“But that’s not a sport!” — The Top 3 misunderstandings about eSports

The discussion of whether eSports are genuine sports has been going on for quite some time. Double-digit growth rates, sold-out stadiums, millions of spectators and award money totaling several million euros clearly show that eSports stopped being a fringe phenomenon long ago.

More and more prominent stars such as Rick Fox and traditional sports clubs such as Manchester City are already investing in eSports, and now brands such as Mercedes-Benz are also joining in. That’s why it’s high time to dispel a number of prejudices and take a close look at eSports.

Let’s begin with a question: “What are eSports, anyhow?”

eSports are professional competitions between players of computer and video games. An eSports is always a kind of gaming, but not every kind of gaming is an eSports. In gaming, the focus is on entertainment, in eSports the focus is on competition. As in traditional sports, eSports have tried and tested structures, uniform rules, award money and player salaries.

Impressions of the ESL One in the Barclaycard Arena in Hamburg

Impressions of the ESL One in the Barclaycard Arena in Hamburg 2017.

eSports games are played in arenas and followed by fans. There are eSports stars (such as Søren Bjerg or also my brother, the most famous German League of Legends-player) and an eSports playing field. The eSports industry basically functions like those of traditional sports: The teams play games that are organized in leagues or tournaments and the fans can follow them on a variety of platforms.

Now let’s take a look at the typical prejudices about eSports.

1. They’re just violent “shoot ’em up” games!

No, there are many different genres of eSports. The most common ones are real-time strategy games, shooter games, and sports/racing simulations. If we classify the different games according to the number of active players per month, the number of spectators and the amount of prize money paid out annually, two strategy games are at the top of the list: League of Legends and Dota2. The number of active League of Legends players — over 80 million — is greater than the population of France. League of Legends and Dota 2 are Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs for short), a subcategory of real-time strategy games.

The teams of Virtus Pro and Newbee pick their characters at a Dota2-Event during the ESL One in Hamburg 2017

The teams of Virtus Pro and Newbee pick their characters at a Dota2-Event during the ESL One tournament in Hamburg 2017

In these games, two teams of five players each compete against each other. At the start of the game, each player selects an identity out of a list of more than 100 characters, each of whom has individual strengths, weaknesses, and special powers. Certain characters complement each other especially well, thus creating advantages such as increased mobility. The players choose their characters one by one, with the teams alternately taking turns. That enables players to choose a character who is an especially good opponent of another character already chosen by the competing team. This is called a “counter pick.”

Additional strategic depth is created by “bans” — the possibility of excluding individual characters from the selection process. This “pick & ban” phase is very strategic, and it requires lots of tactics and anticipatory moves, comparable to chess. The goal of the game is to conquer the opposing team’s base, so the composition of one’s own team already lays the foundation for victory.

A character from the game world with the MVP Cup

A character from the game world with the MVP Cup. Photo: Viola Schuldner, ESL

2. eSports athletes aren’t real athletes!

For eSports athletes, the focus is not on physical strength or stamina but on the intellectual challenges involved, which are sometimes far greater than those of traditional sports. Above-average powers of concentration, excellent hand-eye coordination, lightning-fast reaction times, a capacity for teamwork and strong communication skills are crucial.

Intense daily training is essential for developing high levels of mental and physical performance. The training functions in the same way it does for traditional sports. Just as a race car driver tries to improve his lap times, a MOBA player trains various characters and moves. Physical fitness is an important foundation for success. That’s why eSports athletes, just like soccer or tennis players, have fixed training times, coaches, and nutrition plans, as well as sports psychologists and physiologists who help them bring out the best in themselves. Studies conducted at the German Sport University in Cologne have shown that the cortisone level of eSports athletes is the same as that of race car drivers and that their pulse rate of 160 to 180 beats per minute is the same as that of a marathon runner.

Team Aster in action at the ESL One in Hamburg 2018

Team Aster in action at the ESL One in Hamburg 2018. Foto: (c) GES-Sportfoto/Mercedes-Benz

For some eSports game series, such as those of Dota 2 and League of Legends, there is no firmly defined time limit. The game doesn’t end until one team conquers the opponent’s base. For League of Legends, the record for the longest league game was more than 90 minutes. In major esports tournaments, the players must sometimes play as many as five games in a row, delivering top performance for many hours at a stretch. The tough demands placed on eAthletes can also be inferred from the brevity of typical eSports careers. A player’s reaction speed and ability to concentrate start to decline in his or her mid-20s. As a result, even though players in this age group have more experience, it’s almost impossible for them to keep up with younger players.

