ESI 2021 round-up: Looking back

As the sun sets on yet another year defined by the unyielding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, one can’t help but step back and admire the intrinsic resilience of the esports industry. 

Unprecedented logistical shifts put in place during 2020 endured into 2021, and our digital nature as an industry meant we fared far better than most in adapting to the newfound normal.

In last year’s recap, there was an emphasis on esports’ place as a stand-in media darling while traditional sports went on hiatus. 2021 may have seen less linear TV airtime for esports, but other successes ensued: tournament viewership boomed across live streaming services, sponsors cleverly adapted partnerships, investment activity showed remarkable resilience, and whole new opportunities opened up in the esports betting world.

In order to assess how the year went from the perspective of its practitioners, Esports Insider has collated the perspectives of industry stakeholders for Part 1 of our end of year round-up. We asked esports organisations, league operators, services providers and everyone in-between for perspectives and opinions on esports in 2021.

Image credit: DreamHack / Gabriel Kulig

Changes to the landscape

Undercurrents of COVID-19, unsurprisingly, mired almost every business this year. Many practitioners admitted déjà vu as similar challenges as last year reared once again. That hasn’t neutered optimism about the continued, organic growth of the space, though.

Tony Trubridge, Global Esports Director at SteelSeries, said: “Industry-wise, the landscape continues to grow as mainstream [actors] see the passion, excitement, and fandom within esports and gaming. Esports is now helping to define the culture.”

Equally optimistic was Justin Kenna, GameSquare CEO, who noted the importance of 2020’s influx of athletes, celebrities and global brands venturing into esports for the first time; “2021 built upon that foundation as brands and other non-endemic stakeholders committed to growing their presence in the space.”

Angela Bernhard Thomas, Executive Vice President at ESPORTSU, also saw the mainstream ascendancy of certain esports entities as a defining change this year. “I think the rise of the gamer influencer marketing and the financial modelling of how FaZe Clan and 100 Thieves have leveraged their assets to become household names has done a lot to raise the visibility of gaming and esports”, she said. “It’s become more than competition, it’s become cultural.”

For Michael Chavez Booth, General Manager at The Story Mob North America, and Chris Gonsalves, CEO of Community Gaming, blockchain took the limelight. “We’ve continued to see a convergence with other industries and verticals, non-native to gaming. This stretches from traditional sports and entertainment to emerging platforms across blockchain and cryptocurrency,” Booth said.

Gonsalves concurred: “One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed across the esports landscape this past year is the growing presence of Blockchain-enabled games, [which] are emblematic of the increasing acceptance of blockchain technology and the proliferation of NFTs across esports.”

Michele Attisani, Co-Founder & CBO of FACEIT, recapitulated esports’ achievements and rapid pace of growth in 2021: “We’ve seen records broken for tournament participation, viewership and essentially every other KPI that we’re measuring. We’ve seen a lot of projects and companies succeed, and a lot fail, but both help us grow the industry and advance it to a more mature stage.”

MAD Lions LEC Spring Split
MAD Lions win the LEC Spring Split, 2021. Image credit: LoL Esports

Meanwhile, EXCEL ESPORTS CEO Wouter Sleijffers was excited about the growth of new esports IP. “The current climate has given the opportunity for other esports titles to continue to rise, such as Rocket League, Rainbow Six Siege, and others. The rise of new titles gives the continued opportunity for new teams and talents to rise in fame.”

Confidence in managing cloud-based broadcasts and returning to in-person events allowed many organisers to focus attention on creative content, compelling collaborations with influencers, and emerging monetisation strategies, said Matt Marcou, Senior Director & Commissioner, Madden Competitive Gaming, Electronic Arts. “If 2020 was about navigating operational uncertainty, then 2021 was a rekindling of the entrepreneurial spirit that grew esports tremendously over the past five years.”

Finally, Laura Byrne, Swipe Right PR’s Junior Account Manager, highlighted increasing transparency. “Whether it’s organisations talking about player contracts and buyouts fees or brands announcing partnership deal lengths, it’s really promising to see conversations opening up. It provides such a good benchmark for how the industry is growing and progressing. We see so many overinflated numbers surrounding esports that it’s great to get a more insightful look into how businesses are operating.”

The biggest esports industry developments

It was certainly hard to depict one momentous development that defined the sector’s growth, but the rise of cryptocurrency within esports was highlighted throughout most resoponses. 

Chris Gonsalves of Community Gaming, said: “I’ve been pleased to see an increase in cryptocurrency sponsorships across esports. That willingness from big publishers and tournament organizers to initiate these partnerships with Coinbase, FTX, and others feels like the natural next step. We’ve got two future-facing industries that place deep, inherent value on virtual experiences — why wouldn’t there be lucrative audience crossover?”

Image credit: Shutterstock

Moreover, FACEIT’s Michele Attisani highlighted that due to the cryptocurrency market being managed by ‘a generation of young leaders that fully understand gaming communities’, the sector has been able to fully embrace esports and tap into the sector’s potential.

The introduction of the metaverse was also a development that excited many and started to make waves halfway through 2021, particularly with Dubit raising $8m to launch the first metaverse esports league

In addition, the continued development of esports venues was also brought up. Despite the fact that COVID-19 still heavily affected the LAN ecosystem, there still remains a “demand for both local and large scale gaming and esports venues,” according to Angela Bernhard Thomas of ESPORTSU.

Laura Byrne of Swipe Right chose mobile esports: “The rise of mobile esports continues with the likes of PUBG MOBILE, Arena of Valor, Wild Rift and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang all leading the way. We have seen record-breaking viewership with The Free Fire World Series becoming the most-watched esports tournament ever.”

