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Justin.tv, a site that lets web browsers watch and publish live video streams, started recruiting additional developers to build an exclusive electronic sports live-streaming website for games like real-time strategy game Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty in March. It’s part of the company’s plan to make electronic sports just as popular as typical sports are in American households.
Electronic sports leagues, or e-sports, are already really popular internationally — particularly in countries like South Korea, where players compete for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money in massive tournaments. But the league has only grown slowly in the United States because it hasn’t achieved the same level of visibility that professional gaming has internationally. But a number of companies are doing their part to bring more attention to professional gaming.
I sat down with Justin.tv’s Emmett Shear, the company’s chief technology officer and e-sports evangelist, to figure out how he plans to bring e-sports mainstream and what kind of role Justin.tv will play in that plan.
Why e-sports? Why did you guys want to jump into that space?
About six months ago, we took a look at Justin.tv and we asked about what part of the content people were excited about — what’s going to be big. We’re all a bunch of gamers and we like the gaming content, and if you looked at the trends it was growing quickly already and it was really interesting content. We were really excited about working on it. We put together a team of people to explore that — how do we make Justin.tv an awesome place for e-sports. E-sports is a lot like regular sports because you really want to catch the best matches live. Our basic strategy has been to talk to broadcasters and viewers and build things that were great for that.
How does this fit in with other e-sports evangelists? What about Major League Gaming (MLG)?
We hope to be a partner with them. MLG runs awesome tournaments, it was really fun and I hope someday soon MLG will be on Justin.tv. I think we can do a better job of the streaming half of it, that’s all we do. We focus on having an amazing platform, and they concentrate on throwing an amazing event — it’s the biggest in-person e-sports event in the world. Maybe there’s something in Korea larger than that, but certainly in America. I don’t really think we compete with them or anyone else, we want to work with them moving forward.
I’m personally a Starcraft player — I love all e-sports, I don’t want to make it sound like I only care about Starcraft. We want to work with anyone who is putting on a big e-sports tournament.
Do you just want to focus on the back-end streaming, or do you want to be a destination site for e-sports?
Right now we already are a destination for e-sports — look at Justin.tv’s gaming directory. We hope people will come to us to find what’s cool and new in streaming video, but we recognize that gaming has its own unique things. We’ve been building features just for gaming, and that’s what we’ll continue to do because we are really dedicated to gaming. We released live transcoding — so people who might not be able to keep up with the best resolutions can run at a lower resolution and keep up with the match. You can label what game you are playing when you broadcast it, and we’re rolling out new servers and data centers. Gaming has been growing so quickly that for the first time in a while, we’re really strained, pushing to get out new servers for the demand.
How big is the gaming team today?
Justin.tv’s gaming has 11 people on staff, if you count everyone starting in the next few weeks. It’s not a huge team, but it seems huge to me after the gaming project started with so few people and after starting such a small company. We just have so much to do. It’s way more complex than it seems — there’s a lot of technical depth for subscriptions, refunds, when something goes wrong. We’re hiring people to work on some of the really hard problems hidden behind the scenes.
How are you guys going to make money off e-sports streaming?
I think it’s still a big open question — where the money comes from in e-sports. We look at traditional sports and especially newer sports that have arisen in the past 10 or 20 years. UFC got really big, X Games, what’s worked for them. It’s been a combination of sponsorships, traditional advertising deals, paid subscriptions or pay-per-view, that’s the general world of sports. It will probably be in those three areas. We already have subscriptions — we’re testing that with a Starcraft player. It’s $5 a month, and you get a little star next to your name in chat and access to some events. The model for us is a partnership model with our broadcasters: we provide the streaming, the purchase support, but we don’t do the content. It’s always a revenue-sharing arrangement for us.
When will you guys roll out the first big push into e-sports?
We’re still trying to figure that out. It will probably be over the next month, two months, three months. I don’t know the exact dates yet, but we really want to hammer it out and get it out soon. As long as you are kind of doing it on the current site, there’s this question of how much promotion there is. We’ve reassured everyone that we’re really committed to e-sports. But I think for sponsors and people like that, there’s definitely a plus to saying “we are e-sports, here’s the e-sports initiative.” As soon as we can, basically.
Which companies are doing e-sports well?
Blizzard obviously, Starcraft 2, you have to give them credit for being a leader in e-sports. They’ve put a lot of effort into making the game great for e-sports. They care a lot about that, they promote e-sports events. Other companies I can call out specifically: Riot Games and S2 Games — Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends. Both are great e-spots titles with strong communities. Call of Duty: Black Ops, I don’t know how much they cared about e-sports and I have some quibbles about the spectator sport, but people love playing that game as an e-sport.
I think there’s two parts to the ecosystem. The publishers that are making the game, the question is whether they’ll include features necessary to make a game for e-sports. Our answer is that they really should do this because e-sports is getting pretty big, and if you really want to engage people in your game and let people make a passion out of it. Then there’s also, I would say us — everyone who’s not a publisher.
What kind of features do you need to make a game good for e-sports?
There’s two things publishers have to include. The first is a good spectator mode — if you can’t watch the game, it doesn’t work as an e-sport. My criticism of first-person shooters (FPS) — watching an FPS is like watching a football game from the helmet of the quarterback. It’s interesting because you get to see what they are seeing and get their perspective. But if the whole game was like that, it’d be hard to understand what’s going on — and that’s what FPS games are like. The first FPS game that does that well will win e-sports. You have to play FPS games to understand what’s going on today. Starcraft does a great job with this — you can see some stats like what kind of units they have lost.
Publishers need to let their players know that e-sports exist. The biggest thing you can do to grow, help the community connect with people who are broadcasting the game at a high level. That’s awesome. The biggest thing e-sports is growing is more and more people are finding out about it because it’s more accessible. Internet bandwidth prices falling, you can do live video through flash well now, it’s accessible to everyone. The word is kind of spreading, and when it spreads people click the link and watch. Let all 3 million people who play your game know that they can be watching e-sports and that they should be, and part of becoming a better player is watching an e-sports match.
What will it take to make e-sports big in the United States?
We want to support e-sports video in the U.S., Europe, Asia, what there is in Africa, Latin America and Australia. The largest markets for e-sports right now is Korea — they definitely led the way there. We believe that American e-sports can be just as big, it’s not yet but there’s no reason it can’t be.
It’s fun, right? E-sports can be really exciting. If you’ve ever watched golf, it’s kind of boring. I’d rather watch Starcraft. If golf can be the size it is, there’s absolutely no reason that Starcraft shouldn’t be bigger than that as sports. You get to learn how to play a game better or learn about a game you really didn’t even know about. I think that’s really excited.