The Rise of Influencer Esports
Ninja Vegas 18, an esports event held at the Esports Arena in Las Vegas, NV, this past weekend featured a Fortnite tournament open to members of the audience and “consisted of a mix of Ninja fans, casual players, semi-pros, and world-famous streamers. Ninja even had a bounty on his head; killing him in-game netted you $2,500, while winning a game also earned you a separate $2,500. Everyone played live, at dedicated machines set up and wired on a private network on the floor of the Esports Arena.”
Hats off to Esports Arena and Tyler “Ninja” Blevins for an incredibly successful and innovative event that bucked many of the established norms around what an esports event looks like.
This past weekend fans watching the hybrid entertainment x competitive esports event Ninja Vegas 18 glimpsed a potential future for Battle Royale esports events– and professional teams played a surprisingly limited role in it.
The traditional model of top-tier esports is so team-centric (see: NA LCS, OWL, The International, CS:GO Majors, etc.) that when a hybrid event like Ninja Vegas 18 happens, it’s not surprising to see fierce debates erupt about whether the event is an esports event or not, as happened in this instance.
In fairness, League of Legends, Overwatch, CS:GO, and DOTA are all 5v5 or 6v6 team games, whereas Battle Royale games like Fortnite are a fundamentally different genre which feature solo free-for-all, duo, or squad King of the Hill playmodes. Still, squad play has been seen by many as the most likely mode to popular as an esport, but Ninja demonstrated the power of solo, team-less play this week.
As a real-time competitive gaming event that rewarded winners and was spectated by hundreds of thousands, there is no doubt on the part of this author that Ninja Vegas 18 was an esports event.
However, unlike traditional esports events which focus on showcasing high-stakes, top-level competitive play, Ninja Vegas 18 was a hybrid entertainment/competitive event which clearly prioritized covering fan favorite influencer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins over everything else.
If there was any doubt about that dynamic after seeing the name of the event or the stage set-up, which featured Ninja on his own personalized set-up in the center of the arena, the coverage left no questions. The event stream was focused on Ninja at all times when he was alive, even if there was more action presumably happening on other parts of the map.
Gunfire in the distance while Ninja is chopping down a tree? The in-game POV is staying on the tree. Ninja silently crouching in a fort while chaotic action is taking place elsewhere on the map? The observer is staying on Ninja. Ninja’s been killed in-game? He is either commenting on the action or being asked questions by the casters, but as for the player camera? You guessed it…
That said, it’s hard to imagine that kind of focus on Ninja wasn’t exactly what fans wanted. The event peaked at over 680,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch, dwarfing regular viewership for premiere franchised esports leagues OWL and NA LCS.
Moreover, the event was very competitive, with Ninja regularly being killed by the field and some amateur players like Blind showing consistent success. As well, the appearance of fan favorites like TSM’s Myth left no doubt that there were some serious competitors in the field aside from just Ninja.
Overall, the event showcased the raw star power of Ninja, but also the potential for esports events to be more playful and to have a greater focus on storylines and personalities during matches, to say nothing of audience inclusion, rather than a single-minded focus on competitive results.
The traditional model of top-flight esports has focused heavily on both building and leveraging the brand equity and fan affinity in professional teams, but as Ninja has shown, the star power of individual influencers can outshine those of even (by esports standards) massive organizations and create opportunities for new models of esports content.
While the notion of an influencer-focused esports event is not new (e.g. H1Z1’s streamer invitational at Twitchcon), the ability of a handful of influencers to compete with a live audience of amateurs and hopeful semi-pros to dwarf viewership of major established esports leagues is.
It will be interesting to see how Ninja, other Fortnite influencers, Epic, and independent organizers continue to drive innovation in the esports industry on a go forward basis, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this weekend’s event was a sign of things to come.
Fortnite and PUBG continue growth efforts with a focus on esports
In the past two days, details have emerged regarding top battle royale games Fortnite and PUBG and their burgeoning esports scenes.
Tencent, who owns 40% of Epic games, announced they will be helping Fortnite in their upcoming launch in China by providing $15.8M in “marketing, esports, and infrastructure for the game, including online, regional, and global professional leagues.” Once the game is live in China they will offer $8M for original content creation around the title.
Additionally, PUBG announced their largest esports tournament ever will take place in Berlin this summer with 20 professional teams competing for a $2M prize pool. The tournament will crown a first person and third person champion while using regional tournaments in NA, Europe, and Asia for teams to qualify. It is worth noting that Tencent is also the Chinese partner for PUBG.
Since the unprecedented rise of Battle Royale games the next question has been if and when a corresponding esports scene will emerge. While many games are popular to play and watch, the games that can be played competitively as esports is much smaller and cannot be forced onto a community.
This is PUBG’s second event, after hosting the Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds Invitational last year. The event had a $350,000 prize pool and received more than 5M concurrent viewers on PandaTV. Details regarding the Fortnite esports developments are much more scarce but I am a strong believer in battle royale games as esports titles. The format is easy to understand for casual fans as opposed to MOBAs which can be much more confusing. Following one player can have some slow moments (especially during early looting or traveling long distances), but these events will be able to rapidly switch between player perspectives and follow where the action is. However, as Avi discussed in the above article, it will be interesting to see what format comes to dominate the battle royale esports landscape: events led by individual streamers or events highlighted by traditional endemic esports teams? And which is better for the long term growth and sustainability of the game? Is there too much brand equity risk to tie it all to one person?