English

Esports in Pandemic: No Crowd, All Challenges

02 Jul 2020 | Akbar Priono
During the pandemic, esports changed its format to be fully online. Read how Hybrid talks about this with various elements of the esports ecosystem, discussing the challenges of the change.

Lately, esports ecosystem is showing a great growth. According to a projection by Newzoo, esports can actually grow to a business valued on 1.1 billion US dollars (about 16 trillion Rupiah) in 2020 The projection is a 15.7% growth from 2019, which was valued at 950.6 million US dollars (about IDR 14 trillion).

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic which has started showing signs since December 31st, 2019, is now taking over the whole world. The impact of the pandemic grows even worse when entering the mid-year of 2020. To suppress the spread, several governments enforce a limitation on overseas travel and strict physical limitation.

Those things directly impacted the economy and ecosystem of several industries. Aside from sports, esports industry which also often gathers large crowds in one place is forced to halt a lot of their activities. At the early days of WHO determined this as a pandemic, a lot of international tournaments got cancelled.

But esports still has something up its sleeve, an esports match can still be done online, keeping the industry alive regardless of how the pandemic slows down the economy. This also means that esports has to go on amidst pandemic, with all its challenges.

Talking about this, I discussed it with several elements of the local ecosystem. There is Moonton, represented by Reza Ramadhan, Head of Broadcast and Content, as the element of esports tournament organizer. Andrian Pauline, CEO of RRQ as the element of esports organization, and Paison Yi, Marketing Director Realme Indonesia, as the element of esports ecosystem sponsor.

Here is how the conversation goes between me and the elements on how the esports industry struggles in the middle of pandemic.

 

When the Match Format Changes to Online

The ability to run fully online does not directly mean that esports can always stay on top of their form during the pandemic. Because the matches are done online from each participant’s gaming house, there are some things beyond the control of the organizer. It did not come as a surprise when online competitions face a lot of challenges, from technical or sportsmanship side.

Mobile Legends Professional League Season 5 was one of the esports tournament impacted by this. After having the matches offline for around 4 weeks, MPL ID Season 5 gradually limited social interactions since March.

Starting from week 5, MPL ID Season 5 was held without spectators. In accordance to the start of Large-Scale Social Distancing, MPL ID was finally held full-online, leaving only the broadcast team and the shoutcasters in the studio of MPL Indonesia in the 7th week.

Reza explained that the main reason of holding the competition fully online was to follow the rules set by the government. “That’s why we decided to fully hold it online, leaving only the broadcast crews and shoutcasters in the MPL Studio, also in a very limited number.”

Due to the format change done in MPL ID Season 5, of course the participating teams also got impacted. Rex Regum Qeon (RRQ), one of the teams in MPL ID Season 5 was one of those impacted.

Andrian Pauline Husen (AP), CEO RRQ told us how they still feel thankful of the condition, even though the change has limited and forced a lot of parties to do adaptations in their lives.

“We are actually still thankful because esports matches can still be done online. Even though we can no longer enjoy the euphoric atmosphere from the support of RRQ fans directly, but since the matches can still be done online, we can still show our best performances to Indonesian esports lovers.” Said the person who is often called as “Pak AP”.

Sumber: Andrian Pauline via Instagram
Source: Andrian Pauline via Instagram

Continuing, AP also explained that the change did not put too much impact on how the management works to take care of RRQ players who still have to play matches.

“From RRQ, the impact is not really significant regarding the workflow. What the management did is enforcing a rule of limiting players’ mobility. So they cannot leave the gaming house as they will, but only if there is an emergency or important thing to do.” He added.

But AP also told us how this condition also had its impact on the players. “This condition is also stressing to a lot of parties, including RRQ players. But fortunately we can still find ways around it by doing entertainment activities, such as making content. Talking about players motivation we can safely say the impact is not that much, because we are also focusing on practicing like usual.”

 

Presenting Esports Fully Online with All Its Limitations

Management and workflow can be seen as some of the changes that are still manageable by affected parties. With the right adaptation, even though the situation forces esports matches to be held fully online, everything can be back to normal with only a few changes.

But these changes present new challenges to esports. In an online match, internet as the crucial element, also poses as the most difficult challenge for everyone involved. While playing online games in a casual environment, a bit of lag or a few disconnections might not really be a problem. But, if we are talking about playing the game in a professional esports matches, even a slight lag will not be tolerable. The case is even worse with disconnections or connection loss.

This problem is also a no-win solution for esports tournament organizer, because it is mostly out of their control. In a face-to-face match, all players use the same internet connection, prepared by the organizer.
But online matches are being played from their own gaming houses, where internet connection can highly vary, depending on the locations of each participant’s gaming house. This becomes one of the most difficult challenges faced by the organizers.

Sumber: Dokumentasi Hybrid - Ajie Zata
Reza Ramadhan. Documentation: Hybrid – Ajie Zata

“I totally agree that this internet problem is the most difficult one to handle.” Reza opened the conversation. “Because there are a lot of parties impacted when the match is done from each participant’s gaming house, and one of the players’ internet faces difficulties. We as the organizers have to grind our gears to keep the convenience, while looking for the solution so that the teams and the viewers are all comfortable.”

