The shape of esports to come: experts weigh in on what to expect in 2021


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It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times. Let the historical record show that 2020 was a long, crazy couple of years. That’s as true for the world of esports as it is for society in a broader sense.

If nothing else, 2020 will be remembered as the year when traditional sports shut down—at least for a little while—and esports filled the void. We can thank the COVID-19 pandemic for that. Whether you’re talking about the Formula One Virtual Grand Prix, the Virtual Tour de France, or LoL Worlds, more people were watching—and wagering on—esports than ever before.

A few highlights, for the benefit of those who were more focused on other things during the raging dumpster fire that was most of 2020:

  • Dota 2’s The International 10 shattered records for esports prize pools. According to the Prize Pool Tracker, it sits at US$40,018,195 as I write this. Not bad for a postponed event. (The International 10 is now scheduled to take place in Stockholm in August of 2021.)
  • On August 28, multi-platinum-selling musician Post Malone joined the ownership team of Envy Gaming. His timing could not have been better. That weekend, Envy’s Dallas Empire claimed a decisive victory over Atlanta FaZe, clinching the first-ever Call of Duty League championship.
  • On October 10, the Overwatch League’s San Francisco Shock successfully defended their championship title against the Seoul Dynasty.
  • At the end of October, South Korea’s Damwon Gaming claimed the title at the 2020 League of Legends World Championship.
  • Twitch saw massive viewership numbers, reporting a record-setting 1.7 billion hours in November alone. With 116 million hours viewed, League of Legends led the esports/gaming pack, followed by Among Us (75 million), Fortnite (74 million), and Minecraft (73 million).

What can we expect in 2021? Our crystal ball is a little cloudy, so we asked a few in-the-know folks for their predictions. Most of them didn’t respond, because that’s esports for you. Quite frankly, we didn’t need a crystal ball to see that coming. However, here are a couple who did respond, and to whom we are eternally grateful:

Dr. Aaron Koshy

Chief Editor, International Journal of Esports

Dr. Aaron Koshy

“I predict that the esports organizations which have invested most heavily in research and restructuring in a peri/post COVID-19 world will growth the fastest in 2021.

“The obsession with elite esports professionals is unhealthy and frankly undesirable. We need to carry out basic research on esports players as a much larger cohort to grasp notions such as improving health and performance.”

Sarah Wagg

Manager of Durham College’s Esports Arena

Sarah Wagg

“I think 2021 has the capability to be both good and bad for the esports industry. With the remote nature of 2020 carrying into 2021 I believe more brands will continue to move into the space to support the competitive aspects (players, teams, streamers, tournaments) of esports but I don’t think we’ll see that same support carry over to community programs.

“On a collegiate note, we’ve already seen 2020 claim Tespa, which was a blow to collegiate esports communities across North America. However despite the lack of community support for collegiate, we have seen more schools enter into ‘varsity esports’. This shift seems largely due to the lack of traditional sports available at the moment and I believe this trend is likely to continue into 2021.”

Henry James

Founder of Espo

Henry James

“I think we’re going to see more esports orgs roll out fan engagement strategies in 2021. Some of the titans like Team Liquid, Cloud 9 and Envy Gaming have gone a step further by creating their own native fan engagement platforms. However, I think esports fans are going to want and expect more access to their favourite orgs, players, and content creators than what these native platforms are currently offering.

“After carrying out thousands of interviews with esports fans from around the world, we’ve built a library of over 100 perks and benefits that esports fans have repeatedly told us they want to get their hands on. World famous brands have also told us they want to engage more directly with esports fans, so I think we’ll see brands diversify their esports marketing budget towards new digital fan experience and engagement solutions.

“I’m hopeful that our new, multi-team, esports fan engagement platform will be able to fill this gap. We’re due to launch the Espo platform in the coming weeks and we’ve had a fantastic reception from several world-class orgs, including our six Team Partners—BBG, Team BDS, BOOM Esports, GODSENT, F2K and Team Queso. Our platform is going to see an unparalleled variety of exclusive Fan Perks for fans to access with their favourite players and content creators.

“By the summer, our next expansion pack of the Espo platform should come online, offering even more innovation in the field of digital fan experience and engagement. We’ve been designing interactive feature sets for fans to become more active in their role as esports fans, gamifying these features and integrating them with our Team and Brand Partners.”

More predictions

As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones soliciting 2021 predictions. Espo put out a call on Twitter, and here are the responses it generated:

I have done a lot of different things over the course of my life and professional career. I have interviewed Oscar and Grammy winners and written cover stories for glossy newsstand magazines. I have played guitar in a rock band on national TV and run an independent music label for which I wrote all of the PR and marketing materials. In my spare time, I sweated out a novel about a world where raccoons are kings and dragons are real.

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