SPE­CIAL RE­PORT

Re­search­ing es­ports as­sump­tions.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - Philippa Warr

Cul­ti­vate a suc­cess­ful es­port – or so the the­ory goes – and reap the ben­e­fits else­where in your game. I’ve heard sev­eral vari­a­tions on this idea over years of es­ports writ­ing, where com­pa­nies some­times talk about pro gam­ing in sim­i­lar terms to su­per­mar­ket loss lead­ers – un­prof­itable in them­selves but able to at­tract play­ers who then spend money on the game. But a new part­ner­ship be­tween Emory Univer­sity and pub­lisher Hi-Rez Stu­dios aims to put that the­ory to the test.

“We’ve al­ways be­lieved that watch­ing es­ports helps our game busi­ness,” says Todd Har­ris, Hi-Rez co­founder and pres­i­dent of its es­ports broad­cast­ing sub­sidiary, Skill­shot Me­dia. “There was an ap­petite in the com­mu­nity to play, [and] pub­lish­ers started to sup­port that with prize money and struc­tures and cast­ing and pro­duc­tion.”

He goes on: “Pub­lish­ers did that be­cause the thought was that by sup­port­ing es­ports from a busi­ness stand­point those fans will play the game longer, maybe they’ll even spend more money. So I think a lot of pub­lish­ers have this in­tu­ition. But it’s not that some­one’s come up with re­search that says, ‘Yep that ac­tu­ally can be quan­ti­fied’.”

This is where Pro­fes­sor Mike Lewis’s team at Emory Univer­sity comes in. Lewis is the di­rec­tor of the Mar­ket­ing An­a­lyt­ics Cen­ter where his re­search ranges from tra­di­tional sports to pol­i­tics. He has been aware of es­ports for a while and Har­ris is ac­tu­ally a guest speaker on his sports an­a­lyt­ics course. “Over time, I think we just dis­cov­ered a mu­tual in­ter­est in un­der­stand­ing fan­dom,” says Lewis. “Hi-Rez has the data and Emory can sup­ply some aca­demic horse­power.”

His ini­tial hy­poth­e­sis is that es­ports will in­crease en­gage­ment (mea­sured in terms of play­ing, win­ning and mak­ing pur­chases) “be­cause it pro­vides a fo­cal com­mu­nity or a place for in­ter­ac­tion”. Test­ing this claim in­volves try­ing to iso­late how be­hav­iour changes when play­ers watch es­ports. “What we do is try and con­struct sam­ples of watch­ers and non-watch­ers that have very sim­i­lar lev­els of ac­tiv­ity prior to ex­po­sure to es­ports pro­gram­ming.”

Re­spect­ing pri­vacy

In case you’re (en­tirely rea­son­ably) won­der­ing about the sen­si­tiv­ity and gran­u­lar­ity of player data in­volved, Har­ris tells me that it’s al­ready anony­mous when they pass it to Emory: “The data is anonymised to not even in­clude at­tributes like gen­der and age and other things.” Lewis adds, “We are very re­spect­ful of player pri­vacy. We never look at any in­di­vid­ual level iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion be­yond coun­try of ori­gin.”

How (or if ) es­ports af­fects en­gage­ment with the un­der­ly­ing videogame is only one of ap­prox­i­mately a ba­jil­lion ques­tions which could make use of Lewis and his team’s ex­per­tise. As if to il­lus­trate that, there’s a se­cond ini­tial pro­ject, this one in­ves­ti­gat­ing con­sumer be­hav­iour in the in­dus­try, so how sys­tems like re­wards, lev­el­ling up and gain­ing com­mu­nity sta­tus af­fect pur­chas­ing be­hav­iour. I won­der if I should vol­un­teer my quest for a di­nosaur-themed cos­metic in Dota 2 as a case study?

A bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how an es­port re­lates to the game it’s based around ob­vi­ously has the po­ten­tial to im­pact busi­ness de­ci­sions of com­pa­nies like Hi-Rez. For Har­ris, the re­search is of in­ter­est for two rea­sons. One is Hi-Rez’s own stake in es­ports as part of its busi­ness. The other is that, via Skill­shot, they are hop­ing to pro­vide a ser­vice to other pub­lish­ers with es­ports scenes.

A white pa­per out­lin­ing the part­ner­ship’s first find­ings is ex­pected in the first quar­ter of 2019. Har­ris tends to speak with the ex­pec­ta­tion that the re­search will bear out the idea that es­ports is good for a game. But there’s al­ways the chance re­search can throw up un­ex­pected con­clu­sions. What hap­pens if the re­sults run counter to pub­lish­ers’ es­ports in­tu­itions?

Har­ris points out that Hi-Rez only makes com­pet­i­tive games and its staff mem­bers are big fans of es­ports so there’s a per­sonal in­vest­ment as well as a busi­ness one. “So re­ally, re­gard­less of what the re­search comes back with we don’t see our­selves de­creas­ing our in­vest­ment.”

Out­side es­ports-savvy com­mu­ni­ties there’s a ten­dency to re­fer to es­ports as if it’s a mono­lithic en­tity rather than a di­verse set of com­mu­ni­ties, game gen­res, com­mer­cial struc­tures and teams. I ask Lewis how he is treat­ing the idea of es­ports and how it’s bro­ken down into ar­eas.

Ex­am­in­ing es­ports

“This is an in­ter­est­ingly phrased ques­tion,” he says. “One of my chal­lenges in this part­ner­ship has been try­ing to get my head around the big pic­ture of es­ports. In tra­di­tional sports, a lot of fan­dom be­hav­iours can be tracked back to how leagues or­gan­ise them­selves. I do a lec­ture in class talk­ing about lev­els of con­trol – you have sports rang­ing from the NFL with hard salary caps, rev­enue shar­ing, am­a­teur drafts to the wild west of pro­fes­sional box­ing. The key point is that the way a sports cat­e­gory works (and how con­sumers be­have) can usu­ally be un­der­stood based on how the league is or­gan­ised.”

The va­ri­ety in the es­ports sec­tor and the data avail­able mean Lewis is choos­ing to fo­cus the team’s re­search on try­ing to un­der­stand in­di­vid­ual be­hav­iour at a fun­da­men­tal level. This means start­ing from first prin­ci­ples in terms of con­sumer psy­chol­ogy and tak­ing loose hy­pothe­ses to the data. “But, I will al­ways be very up front in terms of what I don’t know,” he adds. “To me [it still looks] like a vast and ex­pand­ing land­scape. It’s one of the things that makes this an ex­cit­ing part­ner­ship.”

“We’ve al­ways be­lieved that watch­ing es­ports helps our game busi­ness”

No idea which re­gion these fans are root­ing for.

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