For that reason, mitigation actions are needed if there is any problem, whether it is internet problem or other problems. Reza then talked about some countermeasures done by MPL ID Season 5, if a connection problem occurs during matches.

One of them is by requiring team managers to be on standby in Discord voice channel, while also streamlining all communications only through the managers.

“So, the team managers have to be on standby with a representative of the broadcast team members. If one of the team members have a connection problem, the broadcast representative will call the manager, and doing the countermeasure needed, according to the agreement of the two teams, for example by pausing the game.” Reza told us.

Sumber: Youtube Mobile Legends Bang-Bang
The display of a paused game has become a normal view during MPL ID Season 5, organized fully online since week 7 to the Grand Final. Source: Youtube Mobile Legends Bang-Bang

More on the topic, Reza also explained a little bit about the rule on pausing the game during MPL ID Season 5 while the match is held online. “When a problem occurs, each team is allowed to pause the game, with a maximum duration of 5 minutes in each game. In addition, only team managers are allowed to talk while the game is paused. The players are not allowed to discuss during the pause, and their conversations are being surveilled, for the sake of a fair and just game.”

If the organizer has done everything to respond to internet problems, then what has been done by the participants? AP then told us that RRQ management also done some preventive steps while the match is underway, especially from internet technical problems.

“In the Playoffs, we did some extra preventive steps to prevent the match to ever stop because of internet problems. For that purpose, we did two things: preparing a backup internet connection and asking for a technician from our internet provider company to be on standby in our Mobile Legends division gaming house.” AP explained. “But so far internet has not really been a problem in our online matches, because the internet from Biznet (the sponsor of RRQ) has been great so far. Hahaha.” Said AP while joking.

Aside from internet, the second problem lingering around esports matches being fully held online is about sportsmanship. When the tournament is being held remotely, and each player plays from their own gaming house, cheating is relatively easier to do, because the players have more freedom to do practically anything.

Moonton as the tournament organizer has prepared all kinds of plan, from A to Z, to prevent all problems that might arise. One of them, Moonton even prepared CCTV equipment in the rooms where the players played, to keep an eye on the conversations and the movements of the players. Then, what about from the side of participating teams’ management?

Sumber: Youtube Mobile Legends Bang-Bang
Showing their phone screens to the CCTV was one of the rules regulated by Moonton to uphold the sportsmanship during the online matches of MPL ID Season 5. Source: Youtube Mobile Legends Bang-Bang

“We always try to adhere to the rules, and the players also want to showcase their best performances with honesty and sportsmanship.” AP says about how sportsmanship is a key value in the RRQ team.

But even though Moonton and participating teams have tried their best to keep the integrity of the competition, controversy of online tournaments is near impossible to avoid. Sometimes, the viewers have too much suspicion, just because they think online tournaments are more prone to fraudulence behaviors. The suspicion grows bigger if there are some things out of the usual.

One of the instants that resulted in a lot of conversations was the match between Bigetron Alpha vs AURA Esports on the 8th week of MPL ID Season 5. The commotion happened because Bigetron Alpha underwent a technical problem in form of a bug. At first, Bigetron Alpha only paused the game, but in the end a rematch has to be done, but with different heroes. This incident was seen as a strange one by the spectators, because the match has gone on for 8 minutes and 28 seconds.

Reza explained that prior to the match, Moonton has done a meeting with the managers to discuss the rules, which has also been agreed by the parties. The controversy of Bigetron Alpha vs AURA Esports has actually been handled correctly, and in accordance to the rules.

But, just like what I said above, online matches can create the spectators’ distrust, and it became one of the challenges of such format.

Patrick Christian as the manager of Bigetron Alpha team had the chance to explain the chronology of the event to me in a discussion session Hybrid Talk. If you are curious, I have embedded the conversation with Patrick that you can watch on the video below.

With all its limitations, the show of online matches of MPL ID Season 5 ultimately ran smoothly. During the matches, viewers may be a little bit bored because of the high number of occurrences of inevitable pause. But the hype of the spectators of MPL ID Season 5 stayed high. Quoting Esports Charts, the highest number of viewers during MPL ID Season 5 was 1.163.007, with a total content consumption hours of 26.809.501 hours.

So, how did the tournament organizers prepare an interesting esports show, even though the online format has its limitations?

 

Challenge of Contents, and Sponsor Relationship with Esports During the Pandemic

Aside from the technical aspect, another challenge that esports has to face during the pandemic is from the content and sponsorship aspect. With everything being done remotely, the organizers have to grind their gears to find ways to keep the contents interesting despite of the limited ways to present it during the pandemic.

Reza as the Head of Broadcast and Content of Moonton admitted that presenting interesting esports contents during this pandemic became an increasing challenge. “Fortunately, we have had videos and footages taken from the offline matches of Regular Season MPL ID Season 5. So those contents are still usable, for example to replace players entrance before the match.” Said Reza.

