ESI 2021 round-up: Looking forward

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill’s infamous saying goes. This was a lesson quickly gleaned by esports’ practitioners in the past two years.

More important than dwelling on the past is how the pandemic’s difficult learnings are wielded in 2022 to help grow the esports industry.

In order to provide a comprehensive round-up of 2021, Esports Insider obtained the perspectives of a broad selection of industry leaders to recap the themes, lessons and opportunities presented this past year.

While Part 1 of the year-end round-up looked back on 2021, Part 2 looks forward into 2022. In this instalment, respondents take a reflective look at the biggest takeaways from the ‘pandemic years’, how they’re applying lessons in 2022, goals and ambitions for the year(s) ahead, and what the industry could be doing better.

ESL One Cologne
Pictured: CS:GO event ESL One Cologne in 2019. Image credit: ESL / Helena Kristiansson

The pandemic years: takeaways for 2022

Tony Trubridge, Global Esports Director at SteelSeries, found a silver lining amidst the sleuth of negative news: “If we can take a positive from the global pandemic, I feel it provided a platform for many dedicated gamers and professionals to be acknowledged as athletes, performers, and entertainers. 2022 will continue to show us that as human beings, we can both entertain and be entertained in a myriad of ways and our industry has some amazing interactive and entertaining options.”

Unsurprisingly, for Mary Antieul, VP of Strategy, Belong Gaming Arenas, the pandemic has strengthened her resolve to return to live events and in-person gaming and esports. “After more than a year stuck at home, the importance of creating in-person communities for gamers to spend their time in as a way to deepen the game experience and continue inviting them back to play has been boldly underscored.”

“The importance of a balanced community engagement strategy” was the conclusion of Anthony Graham, Director of Esports and Operations, Tundra Esports. “Anything can happen in the competitive circuit  — last minute cancelled events, offline events moving to online, difficult access to bootcamps at certain times which may affect performance. So having a content creator army that’s pushing out amazing stuff for our fans, supported by our partners, no matter what’s happening out there, is the key.”

Matt Marcou, Senior Director & Commissioner, Madden Competitive Gaming, Electronic Arts (EA) was reminded that “social connections and having fun drives grassroots participation and viewership. Watch parties and social features in gaming applications were a focus across many publishers and event organizers these past few years. 

Two words that I would use to describe the return to in-person events in 2021: family reunion. Esports was forged by gamers seeking authentic social connections, and my hope is that 2022 will see us return to those roots and bring in a new generation of life-long fans.”

Image credit: ESL

Goals and ambitions in 2022

Staying true to the competitive spirit that helps define esports, many organisations reported renewed hunger for competitive success in 2022. EXCEL CEO Wouter Sleijffers’ ambitions, for example, are nothing short of achieving: LEC Worlds knockout stage, Valorant VCT Champions qualification, FIFA Global Series winners, the Fortnite World Cup  — “and who knows, maybe trophies in other titles too,” Sleijiffers added.

High targets were also the story for Anthony Graham, Director of Esports and Operations, Tundra Esports. “We want to qualify for all Dota 2 majors and win them, including The International.”

The biggest takeaway for Chris Gonsalves of Community Gaming from 2021 was ‘play to earn’. “I’d like to see Community Gaming grow as an earnings platform as well as a tournament organiser”, Gonsalves said. “As we grow as a company, there are more opportunities to convey the benefits of ‘play to earn’ to our community. Expect to see us roll out those activities in 2022.”

In 2022, ESPORTSU Executive Vice President Angela Bernhard Thomas wants to “develop initiatives that genuinely give back to collegiate esports programmes to help them sustain and grow. That will come in the form of aggregating the best collegiate leagues and conferences, content, data, NIL, revenue shares, and an event series that features recruitment and career development for students.”

Areas of improvement in 2022

Kyle Bautista, COO of Complexity Gaming, takes the prize this year with an impassioned diatribe on the lack of player care in esports, and how Complexity wants to change that. “When it comes to holistic player care, mental well-being is equally as important as physical health. The very fluid and direct connection between players, teams, and fans on social media is undoubtedly one of the most valuable aspects of the esports industry. However, the inability to filter content on these platforms comes with expected downfalls, including exposure to toxicity, harassment, and threats, which can all deteriorate players’ and streamers’ mental health over time. 

“At Complexity, we’re providing access to amenities, such as a full-time sports psychologist and mental performance specialist, and fostering a safe space to discuss mental health amongst our players, streamers, and the leadership team. 2022 is shaping up to be a transformative year for player physical and mental health, as the industry matures and more resources are allocated for player support across the board.”

eDivisie Championship
Image credit: eDivisie

On a similar note, EXCEL’s Wouter Sleijffers and Swipe Right Founder & Director Kirsty Endfield highlighted innate issues around diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity. Endfield said: “This isn’t down to one company or even a single industry to fix but being in front of so many young people does present us with an opportunity to start changing how women are perceived at a much earlier stage. Catch them while they’re young before they become hotshot CEOs.” 

Several answers took aim at esports’ ecosystems. Tony Trubridge, Global Esports Director at SteelSeries, aptly highlighted the lack of distinct paths to pro in esports: “One opportunity for growth is in the collegiate esports and Path-to-Pro type leagues, as they could use a little more attention from big publishers and brands to help facilitate grassroots community and esports events.” Meanwhile, Tundra Esports’ Anthony Graham wants to prioritise more balanced prize pool distribution to support tier 2-3 tournaments and teams.

Finally, reflecting the growth of cryptocurrency in esports, Community Gaming’s Christ Gonsalves wants better crypto education. “Education around the crypto space remains a major pain point for the industry. There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion around blockchain and its many uses — cryptocurrencies, NFTs, etc. While there will always be waves of opportunists, scams, and lackluster UX when a new technology is nascent, there’s a tremendous amount of promise that blockchain technology holds.”

No two years are ever the same in esports, a product of the dizzily fast rate of change in our industry. 2022 promises to be no different as a myriad of enthralling industry trends coalesce with an inevitable return to LAN. 2022, once again, will be one to watch.

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