is understandable that some brands would be hesitant about diving head first into a league they don’t know much about in terms of viewership and engagement.
However, despite these initial marketplace challenges, I believe these 2K teams will be valuable to their NBA team’s sponsorship sales teams as they provide novel assets that skew towards a much younger demographic. I think it will be harder to package these assets on their own but could be a nice bonus for NBA team sponsors that are looking to lightly explore the esports space. I am curious to see how the categorical exclusivity these NBA team sponsors are granted extends to these 2K teams. Outside of endemic gaming hardware categories (headphones, controllers, etc.) it is unclear what additional sponsorship categories each team will sell. Will the 2K team sponsor categories replicate the NBA team categories? If so, you’d expect these brands to have right of first refusal on the 2K version of their sponsorship category.
Excited to see how this all develops but I imagine for the inaugural season a majority of 2K team sponsors will come from existing NBA team sponsors.