“Also, to make esports content still interesting, I also experimented in making the content of support messages. We tried to contact the players’ closest relative, asking them to record messages for the players. I was grateful that the idea received good responses, so that the parents or close relatives wanted to spare their time to give messages.” Reza added.

“Selain dari itu, supaya tayangan esports tetap menarik saya juga bereksperimen membuat konten support message. Kami mencoba menghubungi orang terdekat dari para pemain, meminta mereka merekam pesan untuk para pemain. Saya merasa bersyukur, ide tersebut ternyata disambut dengan baik, sehingga para orang tua ataupun orang terdekat mau meluangkan waktu untuk memberikan pesan.” Tambah Reza.

Another challenge faced by the esports business during the pandemic has also been about the sponsors. This is actually interesting, because in one hand people enjoyed consuming esports contents as a source of entertainment during isolation period, but in the other hand sponsors and brands are leaning more towards cutting their marketing budget amidst this time of doubts.

Previously, I had the chance to talk about this with Irliansyah Wijanarko, Chief Growth Officer RevivalTV and Tommy Bambang, Chief Communication Officer INDOESPORTS. In the beginning of the discussion, the two of them told the stories of how the pandemic has more or less impacted RevivalTV and INDOESPORTS.

“During the pandemic, things got harder, because the impact is felt all over the team, from the top level to the bottom. Moreover, this condition has not only impacted esports, but also the partners of esports companies, such as INDOESPORTS. So we have to think harder about finding the way to keep the business running smoothly.” Tommy Bambang explained.

“RevivalTV has also been shaken by the situation, adapting here and there, finding products that we can offer and sell to brands. The reality is, even though esports can still operate online, the brands are also saving money. That leaves us no choice but to be smarter to find business opportunities.” Irli added.

On the same topic, I also talked with Palson Yi, Marketing Director Realme Indonesia. Not so long ago, Realme became the sponsor for esports events, especially Moblie Legends. Last year, they sponsored MSC 2019 in the Phillippines. Not only that, they also became the main sponsor of MPL ID Season 5 2020.

Similar to what Irli said, Paison Yi explained the strategy of Realme in sponsoring esports. “Of course, we will be more strategic on choosing the right esports events. That’s why we only choose esports events that indulge youth game community and esports fans in Indonesia to enjoy a thrilling and fair competition, and esports events with experiences that go side by side with our slogan, which is the spirit of Dare-to-Leap.”

This became a reasonable choice for Realme as a sponsor, especially since the transformation of esports matches from offline to online, more or less also meant sacrificing some things. “Because the match changes from offline to online, we have to sacrifice a few things when sponsoring esports events, one of them is to give the opportunity for the fans to enjoy a hands-on experience of playing games using our most recent smartphone series.” Paison Yi said.

Sumber: Twitter Realme Indonesia
Palson Yi, Marketing Director Realme Indonesia. Source: Twitter @realmeindonesia

“But this change also encouraged us to optimize the resources available to still convey the message to potential customers through online activities that we have previously discussed.” Paison Yi continued.

Reza then added, that MPL also added some segments specifically for sponsors, as an effort to keep the exposures of the sponsors high. Video advertising has always been a common thing to have in a sponsorship agreement, but Reza added that they also did interactive contents with the fans while involving the sponsors, as a way to give the sponsors their own portions in the MPL event.

Still about sponsors, Andrian Pauline also explained the case of sponsor relationship with esports ecosystem from RRQ’s perspective as an esports organization. AP told how RRQ was also on the receiving end of the increasing consumption of esports contents.

“RRQ may be a bit more benefited for being the champion of MPL ID Season 5, so the engagement of our social media is increasing quite significantly. Hahaha.” He said, jokingly. “But an increase in engagement does not necessarily mean it makes us easier to find sponsors. In this pandemic, sponsors are thinking twice, even thrice, before getting into esports, because they have to reorganize all their plans from the beginning.”

So, did RRQ get any impact because of that? AP explained that until now, not one sponsor of RRQ team resigned or revisited the agreements. “So, we still cannot say that RRQ suffered loss in terms of business caused by the pandemic. So far, there has only been some discussions with the sponsors. Because of the condition, some activities that we have planned earlier on the year has to change to adapt with the situation, and to keep us engaging with the sponsors.

 


It is undeniable that this pandemic has resulted in bigger impacts, beyond what we imagined. You fans can now still effortlessly enjoy the contents of esports from the comfort of your homes, but the fact is the contents that you have been watching are the result of an endless struggle by the esports business players, who are facing tremendous challenges during this pandemic.

But I think one thing that can be agreed together by you readers, me, elements of esports business, and also the sponsors: we miss the rumbling noise of the audience, we miss screaming on the top of our lungs to show our support to our favorite team or players, and we miss meeting up with fellow community members when we come to the venue of offline esports matches.

Let us pray together for the pandemic to soon be over, and the situation to be better, so that we all can return to our normal activities, and once again enjoy esports in the enjoyable, euphoric ways it highly deserves.

Original article is in Indonesian, translated by @dwikaputra