If League of Legends is like the FIFA Soccer of esports, then maybe Smite is something like golf. The free-to-play online multiplayer online battle arena game has thrived for more than six years, and it has generated nearly $300 million in revenues from its 30 million players.
So golf is not a bad analogy, and it’s not such a bad place to be for a myth-themed game about gods and heroes in combat. Smite has a good demographic for its audience, and that audience has been growing in part because Smite has become an esport.
I talked with Todd Harris, the chief operating officer who cofounded Alpharetta, Georgia-based Hi-Rez Studios 14 years ago, about how Smite has prospered and what the company and its 450 employees — including 40 at the Skillshot division — are doing to make it into an everlasting professional esport.
I’ll be interviewing Harris on stage next week at the Esports BAR Miami event. Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about how you got to where you are right now with Smite, as far as esports?
Todd Harris: Personally, part of founding Hi-Rez Studios 14 years ago—I really had a passion for creating online games. Along the way we developed multiple titles. In terms of esports, the most successful title to date is Smite. Smite is in its sixth competitive season in terms of having a pro league and a significant world championship event. I feel like it’s a healthy title.
We wanted to share some of our observations from a publisher perspective, and also from a tournament organization standpoint, around Smite and the advantages of that league. We want to make the point that sometimes bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to esports.
GamesBeat: How many copies of Smite are out there, or downloads?
Harris: The registered user base is over 30 million. We’ve publicly communicated that the property — the game itself, not esports — has grossed more than $300 million as a property.
GamesBeat: Did you feel there was a critical mass for esports at a certain number of users?
Harris: It’s scalable in terms of the esports support that makes sense for a game. We started supporting competitive play in the first year of beta, because we thought it was informative to the game design team around just making a good, balanced game. Then it’s been pretty organic since then, as far as the amount of support we put behind it. It’s really in the last three years that we’ve partnered more closely with team orgs, versus having it be entirely grassroots. But certainly keeping the grassroots amateur element is important to us.
GamesBeat: What level is it at as far as how big the prizes are now?
Harris: At this point, for what we’ll call the major league, which is titled Smite Pro League—there’s also minor league and amateur and college. It’s also one of only three titles that are approved at the varsity high school level. You probably saw the news with the PlayVS funding round. There are three titles approved and Smite is one of those. There’s a good pipeline from new development from high school and college.
But on the pro side, the players are all on a minimum salary. It’s not as high as some of the other leagues, but they’re all at at least $30,000, and then they can of course make money through streaming and sponsorship. This year there will be a million-dollar prize pool that they compete for in November.
Our evolution—probably five years ago, five to six years ago, we had the single highest prize pool of any game outside of Dota 2 at the time, entirely crowdsourced. But we intentionally migrated the investment to be more salary plus smaller prize events throughout the year, just to make it more sustainable for players. That’s worked pretty well. There are examples of even some of the folks that won that first championship six years ago who are still playing today.
GamesBeat: Do you have a guess at how many players can make a living from the game?
Harris: There are currently 55 players that have all relocated to 30 miles from our studio to play professionally. At that highest level, those folks have taken it seriously enough where some of them have left school or other jobs and truly become pro. There are hundreds that are semi-pro, I would say. They’re complementing other forms of income.
GamesBeat: Did the amount of money change quite a bit, then, since maybe two years ago or five years ago? One of the publications said that the prize pools for esports altogether are crossing $300 million this year, versus $160 million the year before.
Harris: I would say ours has been a slight increase in overall comp earned. It’s just, again, moved more toward less of a single one-time event.
GamesBeat: When you think about what you’re doing or what you want to see happen to see this advance and grow bigger, what comes to mind?
Harris: A big point for me is just getting more sophisticated as an industry around delivering value through data. We’re in the phase where we compare esports viewership to other mass-market products like traditional sports. But the value of esports, in my mind, is on digital platforms, where you have a lot of information about the audience and can segment and target. It’s really about evolving platforms and products from mass-market to more intelligent marketing. That’s what we try to do.
For a partner wanting to invest in an esports property, reaching 10 million might be better than reaching 1 million, but it might not. It depends on where those 10 million live and if they’re a fit with the partner’s goals, if you’re a brand. If those 10 million are in China or Russia and your product or service isn’t available there, that’s not a great fit. We’re trying to continue to be on the forefront of using data to help partners understand each audience. At the conference I’ll talk a lot about the Smite audience, but as a tournament organizer we serve other games as well.
GamesBeat: It must be gratifying that it’s gotten this far, looking back on the expectations.
Harris: The fact is, there are 450 people at Hi-Rez now. We started with four. It’s really just based on building multiplayer games that people want to play and then growing those with esports. It’s been super valuable.
Back to the data, one of the other pieces we plan to share at the conference is something that not a lot of publishers talk about, which is the value publishers get from esports. Again, there’s talk generically about supporting the community or driving higher engagement, but some of the data that we’ll share in Miami will be very explicit on exactly the lift that we saw in a particular controlled case around the cohort of Smite players that viewed esports, compared to another cohort that did not.
They had similar play and spend patterns before, and so we have as close as possible to an apples to apples comparison that supports the intuition publishers have, that watching esports drives more engagement and spending in the game. But it’s not obvious that that’s the case. It could have been the case that watching means I have less disposable time, and now I’m playing less. I’m substituting consuming that passive media for actively playing. But at least in the case of the Smite audience, we did not find that to be the case. We’ll be sharing some of those insights in detail.
GamesBeat: Are you getting some of this data tabulated and ready for this thing?