3. Is this not only for nerds?!

The eSports community is global, young, digitally literate, and very well-educated. The core audience is between 18 and 34 years old. Women account for about 30 percent of the total — and this proportion is increasing. Two thirds of esports fans are university students or graduates, and many of them are studying or have degrees in IT, engineering or management. According to the Nielsen market research company, more than half of all esports fans are also interested in traditional sports. Whether they’re nerds or not, it’s certainly a very interesting target group.

MidOne with the Mercedes-Benz MVP trophy in front of a Mercedes-Benz A-Class at the ESL ONE Hamburg 2018

MidOne with the Mercedes-Benz MVP trophy in front of a Mercedes-Benz A-Class at the ESL ONE Hamburg 2018. Foto: (c) GES-Sportfoto/Mercedes-Benz

When and why did Mercedes-Benz get involved in esports?

At Mercedes-Benz we recognized the tremendous potential of this sector early on, and in 2017 we became the first automaker to get involved with eSports. Through this move we are expanding our sponsorship portfolio with a view to the future. „As a globally operating brand, we want to access new target groups“, says Britta Seeger, the Board of Management of Daimler AG member who is responsible for Mercedes-Benz Cars Sales. Our goal is to continue promoting esports and generate added value, for example by offering our mobility solutions and establishing exciting new formats.

The ESL, which is one of the world’s oldest and biggest esports organizations, is the ideal partner for us. Our partnership comprises four major Dota 2 events of the international ESL One tournament series. During the tournament series we will provide the teams with a comfortable Mercedes-Benz shuttle service. We’ve also introduced a new format: the “Mercedes-Benz Most Valuable Player” award, in which the best player of the tournament will be elected by the community and an expert jury. The winner will be able to configure a brand-new Mercedes-Benz worth up to €50,000 and will receive a customized MVP trophy at the award ceremony.

Award ceremony of the Mercedes-Benz MVP trophy to MidOne by Team Secret at the ESL One Hamburg 2018

Award ceremony of the Mercedes-Benz MVP trophy to MidOne by Team Secret at the ESL One Hamburg 2018. Foto: (c) GES-Sportfoto/Mercedes-Benz

What are the next steps?

By extending and expanding our partnership with ESL, we want to continue promoting eSports at the national level as well. We will continue to be involved with the ESL One Dota 2 tournament series as a premium partner and the presenter of the Mercedes-Benz MVP award.

Our latest film, “The Way,” which we’ve posted on YouTube, shows the development of gaming from its beginnings to the eSports of today, as well as the connection with our brand. At ESL One last October, we also referred to this development in our stand concept, the Mercedes-Benz Gaming Lounge. Visitors could play classic historic games such as Pac-Man and Frogger on retro gaming stations, and various racing simulations were offered on the original seats of an 450 SEL from the 1970s. But current eSports games such as Dota 2 could also be played via professional gaming setups.

The Mercedes-Benz Gaming Lounge with retro gaming stations

Our stand concept: the Mercedes-Benz Gaming Lounge with retro gaming stations. Photo: Viola Schuldner, ESL

In addition, at the beginning of 2019 we announced our investment in SK Gaming, one of the world’s most successful eSports organizations. We’re going to have our own teams in games including League of Legends, FIFA, and Clash Royale. In the future, the players will bear the Mercedes-Benz star on their jerseys, and together we’ll certainly be able to celebrate many victories and tell exciting stories.

Die eSports Spieler Crownshot (Jus Marusic), Werlyb (Jorge Casanovas), Pirean (Junsik Choi), Selfmade (Oskar Boderek), Dreams (Min Kook Han) von SK Gaming

Crownshot (Jus Marusic), Werlyb (Jorge Casanovas), Pirean (Junsik Choi), Selfmade (Oskar Boderek), Dreams (Min Kook Han) of SK Gaming

I can only recommend that everyone approaches eSports just once without any prejudice — and if you’re already curious, just visit an eSports event. The ESL One Katowice will be held in the Spodek Arena in Poland in February 2019. It will be one of the biggest Dota 2 events, with US$300,000 in prize money. We’ll be there as a Premium Partner of ESL, and you can be sure that we’ve also planned an exciting program of events for the visitors.

Gunnar Schrage works in the Branded Entertainment unit, where he is responsible for activating sponsorship measures in esports for Mercedes-Benz. He’s a passionate gamer, and during his studies for a degree in sports management he wrote his final thesis on the value creation processes and the ecosystem of esports. As a freelance esports manager, he has gathered a great deal of experience in the sector through contract negotiations and sponsorship discussions.