Esports is a fundamental element of how “Halo Infinite’s” multiplayer game is being designed and will function, Elizabeth Van Wyck, head of business, operations and esports for the Halo franchise at Microsoft, said during Variety’s Entertainment and Technology Summit earlier this month.
“In developing for the next [Halo] game, it is a key piece of how we think about how we built out multiplayer, which is the mode that our esports is built off of,” she said. “Thinking about how people will view it. Thinking about how they will play it. But at the end of the day, we have to build an awesome game.”
Van Wyck was speaking on a panel discussing the expansion of esports and the business of esports alongside representatives from Intel, NBA 2K League, and pro esports team Immortals. The discussion also touched on why esports is finally taking off, the positive impact traditional sports has on esports, the opportunity esports represents when it comes to diversity, and the importance of community.
“Halo has a long legacy with esports,” Van Wyck said. “But we have let it be community run. It wasn’t until very recently that we looked at the space and said, ‘We want to significantly invest in it and create a structure that not just has longevity but has consistencies that others can build businesses off of.”
That includes making assurances to fans, players and potential business partners that Halo’s online competitive modes won’t see major changes that could throw gameplay and competition completely out of whack. To do that, Microsoft and developer 343 Industries is focusing on expanding its communication with the community and with pro teams not just on existing games, but on how future games will function, she said.
“Those are all things that go into the development process that didn’t before,” she said.
The panel kicked off with a quick primer on the growing success of esports, noting that analyst firm Newzoo expects the global esports economy to grow to more than $900 million by the end of the year, with viewers totally 380 million. The group also predicts the esports industry to reach $1.4 billion by 2020.
Ari Segal, president and COO of Immortals, noted that esports isn’t an overnight success, with decades of stops and starts before finally getting significant traction relatively recently.
“In the last three to five years, nonendemic press and investment have flowed into esports in a way that it hasn’t previously and that’s brought a level of awareness and exposure to folks who are generally of a different demographic than people who either play or watch esports,” he said.
Van Wyck noted that Twitch and services like it were a big part of that success.
“It’s a combination of things,” she said. “But it wasn’t until the rise of a few things, one of them Twitch which enabled streaming and allowed a lot of people to come in and watch esports, that it started to blow up.”
She also noted the shifting of viewing habits helped as well.
Segal added that technology as a whole was also a big factor, as technology has improved the ability to play online, gather in groups online and watch online has become easier and better.
“Being able to connect people on the internet, being able to have fragmented universes of people that could play and compete and having tech to identify who those elite players are, were all fundamental,” he said.
Intel and its technology have been supporting esports and hosting its own tournaments for about 15 years. John Bonini, VP and general manager of esports and gaming at Intel, said the key to its long-lived success is building out a sort of portfolio of esports that the company supported.
“We started with ESL,” he said. “Then we spread out our investment to ‘NBA 2K,’ to Overwatch League. You need to take a portfolio approach to reach the right audiences.”
The company is also always trying to invest in where the sport is headed.
“We’re thinking of where the tech is going,” he said. “Anytime something is too big or costly to expand on that paradigm, there is a reset. We try to figure out when the next reset is going to occur.”
Right now that innovation in esports seems to be happening around league and team structure.
Immortal’s Segal pointed out that differentiating esports teams has historically been a challenge because they often aren’t affiliated with a city, state or nation. That also makes it harder to tell stories around the teams and their players. Immortals approach, he said, is to build a team that emphasizes values. In the case of the Immortals, he said, that means supporting the LGBTQ community, supporting women, supporting families.
Another approach, which is most clearly represented in the Overwatch League, is forming teams based in specific cities around the world. This approach leans on the experience of traditional sports and its long history of geographically located teams.
While the two forms of sport — tradition and esport — may seem at odds to some, Segal said they’re actually not competing with one another. Many traditional sports team owners also invest in our own esports teams, he said. And the NBA co-created and co-manages Take-Two’s “NBA 2K’s” esports league.
“The NBA is the most well-run league, it has the best player relationship, it’s the only league with a decreasing age of fan,” he said. “That’s credit to the management.”
Teaming esports with traditional sports allows for an efficient synergy that could allow both sorts of teams to use the same facilities, same approach to player development and access to same analytics.
“You’re seeing traditional sports entities look to esports to complement its existing value offering and I think the collaboration between these two worlds is going to create a rising tide for everyone,” Segal said.
The NBA’s work with “NBA 2K” has helped, for that particular game, create a league structure that is more inviting for casual audiences, said Aaron Ryan, senior VP of the NBA 2K League.
“That means it is attracting and retaining purists and making room for people who are interested in the space and want to invest in it, be it brands, fans or gamers,” he said. “That starts with the owners of our NBA teams, they are some of the pioneers in terms of franchise acquisition and creation in esports across other titles as well, away from the NBA 2K league. Their drive and the forward thinking of them led us to this place. Now we have a publisher and league working hand in hand owning this league together.”
The fact that esports is finally becoming a massive mainstream success doesn’t just impact video games as hobby and potential profession, it’s also a chance to correct some of the mistakes made in those early formative years of traditional sports.
“These are the first sports property coming of age at a time when it’s possible for the entire world to be engaged at the outset, which creates an immense opportunity from an access and diversity standpoint,” Immortals Segal said. “The access barrier is completely removed and the opportunity to play with other players of different genders and cultures is there from the outset.”
But with that opportunity, comes a challenge.
“On the other hand some of our baser instincts are showing up,” Segal said. “It is male-dominated right now, several of the online spaces I would say are less than safe and influencers really need to step up and make it a safe place for people of all genders, all countries of origin otherwise this amazing opportunity to create something that is really the world’s oyster will be missed.”