ESL UK: Local competition, global connections

ESL UK: Local competition, global connections
Seth Barton

The ESL is among the longest-running esports organisations in the world. We talk to its UK chief, James Dean, about its operations in the UK and the opportunities for publishers

The ESL has been around for 17 years, making it something of the old man of esports. It’s been highly active in the UK since 2013, setting up a tournament infrastructure that’s unrivalled in many respects. 

So what were the company’s priorities on coming to this side of the pond? 

“The first thing we did was to build our national league,” says managing director of ESL UK James Dean. “Because it doesn’t only grow that player base and potentially get those teams into bigger tournaments, it also builds an entire local industry. The more national activity you have, the more talent it creates. More broadcasting, more backroom staff, production staff, league ops, marketing, admin, management – all those skills are then developed locally.”

"The more national activity you have, the more talent it creates. More broadcasting, more backroom staff, production staff, league ops, marketing, admin, management – all those skills are then developed locally.”

Those national leagues need to be part of something bigger, though. “There has to be a clear path to progression. With our League of Legends tournament, the ESL national league is the only tournament that will get you a challenger series spot. That’s worth more than prize money, that’s progression.”

In terms of progress, Dean has big hopes for the UK in CS:GO this year. “We’re getting close to getting a proper UK team into a much higher league – three years ago I predicted that it would be this year. I hope it will, it’s heading in the right direction.”

THE NEXT ESPORT?

While CS:GO and League of Legends aren’t going anywhere, there’s still space for new games to benefit from the engagement that esports can bring your
next title.

Dean reckons that ESL is the natural choice for publishers looking for an esports partner: “ESL has been there from the early stages, and is one of the few that has lived through all the tough times as well and remains sustainable. Just naturally it’s an easy company to work with as a stakeholder.”

“ESL has been there from the early stages, and is one of the few that has lived through all the tough times as well and remains sustainable. Just naturally it’s an easy company to work with as a stakeholder.”

He’s bullish on how ESL can help, too: “We know how every stakeholder can make money out of esports. If publishers put a good esports strategy in place, then it extends the franchise. The more engaged the users are, the more time they spend with the game, the more content is being created and tournaments held. It’s just a cycle in terms of growth.”

Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege is a great example, with Dean calling it “one of the early success stories” of a franchise converting from its traditional marketing model into a longer-term strategy. “Every season [they] release some DLC and that’s effectively paying for all the prize money, the tournaments and all the production. It’s sustainable, it’s a growing business for them.”

We wonder just how early in the design process companies approach ESL? “With Rainbow Six, we started working with them three years before launch,” Dean explains, adding later: “We will basically consult with a publisher. We have a lot of tools they can use, especially around matchmaking. It’s easy to integrate the platform into the game and ESL have been doing that for years, with Riot from the start, and the ESL API is in the PlayStation firmware, too.

“There are lots of great games publishers in the UK, and many of them haven’t unlocked the opportunity in esports,” Dean tells us, though that’s not always
the case.

“The UK is so creative and we’ve got some amazing genres and ideas and IP coming from the UK, and there are examples where UK publishers are suddenly realising, ‘Hang on a second, there’s loads of incremental business here, and we’re enhancing our IP as well’.

“With the ESL having 20 years of history and a sustainable business model, and the industry only growing, we know that we’re here to stay,” says Dean, confidently. “So if you’re looking for advice on your next competitive game, even if it’s still years from release, you know who to call.”

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