If you’ve been hanging out in esports circles, you might have heard some buzz about the Esports Players League, or ESPL. One of the faces of ESPL is co-founder and president, Kin Wai Lau, with whom we conducted this interview with. In their words, ESPL is “is a global tournament alliance network that provides differentiated ecosystem to our in-country or regional tournament partners to provide mainstream esports entertainment to
the market.” Their mission statement is simple: to be a connected and sustainable esports competition platform to connect gamers and competitions to the path of champions.
First off, an introduction to Kin Wai Lau himself. A serial tech entrepreneur, he’s got a track record of six IPOs and has been around since “day one” of the internet revolution. He’s been involved in software and digital media, investing in the industry around Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the general Southeast Asia region, Australia and Europe. He’s also chairman and co-founder of iCandy, a SEA mobile game studio. He considers ESPL having spun off iCandy.
He isn’t alone in his esports venture, with Michael Broda, formerly CEO of eSports.com, reconnecting with Kin Wai Lau in his departure from the website. They discussed about addressing the gap in the global esports market – namely amateur esports – and quickly set up ESPL in July 2019. ESPL’s “Year One/Phase One” plan will only have 9 countries/partnerships, centered in the SEA and Latin America region. They will be increasing this number to 16 eventually.
ESPL will be their online platform to organize these amateur tournaments, with the current COVID-19 pandemic allowing them quite a bit of growth since everything has to be moved online.
While ESPL is an online platform, it doesn’t mean they’re limited to digital events. Kin Wai explains the structure in which the platform works, with two types of competitions:
- Challenger Series
- Covers one-off events organized over a short period of time (one weekend, 1-2 weeks)
- Largely online
- ESPL League
- First season is planned to start in June, to complete in November
- Qualifiers will be primarily online
- National events may be on-ground events. Winners of these events will go on to the World Series Championship, which may also be offline events
- On-ground events during COVID-19 will most likely be studio events and not stadium ones. The events will be broadcast
You might consider ESPL as both a platform provider and event organizer in such a case. Kin Wai stresses ESPL is not a “work for hire” event organizer; ESPL provides the platform and organizes tournaments, as well as being a network provider. “We only run tournaments we are interested in, not third party tournaments,” he says.
The last point is a bit curious. On elaboration, he explains that he means ESPL-branded tournaments, namely the Challenger Series that they run with partners. One of their most recent ones has been the ESPL X Digi #StayAtHome Cup.
“We have capability but we don’t go out and tell people to hire us.”
Kin Wai in regards to organizing tournaments
That’s all well and good, but in order to be sustainable, we need to think about the monetizing. Esports businesses haven’t necessarily been great in that aspect. In Kin Wai’s words, he sees ESPL as a digital-based company with 95% of their activities based digitally, and speaks of advertising, micro payments, sponsorships and the marketplace that’s coming up soon on their platform. They won’t be relying on “conventional sponsorships”, as in, marketing themselves to interested parties.
Regarding the marketplace, you can expect the following scenarios:
- A team putting themselves on the marketplace to find a local area sponsor
- Selling team jerseys
- Offers of coaching services
You might personally wonder about common marketplace items like skins and such, but this will be, at best, only on a case by case basis. It will be up to brands, businesses or users who will be offering to buy and sell services and/or goods.
We have to remember that ESPL is geared towards the amateur leagues, which can struggle to obtain viewership, which then affects sponsors. Kin Wai says they run an engagement model, so they’ll be stressing on the interaction with the viewers. They’ll be ads, as you might expect. He sounds confident that with enough interaction, potential views can be even higher than pro leagues.
For this next part, you can watch the following video for additional context:
The tl;dw boils down to Mark Cuban, an American entrepreneur, believing that owning an esports team in the United States is “awful business”.
“I think the pro circuit is important and it’s growing, still in its early days and very competitive. Everyone is thinking that they will invest in a team and they’ll eventually own the Manchester United of esports. Unfortunately there’s tens of thousands of people who think the same thing.”
He does agree it can be difficult to run an esports team professionally. At the very least, he doesn’t think the barrier of entry to building a team is very high.
When it comes to the franchise model, which Kin Wai says is modelled after Formula One, ESPL will find suitable partners in the digital or esports field in the countries they’re interested to expand in, which is what they’ve done for the 9 countries thus far. PayTM of India may seem like an outlier, but as he explains it:
“[ PayTM is ] the biggest ewallet provider. They’re interested in esports because they have the fastest growing portal in PayTM First Games so we thought they’d be a perfect digital partner.”
Keeping in mind the Digi #StayAtHome Cup, he says this:
“Like how we have Digi as a partner, with them rolling out their next gen network and they focus on the younger segment in the market; we are looking for partners who serve the market we’re looking at like serving the young people, the gamers , innovation, providing the right infrastructure.”
The move to online due to the COVID-19 pandemic has seen ESPL be swarmed with requests, with companies wanting to get in on the digital space and open up gaming as an avenue to socialize with people needing to stay home. He’s not rushing just yet, saying that they need to understand the market landscape, the culture, the network, knowing what the gamers want and who the strong players are, before they can be properly informed to partner up. He also points out the limitations in bandwidth, hence the modest expansion for now. They’re still looking to organize 500 tournaments on the platform, across the 9 countries they’ve partnered with, nonetheless.
COVID-19’s impact can be seen in the revenue growth for publicly traded gaming companies, which Kin Wai attributes to two factors:
Many are staying at home and gaming on their devices, and besides a lot of time to kill, everyone looks for opportunities to socialize and make new friends online. With games I think it’s one of the best ways to socialize online, a social event that’s meaningful online and those are the two key factors that’s driving gaming and esports. Social habits are probably gonna change forever with everything moving online – esports, gaming, shopping, and so forth.
With the current digital/online-only climate, and the fact that ESPL runs tournaments, cheating is a natural topic to segue into. He says they’re working on their own anti-cheat tech, and of course, will be paying attention to the data and compare to investigate whenever necessary. Any would-be participants would be required to submit uniquely identifying documents before they can join the tournaments, after all.
ESPL is keen on the SEA and Latin America markets, along with Europe to a certain extent due to being the fastest growing mobile gaming markets in the world outside China. Why mobile? Simple: it’s the fastest growing platform compared to PC and console. Look no further than the PMCO.
What do you think? It’s certainly a good move to want to help grow the amateur scene, because, after all, even the pros had to start out somewhere. You’ve heard of pub stars being picked up by organizations, who then go on to shine in the pro circuit despite their lack of experience. There’s plenty of talent to nurture in the scene, and ESPL seems like one – if not currently the best – possible way for these diamonds in the rough to be spotted.
We’ll have to see how the monetization goes for sure, since people deserve to be paid for their efforts. We’re sure there are some of you out there who aspire to be the next big name in esports. Will this be your start?