Who would have thought we’d live in a world where we’d even fathom video games worthy of consideration as an Olympic sport? Or where the U.S. Army builds an esports team to attract younger recruits? This is the gaming world that’s burgeoning right before our eyes, and it’s only just begun to blossom, projected to reach nearly $3 billion by 2022.
We recently welcomed the return of season two of the Overwatch League after its six-month offseason, adding eight new franchises – who have paid $20-$30 million in entry fees — plus many new players into the world. The hype is nothing new – late last year, Blizzard Entertainment hosted the Overwatch World Cup, where players from around the world were able to customize their viewing experience using “professional observer tools” – watching games from different perspectives (i.e., first or third person or birds-eye), having replay options, using various keyboard shortcuts and more.
Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan said it opened up a Pandora’s Box of potential — one that could extend far beyond major tournaments. Blizzard may have just set the precedent of adding camera controls and playback options to players’ daily activity. Maybe this seems like a small and insignificant feat to a someone who doesn’t play games, but for us tech folks, we know it could revolutionize the gaming for good — putting engagement, interactivity, and customization at the forefront of esports innovation.
Back to basics
Between traditional gaming companies providing more esports offerings, new platforms entering the scene, and the esports and in-game betting universes continuing to collide, the industry is rapidly evolving. With great change comes great responsibility — platforms need to technologically support this new territory we’re stepping into. Despite all of the innovation, we’re still not where we need to be at the most foundational level of streaming, especially considering how fast we’re moving away from consoles and towards streaming games via the cloud as the norm. Google’s even rumored to be embarking on this journey.
Right now, the majority of the live-streaming industry isn’t reaching its true potential of streaming at full HD 1080p, in real time and with synchronous viewing at broadcast scale. Simply put, this means most platforms are not able to deliver a live-content stream without sacrificing quality and latency — at times, 30-90 seconds. This is a problem because over half of consumers would abandon a poor quality stream in 90 seconds or less, showing how buffering and poor picture quality aren’t just pesky issues — they make a real, measurable difference on the bottom line in terms of revenues and subscriber numbers.
This technological gap also impacts brands and advertisers who are increasingly engaging with streaming platforms as their distribution avenue of choice. Digital advertising is breathing new life thanks to the uptick in streaming services entering and dominating the market and is expected to account for 50 percent of the total global ad spend by 2020. Long story short – beyond just for consumers’ entertainment, esports and live-streamed content offer significant business opportunities, but if consumers are willing to abandon a stream due to buffering and latency then the market must start taking the technology issues more seriously.
Leveling the playing field
Beyond camera controls and playback options, esports players want a laundry list of interactive features. Amateurs and pros want to practice, compete, and play in an environment that provides real-time feedback on the action, as in collaborative updates that inform their individual or team-based gameplay. They want the full 360-degree experience, such as accessing stats on their favorite players, communicate with their teammates, use various camera angles and even have private “rooms” to watch their favorites with their friends regardless of where they live, all in real-time. With wagering beginning to increase, the ability to watch and place “prop” or, in-game bets, will become the norm.
One of the most interesting and complex demands to accommodate is the ability to stream a game across different devices. Blizzard cofounder Allen Adham talked about the possibility of transitioning its game franchises to mobile, and in the future, maybe building an infrastructure that could support mobile games that connect to desktop and console games. This would require immense coordination, ensuring that regardless of device, location or data plan, every player receives the same gaming experience – a concept that’s extremely rare for real-time.
The efficacy of the multiscreen ecosystem still has a ways to go, but it’s a surefire way to enhance interaction and drive user engagement. For streaming platforms, it’s about reaching that “Goldilocks” scenario where streaming fits the individual users’ needs, versus now, where the user often has to accommodate the stream. Especially as in-game betting continues to converge with esports, with real money on the line, achieving this happy medium becomes even more vital.
Peeking ahead at the future of esports
This coming year, we’ll see esports further edge into the mainstream. Fortnite won best breakthrough game at the 2018 Esports Awards. In fact, the awards show garnered over 3.3 million votes and 2 million viewers via Twitter’s live coverage . Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the world’s most popular professional video game streamer, was the first esports player to make the cover of ESPN Magazine and has been quoted as making over $1 million each month!
In 2019, we’ll continue to see more people – not just quintessential gamers – indulge their curiosity and watch more esports, especially as new sports gambling laws take effect. We’ll see people start to stray away from traditional streaming platforms that don’t offer esports content, underscoring how esports is becoming a major competitive differentiator in the market.
For those that join the esports “club,” we’ll see them start to demand more engagement options, like creative camera views and insider information, that levels up their gaming experience. However, all of this can only be achieved if the proper back-end fortification is in place.
Dr. Stefan Birrer is an entrepreneur and software architect with extensive experience in designing and developing complex streaming applications, and is currently the co-founder and CEO of real-time streaming platform Phenix.