James Dean – ESL UK – UK Scene Rising

James Dean, MD ESL UK / Turtle Entertainment UK
James Dean, MD ESL UK

During the ESL UK Premiership Finals at MCM ComicCon, one of the people we sat down and spoke with was the MD of ESL UK himself, James Dean. Before we sat down for the interview we talked about grassroots esports, and how that’s a focus for ESL UK.

Dean also talks about the growth and ongoing evolution of the UK scene, data in esports, gambling, and the ESL origin story. 

Esports Insider: Hello James. So I believe this is your third event at MCM ComicCon?

James: It is in fact the seventh event we’ve done, but the fourth UK Premiership final here. We’ve also had a couple of League of Legends events here before. So basically ComicCon first happened by mistake; we got a call out of the blue from a colleague at a peripheral company who said “MCM needs a company to run an esports stage”. We asked when the event was and the answer was 2 weeks.

That was the birth of ESL UK hosting events at ComicCon. We weren’t really aware of the size of ComicCon before that; it was pretty much off everyone’s radar bar the 130,000 people that come here. When we came and ran the LoL stage (it’s rife here) we saw a really great response from the community.

It really started out as a test case!

Esports Insider: Usually you host each game over the whole weekend?

James: Yeah. I think we wish we made it two! LoL day one, Overwatch day two – probably the biggest two for ComicCon, down to cosplay being quite rife here for them. Looking at the reason we’re here it all forms part of why we run the UK Premiership and how important that is to the entire community in the UK.

ESL is over 20 years old now. Its foundation was pure grassroots. It started in Cologne finding like minded players and casters. ESL built a massive platform for people to play online and created anti-cheat platforms. It all moved on from there. Since then there have been attempts to make video content. The biggest problem was in terms of its distribution. 

Esports Insider: Stuff like download speeds right?

James: Especially for live content! There were a couple of live attempts before Twitch, but that was the first where it bloomed. It coincided with this “Millennial” audience that were getting to the age when they were watching gaming content on YouTube and other platforms. What was great about Twitch was that it was live, so people could run esports tournaments.

Twitch made that shift for awareness globally so when it hit millions of concurrent viewers, people thought about starting conferences about esports.

Prior to that people thought it was niche.

Esports Insider: Just a load of nerds in a room playing video games?

James: Exactly. Even though that wasn’t the case. People see esports as this massive phenomenon that grew out of absolutely nowhere but that is not the case. It has this huge foundation stretching back years. ESL now has 15 offices across the world.

Esports Insider: Fifteen of them now?

James: It’s great. It’s amazing. Brazil has opened recently even though there are a few problems the infrastructure’s interesting to deal with but then this is great too – if you look at it on the flip-side, in terms of evolving to meet all these different conditions.

Esports Insider: It’s figuring out what everyone has to deal with, this not fully matured thing…

James: So if you go from Manilla to Brazil, via Australia… They’re all different places trying to do the same thing in this huge global community. After all you don’t necessarily need to speak the same language to play a game with someone. It’s quite cool.

So across these regions we’ve still got this focus on each local, grassroots community. That’s what the UK Premiership is a culmination of, running the Contender Series and the Go4’s. We’ve recently announced the PlayStation tournament platform with Sony. It’s currently 1v1 but it’s superb – and getting thousands of players in the UK. We’re running FIFA, Madden, Project Cars and a few more. All of that side of things is really important.

If you think about it, and without sounding like a sales pitch, there’s no other organisation like that in the world that’s got this focus locally. But, we’re not here to say, necessarily, how big is this market and how to take it all. We’re here because it forms part of our global infrastructure. We’ve been doing this before esports was a big phenomenon. The same goes for France, Poland, Spain, Italy and the others who were doing it at the same time. The USA came online just before the UK did a couple years back.

If you think about it, there’s no other organisation like that in the world that’s got this focus locally.

Esports Insider: Didn’t the UK have an office a while ago?

James: Yeah, that was around the WCS Finals. Ben and Luke [Referring to Ben Woodward and Luke Cotton, Directors of Trifecta Media] were running it at the time. Originally, the structure ESL set up was that they franchised the name out to different countries. It was fairly clever really as a way of testing the waters, and if it did they’d take it over.

Having this event here is a testament to where the UK Premiership is going. Looking back to when we started the UK Prem for instance we didn’t pay travel. Now there’s full hospitality. The prize money is better. With weekly streams we’ve got this huge exposure. That’s exactly what the community needs right now.

The guys in the teams aren’t full-time right now, but it won’t be too long until they’ll start forming full time teams.

Esports Insider: Especially for CS:GO in this country.

James: Exactly. If we look at Hearthstone, the UK is storming it there. Overwatch is exciting and in LoL teams are already being promoted to Challenger Series qualifiers. That’s happening. The next step is that some of those teams go full time, and if that happens then they’ve got a really good chance of getting up there. 

ESL One goes into 10,000 seater stadiums. In five years, maybe sooner, we could see UK Premierships in 5,000 or 10,000 seater stadiums. That sounds mad, and if you tell that to some of the players out there they’d probably call you nuts. But looking at four seasons, over two years, you can see the difference. We used to have players turning up without shirts, well we still do… but there are professional budding organisations that are turning into legitimate businesses – and some of them already are. We’ve got to do as much as we can to help that.

Beyond the UK Prem there’s all these grassroots levels here, with so many organisations in different pockets of communities in the UK that are super important to all this. We’re not trying to take it away from that – we’re trying to support it. Epic.LAN is one of them, we love those guys and they’re doing a great job.

