Businessman checking stock market online

Tonight, one of the most watched events in the sporting calendar kicks-off, but it may not be the one you’re thinking of.

Whilst ‘the boomers’ and Gen-Xers tune in to watch the UEFA dignitaries swan around and dancers leap about in Rome for the opening ceremony of the Euros, younger fans almost certainly won’t be.

Instead, they will be getting hyped over Fortnite’s All Star Showdown eSports showcase tournament.

Few businesses will make an adult person feel as old and as out-of-touch as eSports, it seems every few weeks mandates a new sanity check on the fast-moving industry’s rise.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

If you recognise the quote, you’ll be of an age to remember watching Gazza loop a ball over the head of Colin Hendry before smashing it into the Scottish goal.

You may even remember Marco van Basten’s ludicrous volley to score against the Soviet Union, and, will have blocked out the memory of England’s exit to Iceland in 2016.

It is much less likely you will know who the Hen is, nor are you likely to be aware of JannisZ, TaySon, Flikk or Anas.

Who’s who

David Beckham. You’ll definitely know who he is.

Well, the former England and Manchester United captain is these days something of a venture capitalist and brand ambassador.

The five gamers named above – Hen (Henrik Mclean aged 15), JannisZ (Jannis Matwin, aged 15), TaySon (Tai Starčič, aged 16), Flikk (Nikolaj Andreas Frøslev, aged 17) and Anas (Anas El-Abd, a veteran at 18) – are all signed to Beckham-backed, London Stock Exchange listed Guild Esports PLC (LON:GILD).

All five are qualified for the Fortnite Championship Series (FNCS) All-Star Showdown, which kicks off tonight – at around 7:00pm EST so Becks should be able to see all of the opening ceremony in Rome and all of Turkey vs Italy before presumably switching on Twitch to see the FNCS get underway.

The Fortnite tournament sees the eSports pros at Guild, and hundreds of other gamers, compete for a total prize pool of around US$3mln. Significantly, the audience is huge.

Starting tonight, streams from the Fortnite tournament will be beamed to eSports fans and fellow gamers, some 16mln of them apparently, across Youtube and Amazon’s Twitch live-streaming platform.

In 2019, the inaugural Fortnite World Cup finals event saw 2.3mln concurrent viewers across Youtube and Twitch – and has racked up some 18.5mln Youtube views for the third and final day’s event.

Slightly different to the world cup the Fortnite Champion Series is an open league tournament, allowing all public players the opportunity to qualify through regular ranking gameplay before drafting in the pros at the ‘Showdown’ prize-money events.

On Youtube and Twitch, such events (and there are plenty of them) rack up views in the millions. They comes around more quickly than every four (or five) years, and they mostly happen digitally so cost a lot less to host.

For context, the Euro 2016 broadcasts totalled an estimated 600mln peak viewers, but, European club football executives recently cautioned over dwindling audience numbers in the youthful demographic (albeit cited as an evidence supporting their failed plans to create a breakaway European Super League).

In the same breath as his incendiary ‘legacy fans’ jibe towards local match-going supporters, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez claimed: “Young people are no longer interested in football. They have other platforms on which to distract themselves.”

Football still is the most popular sport among 18 to 34 years olds in Europe, according to YouGov stats, with close to 30% of those surveyed ranking it as number one.

A separate YouGov poll, meanwhile, showed that one in seven Britons were eSports fans. The majority of those skewed significantly, over 70%, to males aged 18 to 44. This metric itself misses the point somewhat.

Let’s look back in a bit more detail at Fortnite, which is phenomenally popular video game, with the younger demographics.

Some 62% of Fortnite players are under the age of 24, according to tech data platform Statista -though getting precise demographics is dicey, as the majority of Fortnite gamers are too young to legally gather their personal data.

Officially the game is certified as 13+, but loose industry guesswork puts at least half the audience between the age of 10 and 24.

Media reports in March, for example, put the spotlight on Joseph Dean, an 8 year-old at the time, as he became the youngest ever professional Fortnite player as he signed with the Team 33 eSports organisation.

Eight is a prodigious age even in the exceptionally youthful arena of eSports though most contemporary parents will, when honest, recognise that it is not a surprising age for a viewer of gaming content on Youtube in particular.

Google says the video platform is only for users over the age of 13 (and in 2019 it was hit with a US$170mln fine by the US watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission related to the gathering of data and ad targeting to children).

Nonetheless, a March 2020 parenting survey by Statista found that 35% of parents allowed their children under the age of 11 to watch Youtube several times a day.

Whilst the details are hard to pin down, the trend is not.

eSports is fast-becoming a very big deal and is increasingly positioned as a real and tangible alternative to in-real-life sports. It was that way before the pandemic and can only have been amplified by it.

Not only is it a futuristic arena of sport, for its young audience and players it is very much a sport of right now.

Guild is part of a healthy gaming sector

AIM-quoted Guild eSports floated in London in October 2020 after a £20mln, at which time it was the City’s first and only eSports team though some investors would’ve been a bit familiar with the industry due to the 2014 float of Gfinity, a live-and-online eSports events business.

With five top tier competitors in the All-Star Showdown, Guild said it is showcased as the No. 1-ranked Fortnite roster in the world. Guild added that it has had “a firm grip” of the European Fortnite Power rankings for the last five months. Moreover, it highlighted that the Guild-owned digital media channels recently saw the surpass 700,000 users, marking it out as the fastest-growing Esports organisation in Europe.

Since the October IPO the company has launched clothing and merchandise lines, landed sponsorship deals with the likes of Subway and signed up pro-gamers.

Guild was followed by Semper Fortis Esports PLC which in April joined the AQUIS market in London, and recently teamed up with England players Harry Maguire and Dominic Calvert-Lewin as brand ambassadors for a bit of pre-Euros promotion and PR.

Although London is not home to big-budget ‘triple-A’ game publishers like Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft or Fortnite maker Epic Games, the UK is a creative and technical hub for the video games industry. The industry supports a deep employment ecosystem in the country.

Meanwhile, a number of successful smaller game developers have their shares listed in London including Sackboy creator Sumo Group PLC (LON:SUMO), and indie game publishers Team17 Group PLC (LON:TM17) and Frontier Developments Plc (LON:FDEV).

Former LSE share Codemasters, amid the increasing popularity and the eSports adoption of its F1 franchise, was the subject of a US$1.2bn takeover by Electronic Arts in 2020, which saw UK shareholders walk away with a tidy premium.

London is also home to one of the industry’s largest support services providers and contractors Keywords Studios, which has grown rapidly and acquisitively since its £28mln IPO in 2013 to become a +US$2bn market cap constituent of the FTSE 250.