ESI 2020 round-up: The year in hindsight and esports’ future

Like any other year, 2020 saw tides of opportunity and misfortune, however, the magnitude of these waves which shored around the globe, across industries, markets, and societies was unprecedented.

Adaption was a paramount trait among leaders, as logistical shifts needed to be made at the drop of a hat and referring back to the old playbook seemed off the table. On the first day of a new year, 2020 is certainly behind us, but many of its consequences are still yet to be revealed. As such, esports stakeholders continue to adjust their structures with future-proofing aspirations in mind.

In order to provide a comprehensive round-up of 2020, Esports Insider spoke to a broad selection of industry leaders from esports organisations, league operators and service suppliers to create a two-part (Part One is here) look at this challenging year.

In this final entry, respondents recalled what traits defined their organisations in 2020, what they would improve if they had the power of hindsight, and which lessons they will be bringing with them into 2021.

The defining traits of 2020

While adaptation certainly was regarded as a definitive trait by many throughout 2020, with esports having the ability to pivot and change its plans across lockdowns and varying regional/global restrictions, a multitude of changes had to be made structurally in order to help bolster public health and safety. As such, many industry leaders also attributed grit as a trait strengthened from this year’s challenges.

“I would say resilience defined Gen.G in 2020 starting with managing the pandemic across three waves in our offices in China, Korea, and then the United States,” said Chris Park, CEO of Gen.G. 

 “We immediately recognised this year was going to change our initial plans, and we pulled together as a global organisation to engage our fans and deliver for our partners. We also launched the Gen.G Foundation, a $1m commitment made by Gen.G to empower a future generation of diverse leaders within this community.”

COO of DreamHack, ESL Gaming GmbH, Anna Nordlander added: “The adaptation and flexibility of our organisation has been key — from the way we transitioned to an online environment, to the way our community responded and supported those changes.

“But we also adapted internally with our amazing, nimble employees modifying the way we work and amending our new structures mostly from their homes, always accepting and flourishing among these new challenges as a way to contribute even more.”

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Meanwhile, Patrick Mahoney, the CEO of esports apparel firm We are Nations and Nations Ventures, had a different outlook on how the company had to develop. He said: “I’m not sure we’ve had to adapt as much as refocus.  No live events meant more e-commerce sales.

”More e-commerce sales gave us an opportunity to rethink how we approach marketing and selling product.  I think that in many ways, 2020 set us up for the future.  We probably would have drawn the same conclusions regardless, but sometimes pressure brings out the good in everyone.”

2020 in hindsight

WePlay Ultimate Fighting League
Credit: WePlay Esports

Many of the responses cited that, in retrospect, the stakeholders would have invested in studio production, equipment, and remote capabilities sooner if the full effects of the pandemic were revealed sooner.  The year’s answer to social distancing roadblocks and future-proofing was a version of ‘going digital’, with many of the responses echoing that the transition was a crucial moment for the esports industry.

Gen.G’s Park commented: “I believe our industry needed to go all-in earlier with online competitions and content. Ours is the one sport that can, did, and will thrive in that setting, and we should embrace that strength.” 

In addition, most esports entities felt that whilst, in hindsight, changes could have been made to create a quicker transition, the organisations learned from these setbacks, which in turn bolstered their structures and created new approaches. 

“Besides investing in Zoom, we might have done some things differently, especially had we known the pandemic was going to last this long.” FaZe Clan CEO, Lee Trink, reflected. “But the fact that it was unexpected made us approach each day light on our feet, building our ability to pivot at every roadblock and recognise every new opportunity.”

“It’s so much easier to look back and reevaluate decisions.” DreamHack’s Noordlander added. “I’m sure there are things that we could have done differently in planning and execution, but we’ve never experienced a global crisis like this before — no one has. 

“I think our team has done a remarkable job responding and preparing for this uncertain environment and its effect on our industry and our community. As we look to the new year and begin sharing plans for 2021, it will show we’ve grown from this experience and have been able to develop a more solid and robust plan.”

Photo credit: DreamHack

Lessons to take from 2020 into 2021

Although Mike Tyson has yet to enter officially into the esports space, his famous sentiments still seem to resonate, as quoted by John Fazio, CEO of Nerd St. Gamers in response to his biggest takeaway of 2020: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

“As we continue to grow in 2021 and hopefully find the ‘new’ normal in esports, we will take the highs and lows from this past year and strategically work them into our plans. Our organisation’s ability to be flexible and innovative, is something that can propel us into a successful new year.”

“2020 was the greatest challenge we’ve had to face as an organisation, but we exceeded our expectations and are proud of what we’ve achieved,” replied Ben Spoont, CEO and co-founder of Misfits Gaming Group.

“We quickly adapted to changes and were able to compete professionally, engage with our community and also give back through charity initiatives. We were forced to get creative, and our team rose to the challenge, delivering some of the best (online) events and pieces of content that we’ve ever done.

“This year tested us and it proved that we can rise to the challenge, even when it means changing every single plan.”

WePlay’s CEO, Oleh Humeniuk also offered his advice: “The key takeaway from 2020 is that you have to be prepared for everything. Make plans, put them to action, yet be flexible and take both the unforeseen issues and the unexpected possibilities into account. A perfect plan does not exist, that’s why a reliable team and sound decision-making is king.”

For Arnoud Schonis, Esports Project Manager of The eDivisie, it was a partnership revelation: “Most of the time, the person that signs the deal in becoming an eDivisie partner, is not familiar with the world of esports. That means that we will have to make comparisons to things they do know.

“For example: if you decide on a TV commercial, you’ll reach 3 million people. If you sign a partnership deal with the eDivisie, you’ll reach 4 million people. We should do that much more, because this way these decision makers can compare apples with apples.”

EDivisie Championship
Credit: EDivisie

“I have to separate 2020 into two parts,”  Mahoney of Nations told Esports Insider, “The first part is all about being a human being, parent, husband, son, friend and colleague. 2020 was a tough, tough year. And a lot of people had it worse than I did – they lost loved ones, lost their job, or they or someone dear to them got sick. 

“This is a tragedy no matter how you slice it, and like all stress does, shows us where the weaknesses are in our society. That said, there are two sides to a coin, and I also think it’s OK to celebrate how we’ve been able to adapt, innovate, adjust and keep things going.

“But we need to come out of this remembering both sides – the good and the bad.  Because just like I said about esports, we all have the chance to enter 2021 a year older, smarter and stronger.  My sincere wishes of happiness and easier roads to all in 2021!”

The esports sector has continued to develop in 2020 and the industry is looking towards the new year with confidence, resilience and contingency plans. While the eventual return of physical events will come as a welcome relief to esports, betting solely on its comeback isn’t the only viable plan in esports entities’ ‘new-normal’ strategies. 

Where there are challenges, there are opportunities to succeed and if 2020 was heavy on the former, then 2021 surely will surely focus on the latter. The esports industry will continue to break-through with its tenacity and unique opportunities for competitive entertainment. 2021 will be one to watch.

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