Earlier this year Twitter played host to the grand final of the League of Legends Oceanic Pro League (OPL), which saw esports heavyweights Dire Wolves and Chiefs Esports Club go head to head. One question that came to mind at the time was ‘Twitter were now streaming esports competitions in Australia?’ A reasonable response, with the answer itself pointing to the rise of competitive games like League of Legends and the unique position that Twitter finds itself as one of the leaders in online content engagement.
Twitter's Head of Sport Oliver Wilton
“We saw the day before and throughout the first day of the tournament, the hashtag was trending number one in Australia.” Twitter's Head of Sports, Oliver Wilton, tells me. “Gaming, and more recently, esports, has always been huge on Twitter. It’s a very natural home for it. It’s an open platform. It’s a public platform. So, if people who are watching the live streams or experiencing some online game play, or playing a game for the first time on its release day, suddenly they can find people around the world who are doing the same thing.”
Although not traditionally known as a broadcast or streaming service, Twitter may be in a unique position because it can directly gauge the popularity of games, and by extension esports. But not only that, teams and players too.
From the information that Twitter shared with us, the exponential rise in the popularity of esports in the past few years is now very much a fact. With conversations and fan bases growing steadily around certain teams, players, and titles. With the following data obtained from Twitter we can see that although discussions around titles like Call of Duty remain popular among the online community, Overwatch, DOTA 2, and CS: GO have also become key parts of day-to-day gaming conversations.
“In 2016 there were 250 billion impressions on game tweets,” Oliver notes. “It’s just a huge number. It’s one of our biggest categories in the entertainment category, which drives a huge amount of conversation on Twitter. This year alone we’ve had over 165 million gaming related tweets, and that's a few months old. You can imagine how that spikes out in the build up to Christmas.” Perhaps the more interesting revelation, outside of conversations around specific titles comes with the rise in awareness of esports talent – from teams to players.
In the last two years alone Australian esports teams like Chiefs Esports Club, Dire Wolves, and Mindfreak have seen an exponential growth in the number of followers. Which also extends to key players and personalities. For Oliver Wilton, who also manages traditional sports on Twitter, the similarities were self-evident. “A big focus for us in sports and in esports is how can we bring that content and conversation into the same place,” Oliver tells me. “If you watch any AFL game, it unfolds on Twitter. People do kick-by-kick commentary. They talk about the big moments. They’ll tag the players who are doing it. So, you can basically watch a game unfold.”
This live, as-it-happens, commentary extends to esports where games, events, and competitions unfold on Twitter. What separates esports though, from say traditional sports, is how un-connected they are to traditional forms of media, from radio and television through to how sponsorships are structured. “It’s such a young industry that it hasn’t got heritage and deep-rooted rights deals or sponsorship deals or anything like that,” Oliver explains. “Which can make traditional sports move a little bit slower. Esports, one the other hand, are evolving rapidly. So, what we’ve noticed working with our gaming and esports publishers is that they move very quickly on good ideas. They’ve got great tech, and there’s a clear focus on the consumer. It’s that fan experience that is absolute paramount.”
In talking with Oliver, he was also quick to point out that through services like Twitter, Twitch, and streaming platforms there’s a very different feel to traditional sports. In that the barriers are absent, or quite different. “The other thing is that you can’t really bullshit gamers or esports fans,” Oliver adds. “It’s also all about authenticity and finding messaging, especially when brands and organisations come in to the picture. You can’t just do the same spot ads or advertise your integration, because gamers will see through that.”
Coming to You Live, on Twitter
In watching the growth of esports, and the conversations among fans thrive across a broad range of titles, from League of Legends to DOTA 2 and Overwatch, the obvious next step for Twitter was to combine the two. “A big focus for us is just that. Can we bring that live-action into the same platform as the conversation,” Oliver tells me. “We see it as a really nice symbiotic effect, where the more people who are watching the content live on Twitter, the more people are actually tweeting about that content. The more people who are tweeting about the content, the more people it actually-drags in to watch that content live.”
Unlike other forms of online social media, Twitter is different in that it’s also a place for news and information. “The way people connect on Twitter isn’t necessarily about your peers or about your friends,” Oliver explains. “It’s about your passions and that's why we have these communities forming around gaming titles, around hashtags. People don’t necessarily know each other in real life. But we do see lovely stories of people connecting, and like any sport, it’s better when you watch it with other people. You get that buzz of the crowd and Twitter is the world’s biggest stadium. So, you get that enjoyment of sharing that live experience with a lot of other like-minded people.”
Of course, in my discussion with Oliver and looking at the data supplied the message was clear that we were still looking at a relatively young industry. Where esports growth in the last two years has been exponential but also spread throughout the world and across a broad range of titles. This has led to several corporate sponsorships for tournaments, team sponsorship, hardware branding, and everything else one associates with traditional sports marketing. Also, a broad range of streaming partners and channels. But even so, certain platforms remain at the forefront.
“We’re not going up against Twitch, we’re trying to be complementary,” Oliver mentions, in reference to one of the biggest names in game streaming. “We know we have a huge amount of gaming and esports fans on Twitter but we also know we have an even bigger amount of people who haven’t come round to it yet. As we see the exponential growth of esports and it is becoming more and more mainstream, we think that's a really interesting opportunity for Twitter. How can we take esports and find an audience that might just be coming to it, rather than those guys who are already quite invested and quite knowledgeable who are probably spending more time on Twitch.”
Last year Twitter became a partner of the Halo World Championship Grand Finals. Where 13 million people watched the action unfold across the globe. And out of that 13 million, 10.3 of them watched the action live on Twitter. In addition to that, plus DreamHack, MLG, and E3 streaming, working with Riot Games Oceania and bringing all the League of Legends action to audiences in the region and the world is all part of a larger picture.
“Australia over-delivered in terms of how vocal people are on Twitter,” Oliver adds. “The same with every sport, people are passionate one way or the other about their teams or their rivals, and we see pretty the same patterns extending over into esports.” Playing into Australia’s well-known affinity for all things sport. “It’s just going to get even more interesting as we see more of the traditional sports teams get involved in Australia,” Oliver concludes. “Last year was Adelaide Crows and Legacy and the Melbourne victory with their FIFA player sponsorship. So that will be interesting, where you start to see really well run established sporting codes and teams start to diversify their growth strategy by moving into the esports arena.”
Whatever the future holds, one thing for certain is that when it comes to esports – the story has only just begun.