Harris: Yeah, definitely. The two data sets we’ll share, again—one is very directly the value to the publisher for doing Smite esports. What the increased spend in the game was, what the increased playtime in the game was. Second, because we’re doing this panel together with Johannes from FanAI — that’s another partnership we have going back to data — where we can show potential sponsors a lot more detail about the Smite audience.
People may be aware that it overindexes in the United States, because it’s playable on the Xbox and PlayStation and Switch as well as the PC. It’s free to play on all those platforms. It’s cross play on all those platforms, which just got over the hump last week with Sony. That was the holdout there for a bit. We’re pleased, because that’s super player-friendly. But again, with the FanAI partnership, we can go much deeper and give insights not on any personal data, but as an overall group on the Smite audience and where they’re likely to spend.
If we bring in sponsors that are not a fit with the audience, nobody wins. The community will not see that as a positive, and of course the sponsor wouldn’t see it as a positive. But if we can use that data to inform the right brand sponsorships, then that adds a lot of value to the whole ecosystem.
GamesBeat: I don’t think I’ve seen people measure the impact esports has had in a tangible way on games like that.
Harris: Yeah, they haven’t, not from the publisher standpoint.
GamesBeat: If it’s measurable, it’s a lot more than theoretical. It’s something that you can point to as a fact.
Harris: For me it’s always about, what’s the return on investment? Our intuition, our hunch as gamers was that it was going to be good for the community. We see high participation. But if we can measure it and quantify it, that helps justify continued investment. It’s the same sort of thing we talk about with brand sponsors. If we can help them not just put their logo on it and see a generic number on Twitch or Mixer watching it, but let them know more about the audience, that’s very helpful. All these things help esports grow.
GamesBeat: Is there a strategy that starts out with “We’re not Fortnite, but …”?
Harris: Yeah, there is. [Laughs] We’re going to try harder. We’re going to be a little more value-oriented in our pricing. We’re going to overdeliver. Again, data is a lot of the way we do that. Smite is also fortunate to be brand-safe. Some esports are, but others, depending on the brand—these days they’re something they might not want to be associated with as far as gunplay and things like that.
GamesBeat: It seems like there are opportunities to do things like become the golf of esports. We may not have the biggest audience, but our players spend the most money.
Harris: That’s exactly right. It’s not the biggest audience, but it’s the audience you care about. Just because of our perspective, because we’ve been living in this for 15 years—we’re not, I would say, desperate for any sponsorship. It’s more around finding long-term partners. It’s true that our players are highly monetizing. But whether they monetize and are likely to buy in a particular category is something where we use data, again, to make sure it’s going to be a long-term fit. It starts with something like “We’re golf,” but it moves into, “Let’s really understand your brand goals and if it’s a fit with your audience.” If it is, then we expect it to be a multi-year partnership.
GamesBeat: What sort of sponsor-type companies have come forward based on where you are in the market?
Harris: We’ve had some of the usual suspects in terms of consumer goods. We’ve done quite a few world championship viewing parties with Coca-Cola. Some of that is geographical, because they’re based here in our backyard, in Atlanta. We’ve partnered with them in the past to have viewing parties all over the U.S., and also in Europe, in Coke theaters.
One of the strongest ongoing partnerships has actually been in the B-to-B category, rather than B-to-C, which is maybe a little unusual. The company INAP, Internap, they provide data servers and cloud services. They power a lot of the redundancy of our esports product – instant replays, not letting the servers go down, all those kinds of enterprise-level features that keep the product up. They’re in the business of selling data servers to IT managers at gaming companies and other Fortune 500 companies. They’ve been a partner for five years as a sponsor, and a vendor partner of ours for more than 10 years.
GamesBeat: How have you handled some of the issues around managing this as a business, managing the leagues and all that? What sorts of decisions did you make along the way there? Are there vendors in place that you can use for a lot of that?
Harris: We built up a lot of internal capability. We have 40 full-time people, a 16,000-square-foot production studio separate from the development studio. We’ve gone more the other way, in that this capability, we’re now using it to help other publishers. It operates under the name Skillshot. We’re now running the qualifications and broadcast for the mobile game Brawl Stars. We’ve done CS: GO. We’ve done Halo. We supported the Atlanta Reign of the Overwatch League with their homestand event.
Across PC, console, and mobile, we’re using internal capabilities around league management and ticket promotion and events and live broadcast as a service to the marketplace. We’ve seen a ton of appetite for that.
GamesBeat: As far as this notion—I think there’s a common criticism of esports, that the games come and go. You never know which one is going to be dominant for a long period of time, or players just move from one game to the next and all this could be temporary. Are there signs that suggest you can argue against that, that this will be around for a while?
Harris: Well, both things are true. The only thing I don’t think is true is that this is a fad, and that esports in general is going to go away. The macro trends around the number of people playing games and watching games are just too strong and compelling to be denied. I do think it is the case that some games will be more flashes in the pan and have a compelling year or two, while others will last for multiple decades. It’s an interesting angle to the horizontal as far as Skillshot, esports as a service. That business can serve all boats as the tide rises, basically.
Going back to Smite, which is the first-party owned property that we have the most experience with, going into year seven—this past year will be its most successful one yet as far as revenue and the strength of the esports scene. It’s one of the few titles being played at the high school and college level right now, and that’s a positive as far as a new pipeline of players.
From an investment standpoint, I think it is somewhat risky to bet on a particular game. But betting on esports to rise, I think, is a good one.
Disclosure: The organizers of Esports BAR Miami are paying my way to the conference. Our coverage remains objective.