Many industry professionals highlighted the rise of certain esports ecosystems — not just mobile esports, but specific games like VALORANT. EXCEL’s Wouter Sleijffers said: “To me, the biggest development this year was without a doubt the rise of VALORANT and its esports ecosystem.

“The development and early success of the VCT is very significant as other early-stage leagues have not seen the projected sustained success. We can remain confident that esports remains on a significant path of growth and development, if done right.”

Pictured: KRÜ Esports VALORANT Teams qualifying for VCT Stage 3: Masters in Berlin. Image Credit: KRÜ Esports

Defining moments

It’s hard to pick a defining moment in a year brimming with trends and narratives. Asked to choose, though, a significant number of stakeholders highlighted blockchain-related announcements.

“I think the bold move for Facebook to change their name to Meta really crystallized the concept that this is the direction we are headed. There will be a new paradigm to esports that the metaverse will usher in as we head into next year,” opined ESPORTSU’s Angela Bernhard Thomas.

For Community Gaming’s Chris Gonsalves, it was the $210m, 10-year deal between FTX and TSM. “It was a staggering amount of money for an esports organisation, and it’s shaped every conversation around esports and cryptocurrency since.” That deal allowed TSM to be “mentioned in the same breath as other marquee FTX partners from traditional sports like the Miami Heat, Major League Baseball and Tom Brady,” Gonsalves noted.

Anthony Graham from Tundra Esports, meanwhile, thought The International took the ($40m) prize this year, with a special shoutout to the record-breaking $1bn valuation from FaZe.

For Michele Attisani of FACEIT, it was — naturally — going back to a sold-out arena for the PGL Major Stockholm 2021. “The tournament, which destroyed any previous CS:GO viewership record, gave us a taste of what the post-COVID world could be like, and it was beautiful. CS:GO, with the longevity and inclusiveness of its ecosystem, is an index for esports as a whole. The event was good news for the industry,” he suggested.

The International 2019 Prize Pool
Photo credit: Valve

Greatest achievements in 2021

We asked for a list of practitioners’ favourite achievements in 2021. The breadth of responses shows just how well the industry adapted around the pandemic this year.

FACEIT: Organising the Rainbow 6 Siege Six Mexico Major in August, which Michele Attisani described as ‘extremely challenging but incredibly rewarding’ amidst COVID-19 restrictions — with a special shout out to the launch of Halo Infinite on the platform.

SteelSeries: The celebration of its 20th anniversary as a company specialising in esports peripherals.

ESPORTSU: Being accepted into the Producers Guild of America and acknowledged by peers in New Media.

The Story Mob: General Manager Michael Chavez Booth’s opportunity to blend his cultural background with his passion for and faith in the future of esports.

Community Gaming: Raising $2.3m in a funding round led by Coinfund, which allowed it to expand into LatAm and SEA.

Tundra Esports: Its Dota 2 team’s victory at ESL One Fall and OGA Dota Pit Season 5.

EXCEL: Being featured in the BBC’s Fight for First series and expansions into Valorant and FIFA.

Swipe Right PR: Doubling revenue and growing the team to 20 people amidst an expanded client base.

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Hindsight and lessons from 2021

Asking the industry to discuss its weaknesses is a tough topic. Missed opportunities are hard to come to terms with, and this year particularly was full of roundabout swings at each turn. However, self-reflection is important and might indicate what’s to come in 2022.

Swipe Right’s Kirsty Endfield candidly discussed that one change would have been to shift the agency’s image. “I had every ambition to rebrand and it took a backseat. The brand is tired and doesn’t show us for who we are. We also don’t PR ourselves well, everything has been through word of mouth so even our current clients don’t know that we’ve grown. Matching how we’re scaling to recruitment is always a challenge.”

FACEIT’s Michele Attisani also highlighted that the company would have liked to focus more on driving innovation and creativity. However, this was caveated by the “unfortunate but necessary reality” to focus on COVID-19 which provided “extreme uncertainty in how we run all aspects of our business”.

Other hindsights of notice included Angela Bernhard Thomas of ESPORTSU arguing she would have “pushed harder to jump start esports betting” and The Story Mob North America’s Michael Chavez Booth saying: “Perhaps I could have better anticipated or reacted to [esports’] growth.”

Investing in esports betting
Photo credit: Shutterstock

To conclude, EXCEL’s Wouter Sleijffers provided an honest review of the organisation’s esports venture, detailing that he wanted more of an emphasis on competitive success. “It’s no secret that we still need to achieve significant success even if we have very talented players and support staff. Our ambitions are of course way beyond the results we’ve seen so far. I believe all the pieces need to fall together in the right place to make it happen.

“Saying that, of course that’s hindsight we’ve taken in with foresight. We’re proud that we’ve welcomed two of the world’s finest FIFA pros, and we have a firm belief that this year will be a turn-around year for Excel Esports in the LEC.”

We all would have done things differently this year, but hindsight is 20/2…1. In many ways, as an industry, the esports sector innovated, adapted and succeeded in an erratic year where the rules of the game constantly changed around us. 

In another way, though, esports continued as ever — more eyeballs and more gamers found solace in its distinct remote entertainment. Breakout trends like cryptocurrency became a mainstay in esports and, ultimately, competitive gaming ecosystems grew and developed.

Not bad, for a year consumed by a global pandemic. Part 2 of ESI’s year-in-review will offer a sneak peak into 2022.

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