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The Battle Royale for eSports Broadcasting is ON

“Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be in your favour”. This iconic quote from the blockbuster Hunger Games links to what I am seeing in relation to the upcoming battle for dominance of eSports broadcasting. As in Hunger Games and the famous Battle Royale gaming format, just one can survive.

On Tuesday the 19th March 2019 Google unveiled their new cloud gaming platform. It will rival the current projects by Microsoft (xCloud), Electronic Arts (Project Atlas) and, possibly, even Sony’s PlayStation Now. This new platform allows play on any device with a screen and good internet connection. Because the game runs on Google cloud data centres around the world and is only streamed to the end-user device, it will allow anyone to play smoothly using the highest graphic quality settings, regardless of the device they’re using. So, you might be asking yourself, why am I talking about gaming on a Sport Marketing blog and why am I so excited about Google’s platform? The main reason is the non-coincidental choice of branding to the new cloud gaming platform: Google Stadia.

Google, when deciding to move into gaming, is not only stepping on the not-so safe territory dominated by Sony with its current Playstation 4 platform, Microsoft with Xbox ONE, or even Nintendo with Switch. It is well known that the gaming industry has grown steadily during the past few years. In the US alone the market value of gaming has grown from $52.8 billion in 2012 to $104.57 billion in 2017. It is expected to be around $138 billion dollars in 2021 (Statista, 2019). Game franchises like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, EA’s Battlefield, or Activision’s Call of Duty have production costs similar to blockbuster movies and their sales during their first week of launch match Hollywood’s premieres.

As well, they are not only as riding the wave of constantly growing interest in professional gaming and gamers but also seeking mainstream acceptance. Take, for instance, professional gamers: Ninja - recognised worldwide for playing Epic Games’ [partially owned by Chinese Tencent] Fortnite - was supposedly paid $1 million to play rivals EA’s Apex Legends (Forbes, 2019) and is the first gamer to feature on the cover of ESPN magazine (BBC, 2018). What about US colleges and universities? They have already set up eSports programmes with available scholarships (Forbes, 2018). During the last 2018 Asian Games, eSports appeared for the first time as a demonstration event, and is now in line of being added to the official programme in the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games (The Guardian, 2018) [we should not forget that Hangzhou is home to Alibaba, the world’s largest e-commerce and retailer; it even outstrips Amazon]. Closer to home, professional football clubs have set up their FIFA eSquads, sparking a new migration of ePlayers from the periphery to the core - take Wolves FIFA eSquad for example (1 Briton and 2 Brazilians, see Twitter, 2019). Further, professional competitions are popping up everywhere like the Premier League with its eLeague, and FIFA with the eWorldCup.

But what really excites me about this is that Google is going straight for the jugular of the sport broadcasting industry - of course, you need to accept that eSports are real sports. Take Phil Harrison’s (Vice President and GM, Google Stadia) words when unveiling the platform: “To build Stadia, we’ve thought deeply about what it means to be a gamer and worked to converge two distinct worlds: people who play video games and people who love watching them. Stadia will lift restrictions on the games we create and play—and the communities who enjoy them (emphases added)”. By linking its cloud gaming platform to its video streaming platform (YouTube), Google is creating this massive universe for eSports broadcasting. Google’s approach can be read as a direct competition to Amazon who currently dominates the eSports streaming environment with Twitch, and Microsoft with its future xCloud gaming platform and Mixer. Also, don’t forget that Apple is due to unveil its long awaited streaming platform at the end of March 2019 and has over 800,000 games available on its App Store (Statista, 2018). Marshall McLuhan asserted that ‘the medium is the message’, meaning that who controls the medium - or the platform - is controlling the message - what we see, think, consume, or talk about it.

To summarise, as I discussed on a previous post this digital turn to sociology of sport involves seeing the emergence of new contexts for research. This new gaming platform may signal a powerful turning point in how we understand sport, broadcasting and consumption. How will large media conglomerates with stakes in sport react to the disruptive nature of the tech industry? How will large sporting organisations, like FIFA, the IOC and the IPC, react to such disruption? To what extent will those tech companies influence what we really watch, enjoy, think, consume or talk about as much as they control the media? How will they use the massive amount of data they will collect on our viewing patterns? Who will be the ‘users’ of this data? How will sponsorship and product placement change based on big data analytics?

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Dr Renan Petersen-Wagner

Renan is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business and Marketing at Leeds Beckett University, and Course Level Leader for BA(Hons) Sport Marketing.

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