Until recently, esports — a catch-all term for team-oriented strategy games played online, like World of War Craft, Counter-Strike and League of Legends — were relegated to exclusive, club-like reaches of the Internet, with specialized rules and customs.
Now, esports are so popular they are going mainstream. By 2018, the esports industry is expected to produce economic activity approaching $1 billion in the U.S. and $4 billion globally — making them competitive with major league sports organizations like the NBA and NHL.
Teams and tournaments are forming all around the world. There are even youth feeder systems, like Little League, for the bigger games. And just like traditional professional sports, these online competitions are plagued by performance-enhancing drug and cheating scandals, while well-known players achieve star status, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars or more each year in prize money and sponsorship deals.
“There are millions of fans worldwide,” says Sebastian Merz, a former EECS undergraduate student who recently founded a media company called Instant eSports with EECS alums Rick Ling and Jonathan Lin. “Some of the championships have more people watching them than the World Series.”
What’s lacking — and this is where Merz, Ling and Lin saw an opportunity — is a way for fans to follow their favorite teams or players within specific games. So far, most esports-related publications cover broad issues like game publisher updates or general player news in the vein of traditional media.
“We are trying to be anything but a publication,” Merz says. “Right now we are something else, and I think something else is what we are good at.”
Tech journalists like to refer to Instant eSports as “the ESPN of esports,” but the company is less SportsCenter or 30-for-30 and more like the digital equivalent of live play-by-play analysis. The technology is built on the back of a game’s application program interface (API) with a data scraper that aggregates social media posts and other relevant information to construct a picture of what’s happening in the game at any given moment from multiple perspectives.
“The idea is basically to give fans everything they need to keep up with esports: the latest scores, an updated schedule, and news and social media feeds. On game days, we stack that with second-by-second coverage to provide a complete experience,” Jonathan Lin says.
“The app is designed so that fans can follow their favorite teams,” Merz says. “Like, for football fans, you probably want specific information about the 49ers, not just about the NFL.”
Merz attributes much of the success of Instant eSports to timing. The company launched just as esports shot from fringe to mainstream. “The growth just picked up so fast,” Merz says about the esports scene. “Before, it wasn’t even possible to have a company like this; there is already a huge difference from six months ago.”
Merz, Ling and Lim teamed up last fall after organizing the first-ever Cal Hacks event, a 36-hour hackathon that gathered over 1,000 college students from all over the country to build new products from existing hardware and software. The process of organizing such a high-profile, massive event was formative. They started talking about the esports boom and began tinkering with different ideas. “We are actually esports fans, so we know what users want,” Merz says.
They joined Berkeley’s Venture Lab and won an entrepreneurial competition, which came with a few thousand dollars. But most importantly, Merz says, the fledgling company was given access to office space. Last summer, the company was accepted to Y Combinator, a private, king-making program that offers young startups guidance and mentoring from some of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capitalists, technologists and entrepreneurs.
During their time at Y Combinator, Instant eSports launched as a mobile app — first on iOS and then on Android — that covers League of Legends, which, according to Rptr, an esports analytics company, is the most widely played computer game. Last year the game averaged 27 million players a day.
League of Legends, and most other marquee esports, is like high-speed chess with multiple players and elaborate character narratives that, for a newcomer, might sound like some weird amalgam of three decades of pop fantasy. All of this makes for a game that is not only entertaining for the players but also fun to watch.
“What’s so crazy is that these days, there’s enough people watching these games live that esports events have been held in some of the biggest stadiums in the world: the Staples Center, the Seoul Olympic Stadium, the Mercedes Benz Arena,” says Rick Ling. “It really ends up looking just like a regular sporting event.”
True fans follow high-profile League of Legends tournaments in North America and Europe, culminating in a world tournament.
A couple of months ago, the Instant eSports team hosted a viewing event in San Francisco during the North American League of Legends finals. The viewing party was held at the Folsom Street Foundry, a large industrial-type space that hosts gaming events three nights a week and is now viewed as an esports coliseum.
“For a lot of regular sports, you go see it with a crowd — somehow cheering for teams makes it so much better,” Merz says.
A few weeks ago Instant eSports moved into office space in downtown Berkeley. The team has grown to six. They frequently get requests from fans to cover other games. Eventually the team will talk about monetizing, either through in-app purchases, premium services, etc., or by advertising. “We will know more about esports fans than anyone else,” Merz says about advertising opportunities. “If we are that gateway, then the rest will figure itself out. Monetizing is important, but it’s not immediately important.”
For now, Merz says, sounding vaguely like an athlete standing in a locker room after a game talking to the press, “We are focused on the product, we are focused on what we are building.”