Intel talks IEM, VR, money, TV, and the future of eSports

INTERVIEW: Intel lays out its vision of the future of eSports – and it’s got a VR headset on.

IEM Katowice is one of the largest tournaments in eSports, so big in fact it’s split across two weekends. While official stats have yet to be released, many thousands of fans swarm on the Spodek Arena in the small Polish town to watch the best LOL, Starcraft 2 and CS:GO players slug it out.

The event is a collaboration between ESL and Intel. Obviously ESL takes care of the operational side, but Intel does go further than throwing money behind it. This year, amongst other things, it used the platform to shout very loudly about VR, both in terms of how people will compete and how they will watch eSports in the future.

We caught up with Intel eSports Marketing Manager George Woo to explain this, and get Intel’s take on the wider state of the scene.

Intel Extreme Masters has been going since 2006, the event must have changed an awful lot in that time.

Absolutely and our strategy changed as well. It’s grown really organically and it’s something special now.

And the eSports scene in general has changed so much in that time as well.

Yes – the landscapes changes, it’s getting congested, titles have come and gone.

Has it grown up in that time?

Yes absolutely, eSports has grown up a lot – in terms of the viewership and the acceptance that this is an actual a sport for the millennials. This is something that isn’t a hard sell anymore in order to get the investments partners from non-endemic companies, and from sports companies. There’s a lot of dollars coming in fuelling the growth of eSports, and it’s very important.

It’s definitely a noticeable thing for Gillette, Nissan, Dominos, for example now very visibly involved. That’s a relatively new thing in eSports, does it seem more legitimate to them now? And what’s changed specifically that’s made these firms see eSports as stable enough environment to invest in?

First of all it’s the viewership – last year we had 256 million viewers watching this stuff. That’s supposed to grow to 345 million by 2019. So there’s a huge growth opportunity there.

You’ve got the communities, the competitions are getting better, more digital platforms like Facebook Live and Twitter – this is all spurring the growth of eSports. And then tech companies like ourselves – we’re learning too. We’re learning how to address those audiences and create those amazing experiences, pushing the boundaries of innovation. And this year is all about VR.

We are going to continue to be that leader in VR. Are we going to say we’re going to have eSports in VR next year? No. But what we want to do is get this top of mind, get people experienced with the head units, start with the experience showcases, and the next iteration is broadcast – in which we did League of Legends and CS:GO with Sliver.TV.

If people didn’t have the head sets, they can still see in 360. It’s just getting that option rate higher and faster. The more that happens you get AAA titles, titles that might be more conducive towards eSports that the community gets behind, and so on. And we want to be at the forefront of that. Because we believe that IEM delivers the best VR Gaming streaming content in the world, and you need that with the whole suite of Intel products. It’s a natural fit. That’s why we want to continue to do this.

So does that neatly sums up Intel’s interest in eSports – being at the centre of the next hardware wave that’s going to be used to play and watch it?

Yes, and what is the usage model? We can control that narrative with this platform, right? And we’re in the leadership spot right now. That’s why we wanted to create that high visibility in this space and continue to show that leadership through our IEM brand and the broader ecosystem. I mean this thing is a big deal right now, because it’s the most compassionate segment, and the fastest growing. Newzoo is saying there are 1.3 billion gamers right now, and they are supposed to spend $100 billion annually by 2018. So that answers your question about the non-endemics – they see this stuff. They want to know how to get in – and I’m all for it. I look at it from a macro-view, I mean having Gillette here. Does it help Intel? No. What it does is helps the overall segment. And it’ll help accelerate it to where we want to be.

So it’s just about getting more money into the eSports pot in general?

It’s not just money, that’s one thing I wouldn’t want to say. You can’t just dump money and think it’s going to be successful. One thing we do at IEM, and it’s something I take a lot of pride in, is when we bring these non-endemic brands in, I spend time with them. Do I have to? No. But I want to make sure they are successful and they have a good experience with Intel as well as IEM. It’s just because I’m very passionate about what I do and I want to make sure that they are successful. They are investing a lot of money in here, and it forges relationships. That’s just my DNA. I’m all about family and loyalty and making sure everyone that participates trusts us to deliver, and we want to make sure they’re successful too.

From some quarters, there seems to be a feeling that eSports will have ‘made it’ when there’s a big TV show. But hasn’t eSports just run around TV? TV wishes it had the numbers Twitch streams get.

