ESL One Birmingham could make or break Facebook deal

ESL One Birmingham is upon us, and the theme of the weekend will most likely not be excellence, innovation or excitement. No, for the majority of DotA 2 fans online, the largest issue surrounding the event is the platform it is being streamed on, and it’s one that doesn’t seem to be resolving itself right now.

For those not in the know, ESL signed a deal with Facebook back in January that gives the social network exclusive rights to the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Pro League and the ESL One DotA 2 and CS:GO tournament series. In addition, ESL included the creation of a new ESL show that highlights some of the big moments from the relevant Pro League and ESL One matches on a weekly basis.

The overall fee paid to the company was not disclosed at the time, but similar deals for established games like League of Legends run into the hundreds of millions. Even Overwatch achieved a $90m valuation for two years of broadcast rights, although the deal they did with Twitch is difficult to explain with market value alone, and makes more sense if you consider Twitch an investor, which they are in some ways.

"We may lose 10 or 15 percent..."

At the time, there was a quote that become a meme, from ESL’s senior vice president of media rights and distribution, Nik Adams. He told the listening media that, “We may lose 10 or 15 percent of our audience, but then we grow because we reach a new audience,” and ever since this has been repeated on forums and websites where the overall reaction to the move has been overwhelmingly negative.

The logic from ESL was sound, from a boardroom point of view, but seemed to be based more onn the world they wish they lived in, than the slightly insular world of 2018 esports. “We are moving out of the more endemic spaces and platforms where we solely catered to a core esports audience and open up more to a broader audience,” Adams said. Rumours that ESL One Birmingham may also be streamed by a major UK corporation will only add to his excitement about new demographics, but the core is vital to the success of esports in future.

It is difficult to judge how many new viewers ESL have reached through Facebook, with the level of negative media attention that site has drawn, and there is no doubt they have lost some of their endemic audience in the meantime. How seriously posts thanking them for helping fans break their ‘DotA major addiction’ should be taken is a matter of debate, but the sheer volume of such posts cannot be ignored, just like the 11k viewing figure on Facebook, that is embarrassingly low.

“Here we can grow ourselves and our audience a little bit more and maybe lower the barrier to entry to esports a little bit, and bring it to people who haven’t heard of esports before or might have interest but aren’t regular viewers of those core platforms,” Adams said, but at this point those benefitting the most from ESL’s decision are the streamers picking up views on Twitch for their re-broadcasts of the event.

The weekend is still ahead, and there are bound to be many exciting moments, but the time ESL have to make this deal work is running low. It’s not as easy to find the total number of views, and maybe their decline has not been as extreme as we believe, but perception is equally important. Birmingham may be the final chance for this deal to work, or ESL and others will be forced to accept Facebook is no safer a place for your tournament than it is your personal data.