Esports Insider: You’ve worked together for a while haven’t you?

James: We did one of our early DOTA 2 tournaments there. It was a logistical nightmare going up those stairs. We’re hoping they get the hall, if they did that it’d be incredible.

Esports Insider: The Auditorium at Kettering?

James: They get that then we’d be back like a shot. Yes please!

That’s the thing. Epic.LAN are also here helping us with our networking. Also looking at the NUEL, we’ve helped them before. There’s the Varsity Games appearing now. There’s King of the North. UKCSGO.com are running the County Champs. Such a good format that shows that, those who look at the UK Scene and laugh are wrong.

Esports Insider: There is a large UK CS:GO Scene. No-one’s gone above that ceiling of international level.

James: You’re right. We’ve a long way to go with CS. There might be changes before that even happens. But I think generally speaking the UK has a lot to offer. We’re not even mentioning the console scene where we have some of the best talent in the world.

Esports Insider: With a UK team in the Call of Duty World League finals, for example.

James: Yeah, which makes sense given we’re a very console focused country as well. Although PC is definitely rife in our numbers. If we look at our global numbers, the UK is usually second, third maybe fourth depending on the different titles. So it’s very plausible it’s huge.

Hopefully, we’ve not had these conversations before specifically, but I hope we’ve started to demonstrate that the grassroots scene has a lot to offer, and we can only hope that this is going to be the foundation to getting UK teams to professionalise and go pro. We’ll be adding more titles [to the UK Prem] next year. So it’s super to see.

Thank God, because it’s been such hard work but it looks to be paying off. With the infrastructure that we’re building to do this, a lot of that is due to the Pro League we’re running in this country as well. We had the CS Pro league at the O2 Indigo. We’ve got the Halo EU Finals coming up, we had a Heroes of The Storm EU regional earlier in the year. We ran the Guild Wars Pro League, and ran the Mortal Kombat Pro League. All the aspects of the higher pro leagues that we’re running in the UK helps, just building the infrastructure out for these events.

There are all the grass-roots organisations in different pockets of communities in the UK that are super important to all this. We’re not trying to take it away from that – we’re trying to support it.

Esports Insider: So in the past you’ve worked with gambling organisations…

James: So my interests in the gambling industry is one of programming and data. I find it fascinating as much as I’ve researched gambling in the UK and around that industry that it’s got that special place in sports. You could argue that certain sports wouldn’t exist without it.

Esports Insider: Some like greyhound racing and horse racing depend on it for instance…

James: I think that gambling always has its place in sports, I think the UK does a really good job at harnessing how gambling sits. The Nordics in a similar way.

Some countries don’t really adopt it at all, but I think that it’s something we’re never going to be able to prevent. But if we embrace it, and look at ways we can actually harness making that enjoyable aspect of gambling within this esports environment – that’s fascinating to me.

The very simple fact we’ve got this huge amount of data we’re pulling through, it can make some really fun things that I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface on yet.

Betway are making some really good movements in this space but still I think there’s so much more to be done. We’re working with Sportradar where we’ve developed, especially around CS, a product called ProDB. Essentially what that does is that it provides the analytical data that goes into the Sportradar infrastructure. 

It does three things. First, it creates betting markets that can generate interest such as live markets. Secondly, and one of the biggest reasons we looked into it, is the integrity aspect. This revolves around helping to notice and prevent match fixing. Third, and finally, it helps increase the production values. Sometimes the data we’re getting back from Sportradar and ProDB actually helps the casters or analysis guys, or even the data streams on the screen which adds to the entertainment value. We’re in the infancy stage of that and it’s taking a lot of effort to get there.

Most of the challenges are that different publishers allow different access to that data. Valve being one of the more open publishers out there – good or bad as we’ve found out down to the skins. That’s a situation which is still being handled. 

If we look at traditional sports, they’re trying to get similar sorts of data that an esports game would just spit out instantly. We’re working with York University on some data analysis, as well as talking to Leicester University about a similar thing. It’s fascinating, the work these guys are doing is incredible. To be able to see how they can do deep data analysis on all sorts of aspects of games and tournaments, and being able to provide visual data from it. Data to be used for industry, in analysis and talent spotting. Looking at the football industry for instance, they’re now using data in a big way to find up and coming players.

Esports Insider: Meanwhile Football Manager players had been doing it for years!

James: Precisely! It’s exactly what you can do with this. It only enhances the entire thing and makes it a bigger industry. Fortunately in the UK we’re in a good space for that. We’re talking to the UK Gambling Commission fairly regularly around this, making sure we’re in the same thought process and we’ll do everything we can do to make sure they can understand what is going on in this space.

The industry is very exciting. The panels on esports gambling at conferences are usually popular, which I guess is no surprise because how often does a new sport pop up?

I’m really pleased to see some of the sponsorships coming through. There’s been Betway sponsoring NiP and Dafabet sponsoring Fnatic. I think that’s great; it’s only going to help the scene. It’d be great to see them getting further into grassroots obviously. Betway for instance has sponsored one of our CS:GO tournaments.

I think we went for a different direction with G2A and Kinguin around their skin sales. But I think it’s really the gambling industry that sits in that space. Saying that, Ladbrokes pulled out recently.

Esports Insider: Nope. They were just changing it up. (source)

James: Oh so they were just enhancing it. I just saw it was gone. So they were just making it better. That says it all. Amazing.