Why esports lacks (but desperately needs) unified viewership metrics

We’ve all heard the claim that esports is bigger than the Super Bowl — but without unified metrics, it’s like comparing AWPs and Overwatch…or whatever the gaming equivalent of apples and oranges is.

For a digital medium like esports, viewership is arguably the most important data a company needs to gauge popularity, engagement, and potential investment opportunities. As more brands and investors enter the space, unifying these metrics has become not only a request but an absolute requirement.

LoL Worlds Esports Viewership Metrics
Photo credit: Riot Games

That’s why so many brands are investing in analytics companies these days and existing giants like Nielsen are paying close attention – even if its esports lead just left to join competitor YouGov.

Esports viewership metrics: a guide

Average minute audience (AMA) or average concurrent viewers (ACV): 

This is the most common metric for esports viewership. AMA counts how many people on average were watching at any specific point during the program. This is technically the same as the average audience, a term used for measuring linear TV. AMA is determined one of two ways: divide the total hours watched by how many hours the program lasted, or take an average of viewership each minute of the program.

PROS: Easy to compare to existing marketing ROI in traditional sports; good for comparing viewership across multiple properties

“The way we look at viewership metrics is trying putting the currency that we’re expressing into the same language and currency that brands and advertisers are used to,” said Nicole Pike while she was still at Nielsen. “What we’ve done is started using a similar currency in esports (AMA) so that brands can start to make comparisons to all the types of programming that they already know and have data for.”

“(AMA) gives you a nice comparison to see which property has more viewership than another, said Remer Rietkerk, Head of Esports at Newzoo. “What’s good about it is that it controls for the length. If you contrast it with hours watched — the multiplication of viewers times the length of broadcast, then you get the total consumption.”

CONS: Doesn’t translate to different broadcast formats

“Average viewers (or AMA) cannot be used to compare different tournaments (for example, Fortnite World Cup and LoL Worlds), as the formats of these tournaments are absolutely different,” said Artyom Odintsov, CEO of Esports Charts. “In this case, Fortnite would show a better result simply because the average viewers metric for LoL Worlds would be decreased due to the Play-In and Group Stages. Average viewers can only be compared for certain similar stages (e.g. finals, or group stages).”

“If I want to look at LoL vs CS:GO, AMA is not going to be a very good comparison because it’s going to have dilution from all these tiny events that go on in either tournament,” said Rietkerk. “You might see that a very centralized system like Overwatch is going to appear more popular of an esport than LoL or Counter-Strike because they have a lot more smaller events going on.”

2019 Events by Average Viewership
Image credit: Esports Charts

Unique Viewers:

Unique viewers measures how many different people tuned in at any point of the program and how long they watched.

PROS: Helpful for measuring the success of a marketing campaign and overall reach of a game

“Contrasted by concurrent viewers, [unique viewer metrics] give you a good idea of your retention,” said Rietkerk, who previously managed leagues for Riot Games. “It’s more of a performance metric. For a publisher, it gives you a feeling of how many people your game reaches.”

CONS: Lack of public availability; inconsistent definitions of “view” across platforms; misleading when compared to different metrics

“You hear things like that the LoL world championships are bigger than the Super Bowl but when you look at the numbers, the Super Bowl is measured by the average audience and LoL number is unique viewers which is a totally different metric and therefore not directly comparable,” said Pike.

When counting Unique Viewers, Esports Charts measures the indicator of Unique Authorized viewers for Twitch streams, Odintsov added.

Image credit: EPICENTER

Peak Concurrent Users (PCU)

Peak concurrent users refers to the highest number of people tuning in at the same time during a broadcast.

PROS: Good for measuring the popularity for a particular tournament or event

“PCU is affected by many factors, the main one being the time zone where the tournament is held,” noted Odintsov. “Even then, this metric is great at comparing events in the same region (for example, U.S. or Europe) to understand which one was more popular.”

CONS: None

Image source: Newzoo

Hours Watched (HW)

As the name implies, hours watched is used to measure viewers on a broadcast by the hour.

PROS: Measures length of exposure to brand activation; good for comparing genres

“Hours watched is really nice for brands to figure out how long people are getting exposed to them,” said Rietkerk. “It’s also a better metric if you want to compare genres.”

CONS: Must be compared to other metrics for better context

“Hours watched cannot be used without average viewers or air time, as there may have been 1 million hours watched for eight hours of broadcasting that was achieved by 125,000 average viewers,” said Odintsov, “or 1 million hours watched for 100 hours of broadcasting, that was achieved by 10,000 average viewers, with a difference of nearly 10 times between the average viewer amounts.”

Image credit: Riot Games

Why the esports industry needs unified metrics

When we look at esports viewership statistics, a view is not a view is not a view. One reason is that the industry is still coming into its own.

“I think metrics are fragmented because esports started grassroots and the early esports data came directly from the rightsholders,” said Pike. “If you think in terms of the TV world, a third party would run a consistent metric or set of metrics to help create an even playing field across advertising and sponsorship. Without that opportunity for a neutral third party to report data, individual publishers or events were left to report themselves.

“None of the numbers they were recording were wrong, but you want to make a splash with the metrics that are bigger. Unfortunately, it creates major inconsistencies across how things are measured and defined by platform, rightsholder, etc.”

Esports is already a unique animal in that each game has a different format and audience. This makes it difficult to compare events and estimate the value of a broadcast in terms of ROI or investment.

“The biggest advantage to uniformity is that we’re all talking the same language,” Rietkerk said. “If everyone is trying to use different metrics to discuss the same property, it’s going to lead to confusion for sponsors.”

In fact, sponsors are one of the biggest drivers of uniformity demand — as companies divert marketing budgets away from traditional sporting events, familiar metrics help to plan accordingly.

“In the world of esports, the viewership statistics of a tournament directly influence the number of partners a team or organizer has,” said Odintsov. “The importance of social media statistics is already fading into the background, and many are interested in live events and occurrences (both in broadcasts conducted by streamers and larger tournaments).”

Every esports title is unique and it’s true that the industry is experiencing a period of tremendous growth. But until everyone is on the same page in terms of viewership metrics, none of that progress can be accurately measured.