“THE FIRST SEASON ITSELF IS THE MARKETING CAMPAIGN”
All set to unleash India’s biggest e-gaming league UCypher in January 2018, Screwvala believes that the event will speak for itself.
Every year in September Electronic Arts launches FIFA the most widely played computer sports game of the world. Last year, the gaming giant launched a new one introducing virtual athlete ‘Hunter’. This year, CocaCola announced Hunter as the brand ambassador of Coke Zero Sugar. That is just an indicator of the power of e-sports.
That growth has resulted in the emergence of several leagues across the globe. Some of the bigger ones have prize monies worth over $20 million up for grabs. The recently-concluded TI7 (The International 2017) had a record prize of $24 million. European team Liquid defeated Chinese group Newbie to lift the championship and take away $10.8 million.
TI is a DOTA 2 (the fantasy strategy game hosted by Valve Corp) championship that is closely followed by League of Legends (created by Riot Games), the second biggest e-sports league in the world with a prize money of just under $23 million. The other major e-sports leagues are Halo World Championship (Halo5: Guardians), Eleague (Counter Strike), EA Champions Cup (FIFA). China, America and Republic of Korea are the three top countries in the e-sports circuit.
An e-sports league has multiple teams in it, and the teams fight it out for the big prize. Participating teams select, buy or draft players depending on their performances and rankings. The leagues are held in an arena, where spectators come in large numbers and watch the games on giant screens. The games are also streamed online and broadcast on TV. Viewership is huge. For example, the 2015-16 NBA finals were watched by 31 million people, an 18-year record. The 2015 League of Legends final garnered 36 million unique viewers!
E-sports has caught the fancy of India and Indians too. Check out the ad commercials of laptop makers here - the communication has changed from slim, lightweight and long battery backup to high power graphics card, easy cooling, VR-enabled and so on.
Ronnie Screwvala is a person who hates missing an opportunity. Judging the popularity of e-sports to a nicety, he is ready to roll out India’s biggest e-gaming league UCypher in January 2018. The top 84 gamers selected on the basis of their performance in tournaments and leagues held in India will participate in the league, which will air on MTV and stream on YouTube, VOOT and Twitch.
Screwvala sees immense sponsorship opportunities in a sport where brands can be integrated seamlessly. afaqs! Reporter spoke to the founder of Unilazer Ventures to know more about his gameplan. Also present was Supratik Sen, CEO, USports, the sports marketing division of Unilazer. Edited Excerpts from an interview with Anirban Roy Choudhury:
At this stage of your career what drove your attention to e-sports?
E-sports as a trend is just taking off. We are not far behind from the top countries in the sport - Japan, Korea or the US - like we are in football or motorsports. The e-sports leagues have started taking off in last two to three years globally. When it comes to the quality of players, too, we are not that far behind, so we were clear, let’s catch the bird early and be one of the first movers at this space.
Now that you are a league owner, what are the primary aspects you need to focus on?
For any league owner it is important to get a couple of things done. One, you need to find key franchisee owners, then you need the player ecosystem and then you need the platform or broadcaster. You are not a league until you get team owners, team and broadcaster.
Do you have franchisee owners?
This is a very new sport where the benchmarks are yet to be set. So, we decided that for the first two seasons we are going to own all the teams, and all the players.
We will own the entire ecosystem for the first two seasons because today, when there is no benchmark, I am not sure if I should charge X, Y or Z for a team. The best way to go ahead is put the full investment and take full risks.
“In India, even today, you cannot launch a sport without television.”
This is where we are different from any of the new leagues launched in recent times.
What about the players?
We have cherry-picked the top 84 players from the top 50 tournaments in the country. There is a tournament in every engineering college in India and there are a few leagues too from which we selected the top players. In two years’ time we will have foreign players too coming in and participating in the league.
Coming to the broadcaster bit, why - instead of a sports channel - are you associated with a youthand-music channel like MTV?
We have debated about it, and yes, normally a sport should come on a sports channel and outcome of the debate was that this is going to be slightly different. Most games last for as short as kabaddi does (which is 40 minutes). Then there is football, which lasts for 90 minutes, T20, 50-50, and then Test match cricket which lasts for five days.
E-sports can go on for four to six hours a day for a certain number of days, where the same teams and same players are playing the same games. They don’t necessarily get sticky in terms of viewership. For hardcore gamers there will be but for newcomers it won’t.
We want to get more people into gaming. Therefore, for us, television was an important platform and it was important to pick a right partner – but not a sports channel at this stage which is why we approached MTV and said, we want to do this and sold them the concept. Outside of MTV it will be on YouTube, VOOT, Twitch. On the digital platforms we will have the full version, on MTV it will be a one-hour action packed episode.
You are streaming this property on so many platforms where e-sports is really popular and has an existing audience. Football and kabaddi get good viewership online. Why do you need a broadcaster?
