SINGAPORE: While many industries have taken a beating from the COVID-19 pandemic, e-sports is one of the few that are thriving as people seek various entertainment options while spending more time at home.
E-sports Players League (ESPL), a Singapore-based e-sports tournament platform, said it has seen “very fast” growth in user numbers since launching at the start of last year. This bolstered its confidence to expand from four to 16 markets across Asia, Europe and America over the same period.
“User activities kept growing,” said president and co-founder Lau Kin Wai. “At the peak from April to July, we saw the number of users doubling every month.”
The user base in Singapore has jumped by 120 per cent since day one, he added, while the fastest-growing markets, such as India and Bangladesh, saw as much as 300 per cent growth.
ESPL describes itself as an e-sports tournament and media platform which focuses on the amateurs, or grassroots gamers as it calls them. This segment of the gaming community is currently “very underserved” given how most competitions are catered for e-sports professionals, Mr Lau told CNA.
“Just like any other sport, there is a group of people who are not playing the sport for a living but are serious about it. They want to up their game and want to know how they fare against friends or other people. That’s where we come in.”
Around the world, there are other e-sports platforms that serve everyday gamers such as US-listed Super League Gaming which calls itself "the amateur e-sports experience platform". Founded in 2015, it runs tournaments and community-building events.
ESPL said it is the only such platform in Singapore. Last year, it organised 312 online tournaments, serving more than half a million amateur gamers around the world.
E-sports has already been gaining momentum over the past few years. According to games and e-sports research firm Newzoo, the global industry is set to see more than US$1 billion in revenue for 2021, up 14 per cent from last year.
And the pandemic has given the industry a boost. Apart from seeking entertainment options, people are also looking to stay connected with others.
“There’s also the social interaction factor,” said Mr Lau. “We find that a lot of people game partly because they want to interact with friends or other people. Especially if there’s a competition, you rally your friends towards a common goal and that’s very much a social interaction.”
Still as a new business, ESPL's exponential growth amid a global crisis came as a surprise.
Said Mr Lau: “Like everyone, we were very unsure of how this will impact every single thing we do. We held back on all advertising and was hoping to hunker down, but our user base just kept growing.
“Only around May or June that we realised that the pandemic is driving all things digital and we’d be one of those that will be growing still.”
Apart from e-sports enthusiasts, ESPL said it has also captured the attention of other businesses keen on partnerships or taking up advertisements on its platform.
Not just the usual gaming and technology-related brands, Mr Lau said there has been “fast-growing” demand from consumer brands, ranging from energy drinks, shampoo to deodorants.
“With the digital consumer behaviour being accelerated by a good five years, every single brand in the world is shifting a lot of focus to engaging consumers online. Our users are usually between 21 and 35 years old and they are the prime targets for most of these consumer brands,” he explained.
MORE THAN A PANDEMIC-DRIVEN TREND
ESPL plans to hold more than 700 tournaments this year, more than double what it had in 2020. It believes that it can continue to grow, even beyond the pandemic.
“It doesn't mean that once the pandemic is over, people will go non-digital. The behaviour has changed,” said Mr Lau.
“Likewise with our platform, if you know that this is something that allows you to interact with friends on a Friday night, it will remain an option even when the time comes for us to be able to spend more time outside.”
The platform also aims to have a wide variety of games beyond the classic first-person shooter titles.
In addition, it will soon allow gamers on its platform to organise their own tournaments for free. This is in response to the requests it has received from users, said Mr Lau.
ESPL is also betting on collaborations with new investors.
It recently raised nearly S$3 million, marking its biggest funding round which included “strategic investors” such as Genting Ventures, the corporate venture arm of the Genting Group, and Warner Music Asia.
With the latter, the e-sports online platform is looking at “crossover initiatives between music and gaming”, said Mr Lau.
“A lot of gamers are plugged into music when they game and that adrenaline rush is definitely enhanced with the right music,” he added, noting that the record label will become the exclusive music partner of ESPL.
The platform could also start hosting virtual concerts within its games, said Mr Lau, referring to an emerging trend in other parts of the world.
“We could do a lot of this potentially with Warner Music to create new media between music and gaming,” he said.