And that’s the normal consumption for eSports, it’s being watched on the digital platforms. They’re streaming, watching, talking – multi-tasking. That’s this audience and that’s why it’s a natural fit for Intel. The Intel Core i7 extreme edition is about the most powerful processor we have, and it gives them the headroom for what we call ‘mega tasking’, and in the games you need the physics and AI. It gives the enthusiast everything the dream of.

To answer your question about why are they doing that rather than linear TV, a lot of it has to do with the titles. A lot of liner TV doesn’t want to touch a title like CS:GO. And that’s one of the things that we are working together on – to figure out what is that next big title where linear TV can accept it. Even Proctor and Gamble, and Gillette, they don’t really want to touch CS:GO. They have a whole suite of products and it’s not aligned with their brand, so that’s something that we will continue to look at – titles that are more family friendly for linear TV.

But in the meantime digital platforms are definitely it. Facebook Live just came in, ESL just signed a deal with Twitter to cover that, so we have multiple digital platforms. And then on a regional level we have some liner TV covering this right now.

You mentioned there CS:GO being a fairly mature title. One thing people that aren’t familiar with eSports could conclude from seeing DOTA 2 or CS:GO for the first time is that the graphics, compared with the big titles in the general video games space, look pretty aged. Then with everything you’re working on in terms of pushing bleeding edge hardware, VR, AR, and extremely powerful processors, it feels like there are two worlds here. Could you sketch out how they marry up?

When companies – endemic or non-endemic – are investing millions and millions of dollars into this space, you’ve got to show ROI. These older games might not have the best graphics, but thy have the largest community. And we need eyeballs. You might have a game that has the latest graphics, but the community might be 10,000 people. It doesn’t make sense for companies like Intel to invest in something like that. We don’t know what that next title is, Overwatch is in there, Heroes of the Storm, you’ve got Quake Champions – there’s a lot of new titles coming in. And that’s why there’s the great relationship we have with ESL – they’re the best in their business and we’re the best in our business, and it’s just a beautiful collaboration. They tell us this title is coming up, ask us what we think, and do we want to do this. And it’s really a true collaboration, how we decide the titles.

On that point of having to look for new titles, traditionally that’s what some have pointed to as the instability of eSports. Compared to traditional sports, say. Baseball is what it is and it doesn’t change. If you’ve got new titles making up the scene every few years, that creates a state of constant transience. Is that a problem for investment?

There’s definitely challenges, I’m going to say that. One thing about IEM versus a publisher league is we’re agnostic. We can switch titles whenever we want, as long as we get the license from the publisher. That’s why we love this platform, it gives us the flexibility. And we can bring in partners ourselves. We work on a much broader ecosystem.

VR is a big push because it’s clean. We know there’s no audience or community, but that’s why we feel we can take that leadership position, work with the publishers, and hopefully create a great AAA title. It’s just a little bit easier than the established eSports market right now, where you are dictated by the large communities.

Where do you see the eSports scene in ten years, is it going to be much more about people competing in VR headsets?

Well that’s what we hope. We want to be the leader, and for VR we want to have people compete, and to form teams. They’ll be untethered – not using the traditional mouse and keyboard – because that’s been going on for centuries. We want to change that model, and that’s why we are continuing to push on this, because we know it’s an open canvass and we can change that scope. We want it to be untethered, almost like a laser tag environment. People running around and being physical but in a virtual space. That could be it. You might talk to ESL and they’d have a different vision, but Intel wants to continue to look at that as the next thing, the next level of eSports.

Fans like to emulate what they see the pros doing. The equipment you’d need to do all that, where you can physically walk on a special rig designed to track your movements, which translates it into a virtual realm – is that likely to ever be in people’s homes?

First of all we need to get the adoption. We got to get people used to this and I think the price points need to be down, it’s still a little expensive. And we need to get more content. It’s not just about games though, you’ve got virtual tourism, medical – it goes beyond gaming. Gaming is the first thing because it’s eye candy. It gets people’s attention – they want to try it on. But right now, there’s a surgeon in UCLA who’s using it to fight tumours – actually taking tumours out. He can see inside the brain before he even operates. Right now, in 2D, hopefully you get most of it out. But with virtual reality, it enhances it, makes it easier, there’s faster recovery. So it’s much broader than just gaming.

Here’s a slightly curveball question – I read an article that said in the future the only jobs that will be left for humans is pro gaming, once robots and AI replace everything else. Is that silly?

Yeah I think that’s silly. I hope we never get to that stage!