Esports: Is This the Next Big Thing in Streaming Video?

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For the better part of 2 decades, we’ve proudly called our brand—website, conferences, and magazine—Streaming Media. But really it’s just been about streaming video—well audio, first, if you count RealAudio in the early days before we launched the magazine—and not about much else.

That’s about to change. Esports might be just the thing to move streaming from a video-only world to a true media streaming experience.

We’re already partway down that path, thanks to companies, technologies, tournaments, and viewing sites with perhaps unfamiliar names such as ESL One, HLTV, GriD, Steam, Twitch, Valve, and VeryGames. Even large content delivery network (CDN) providers such as Akamai are, well, getting into the game.

Understanding the Terminology

Before we launch in to what’s going on in the world of gaming, as it relates to streaming media, it’s probably best to provide a quick primer on terminology used. By the time you read this, we will have also updated our Streaming Media glossary to contain these and other terms key to understanding the egaming trend.

Esports, also known as egaming, is a blanket description for competitive video gaming. For our purposes, it covers both online gameplay and the viewing of tournaments online.

LAN party denotes both the act of gaming and also a gathering of players in one location, oftentimes for a tournament.

Live stream can be one of two things, depending on whether you’re in the game or watching from another device. Valve, the company that has the Steam service for game subscriptions, offers in-game streaming using built-in tools.

On the other hand, companies such as Twitch (developed by Justin.tv and now owned by Amazon) offer traditional live streams that allow viewers to watch gamers play. And a number of online news sources, such as the highly ranked Game Informer site, offer live streams or a Stream of the Day.

Understanding the Numbers

Esports makes for a big business, not just in terms of the numbers of viewers but also in terms of the prize money and critical acclaim.

As an example, consider two data points: the sale of Twitch in 2014 and the recent ESL One Katowice 2015 event.

Twitch was an almost unknown entity in the streaming world, at least judging by the attendees at Streaming Media East 2014, when Twitch engineer Matthew Szatmary gave the keynote speech and told the audience that his company delivered more concurrent streams than even the recent Sochi Winter Olympics.

Fast-forward a few months, after Amazon bought Twitch for a reported $1.1 billion, and suddenly everyone’s interested in hearing what Twitch representatives have to say. A few months after Twitch was acquired, at Streaming Media West 2014, held in November in Huntington Beach, Calif., Twitch’s broadcast manager Justin Ignacio talked about how popular esports are among college students—and how many of them go on to garner sponsorships and make a living playing games.

“There’s people who make livings off of streaming video games on our platform,” he said. “They actually leave college. They’re so good at their games that they have tens of thousands of people watching them all the time, and they can just quit their day job and make enough money to play games for—I don’t know—forever, I guess.”

The idea of someone considering quitting their day job, or even college, might strike fear into the hearts of parents and teachers everywhere, but Ignacio explained that big companies are providing sponsorship dollars for the players and tournaments alike.

Game Informer offers live streams on its own site as well as through Twitch, which was purchased by Amazon in 2014.

“The way these guys make their money is off these sponsorships,” Ignacio said. “Let’s say this guy is known for being the best at this computer game. A keyboard sponsor would love to give him a keyboard and would pay for him to use their keyboard brand.

“So when they go to events, and they travel to like, Denmark or Korea, they will put their keyboard down and you can see clearly from these productions what brand they’re using,” he said. “That’s how these people make a living, not only through Twitch with our ad platform ... but these guys make a living off their sponsorships. They get paid by just using their gear.”

Sponsorships on devices as ubiquitous as a keyboard require very good production quality, as well as crystal clear streaming to the viewers, in order to properly promote the brand.

But it’s not just keyboard manufacturers that are getting into the sponsorship mix, which leads us to ESL One.

Electronic Sports League (ESL) One is a tournament held in conjunction with Intel’s Extreme Masters World Championship. The most recent one took place in Katowice, Poland, in March 2015.

What began as an exhibition with a bit of tournament play on the side has now grown into an event that attracts the best of the best in gaming, along with more than 73,000 others.

“It is fantastic to see that, over the years, we have turned esports from being a part of a larger exhibition into something that defines an entire convention where the best pro gamers are celebrated like superstars,” George Woo, Global Sponsorships Manager at Intel, told the ESL Gaming newsletter back in December 2014.

Now that we’re past the dates of ESL One 2015 Katowice, which encompassed both “League of Legends” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” let’s take a quick look at the streaming numbers.

According to various news reports, the number of viewers for the two tournaments grew rapidly over the course of the event. Preliminary competitions, which took place in both the Spodek Arena and the Katowice International Congress Center on March 13 and 14, 2015, had approximately 700,000 simultaneous viewers.

The final day of the tournament, though, shattered several online esports viewing records. Final matches were held in the Spodek Arena on Sunday, March 15, in front of approximately 10,000 attendees in the arena itself.

“Both concurrent viewers and players records have been broken,” read an HLTV.org Facebook post from March 19. “Around 1.1 million viewers tuned in for the grand final between NiP and fnatic, while around 600,000 players were connected in-game at one point.”

HLTV went on to break down the numbers. Twitch viewing accounted for between 500,000 and 600,000 simultaneous viewers, while in-game viewing of gameplay—called GOTV and created by Valve to provide in-game viewing with commentary provided by ESL One hosts— was at approximately 600,000.

But there were a number of what HLTV called “multiaccounts” for those who may have logged in more than once to view, and that brought the number down below 1 million concurrent views.

“Even though the game itself claimed the last rounds of the grand final passed 1 million concurrent viewers tuning into the GOTV and all streams combined, after disposing of the multi-accounts, the number decreased to 980,581,” the post read. Twitch streams and GOTV combined to bring viewership on those two platforms to just fewer than 1 million concurrent streams.

“Two significant Chinese streams weren’t included,” the post read, “both of which recorded over 50,000 viewers. That means the record definitely passed the million [mark] and possibly got very close to 1.1 million, although we do not have the exact number.”

Electronic Sports League (ESL) One is a series of tournaments held in conjunction with Intel’s Extreme Masters World Championship. The last one, in Katowice, Poland, in March, drew around 1.1 million viewers for the grand final. Half of those viewers watched on Twitch, while the rest watched via an in-game viewing platform created by Valve. 

In other words, esports streaming is getting close to television viewing levels. In terms of prize money, the pot wasn’t exactly small either, at $250,000, enough to be considered a major tournament. And, in terms of total square footages, the esports side of the Intel event took up more than 86,000 square feet (8,000 square meters). The next ESL One tournament takes place in Cologne, Germany, this coming August.

Streaming OTT and to Set-Top Boxes

So what options are available, besides watching live esports on Twitch or as part of Valve’s in-game GOTV streaming service?

In other words, besides the concept of streaming games to gaming consoles, what about streaming them over-the-top (OTT) and to set-top boxes (STB) for both gamer and viewer alike?

It turns out there are a number of OTT services offering egaming viewing.

Let’s take a look at a few options with each of these, starting first with popular STB devices.

APPLE TV

Pricing for this “hobby” box from Apple has recently been slashed almost 30 percent, dropping to $69.99 to compete with a number of streaming dongles, and even a few similar STBs such as the Roku box.

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