That’s true. Football and kabaddi are lot more watched online than TV and it is quite possible that in three years’ time this too will be more popular online. But in India, even today, you cannot launch a sport without television. I think Korea and China are the only markets in the world where you can launch a league without TV.
Has MTV commissioned you? Will they own the media rights of the league? What is the nature of the association?
We have bought slots from MTV. We will produce it ourselves and hand over a one-hour episode to MTV, which they will air. We have an agreement of 37 episodes which can go up till 45. It will air seven days a week including Saturdays and Sundays and there will be a repeat telecast the next day.
Do you have sponsors on board already? You own all the franchises, you have set aside a handsome amount as prize money and you have bought slots. How much are you spending?
Our experience in the first year of kabaddi was that most people did not go hungrily after monetising. Star took four years to get Vivo on. To be honest, this season we are not going all out to monetise because we do not have a rate card and whatever we accept it could be ‘under’. Instead, we decided we would spend our own money for this project.
This season the outlay is going to be `30-35 crore. There is no point getting a crore or two in sponsorship - it won’t move the needle either way. We did not want to lock our rate but decided to wait it out. This could be an error, but that’s what we decided.
Where do you see the money coming in in the long run?
I think the major chunk of money will come in from sponsorship. From Amazon to Puma to mobile companies this is the absolute core target audience. The sport is sticky, unlike other game formats - in cricket there is one over, in football you don’t even have a gap for commercial, in kabaddi it is even worse where you need to get an official time-out. Here the ability for us, to integrate brands and go in for commercial breaks while the game is on, is very high.
Do you see ticketing revenue coming in?
This is an arena sport and by the time we reach the third season it needs to go to an arena. Now, if it is 3,000 people an arena, 300 people an arena or 8,000 (beyond which we cannot go), only time will tell. This is a multi-city sport too, so we will go to different cities, and yes, I do see ticketing revenue coming in.
Who do you think will watch this league on TV? Are you looking to develop this as a niche sport or are you targeting the mass?
We need to build the TV viewership of this sport and it is very important that it does not sound like an elitist sport but is very ‘massy’ and
very Indian. The games are not Indian so between us and our sportscasters and commentators we are figuring out how we can make this a ‘massy’ sport. It cannot be western guys with massive headphones. We will make it a quintessential Indian experience while we are running a league with global games.
Why do you need to make it a mass sport? Golf and tennis are niche sports and they are doing well…
Tennis and golf are two sports which are viewed as a niche and prestigious sport so they get a premium. Now you cannot take e-gaming to that level and then you would be fighting a wrong battle. This is a beer and not a malt whiskey - it might be the elitist of beer but still it’s not malt whiskey. Also, India is a market with 1.25 billion people I don’t see any reason why should we concentrate on only 30 million people while building a property.
How do you plan to promote the league? Will you roll out a marketing campaign?
In Season 1 we will learn, we will align and we will do whatever we need to do. After two seasons we will have a very good idea where the sport lands, what’s the viability for it, what’s the sponsor interest, what’s the viewership like and what’s the player interest. So, instead of going and doing a marketing campaign to promote the league, we are treating the first season itself as a marketing campaign.
The league will have DOTA and Counter Strike on PC, Real Cricket on mobile phone and Tekken on console, how did you decide on these?
Counter Strike and DOTA are two largest PC games. League of Legends is still arriving in India. The people who distribute Counter Strike in India gave us a number (around 20 million people play the game in the country). These two PC choices were pretty easy for us.
Then we moved to console, for which we wanted an exciting action-packed game and that’s where Tekken came in. In the mobile space we wanted to have a massy game and we got Real Cricket. This year we will have these four games in UCypher, but we are open for more in coming years.
Why did you decide to keep the prize money at `50 lakh?
There are enough of small leagues and tournaments in India. We wanted to have a clear segregation and hence decided to be at least 5X of the largest existing one. We are not paying anything to the players in Season 1. For them, prize money is the biggest attraction and that’s why we decided to keep it at `50 lakh.
In kabaddi, for instance, we keep telling Mashal (the STAR subsidiary that owns pro-kabaddi) to take the prize money higher… I think that makes a big difference in creating a benchmark for the sport.
What is your biggest challenge?
We have to get people say, “Wow, this is exhilarating, wow this is very exciting,” and open up to the people who are not gamers but will enjoy watching this because they are seeing a sport, they are seeing a combat.
It is passive yet active, it is very aggressive on the screen yet passive when it comes to the player’s approach. Even if five people are fighting with each other you only see the eyebrows and fingers moving. The critical point is to take that and make an appeal to those who are interested in gaming but are not hardcore gamers. If we manage to do that it will fly - if not, it’s going to remain niche.
Is there an e-gaming experience that you would like to share, which inspired you?
Recently, in Frankfurt, we saw 70,000 people come in every day to watch e-sports. There was League of Legends, DOTA and Counter Strike 30,000 were inside the stadium while rest watched it outside on big screens. It was a massive affair.
Screwvala (left) and Sen: cypherheroes