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How Can Esports Athletes Build a Sustainable Future?

By: Jolene Latimer, Editor

Jonas Gundersen, CEO of Ninjas in Pyjamas, still remembers the first time he saw gaming on T.V. It was in the early 2000s in Seoul, where he was staying in the Olympic Village for a tournament. There were two full-time channels dedicated to StarCraft.

“We were blown away by the fact,” he said during GEFcon 2020. “It was authentic, just like it is today.”

Since that time, esports has certainly evolved. Now there are emerging systems of leagues, teams, athletes and fans worldwide that are elevating esports to historic status. After growing to this extent, the question remains— how can esports leaders continue to build a sustainable future?

“Gaming is almost like punk culture when that happened. It started like the misfits. Everyone who didn’t go to sports, the first team, cheerleading,” said Gundersen, before adding, “There was this tribe of people that were similar in a way that we didn’t quite fit into other boxes.”

To him, the question of how to build esports from here is largely answered by remaining true to these roots. “If something is authentic it just needs time to grow,” he said. Yet, he also acknowledges that esports has reached a plateau. For a long time, esports has represented a version of an antithesis to mainstream culture, now it will have to engage it.

“The huge missing part is the mainstream, that we take this fantastic platform we now have and we’re able to translate it into something,” he said.

This is the very work Nicola Piggott, co-founder and Co-CEO of The Story Mob, seeks to do.

“I feel very privileged to be there at the birth of the sport. I don’t think the generation after me is going to have the same privilege. I’m conscious every day that we’re creating something,” she said during GEFcon 2020.

“The major thing that’s missing for me is effective monetization. So many groups within esports are still in an investment stage,” she said. Yet esports has something brands are attracted to: A young, intelligent audience that can be incredibly discerning but equally loyal.

Engaging these fans so they respond in kind is the work Piggott does best. Her firm specializes in educating brands on the new emerging storylines within esports, emphasizing transparency and contextualized communication.

“What we tend to spend a lot of time doing is steering brands away from lazy, generic campaigns and more toward understanding the audience they’re trying to get a hold of and developing this rich, synergistic relationship,” she said. Scoring wins for brands and fans is a step Piggot believes will help bring more funds into the ecosystem, allowing esports to flourish.

“Esports, we need to remember, is still in a really nascent phase. We are still figuring out how to unlock things that sports has had centuries to unlock,” she said.

Unlocking these elements, while remaining authentic, is key, both leaders believe, to helping esports reach the next level in its trajectory.

“We want to see it break into the mainstream because it’s authentic, it has so much value into the mainstream,” said Gundersen.


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