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Esports in the UK: challenges and future opportunities - Part 4

In the final part of our mini-blog series on “esports in the UK: challenges and future opportunities” (see also Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), we cover the panel discussion that took place between Heather Dower (founder of Hot Drop), James Dean (Founder of ESL UK), Wouter Sleijffers (CEO of Excel Esports) and Neale Maker (Esports and Transversal Marketing Manager for Northern Europe and Canada at Ubisoft), moderated by Sam Collins (UKIE).

The panel was asked about their views on generating investments, as traditionally the esports sector has faced challenges in doing this and creating successful business models. 

Heather Dower started the discussion by saying that, after the boom of revenue and visibility esports and gaming had during the pandemic, it is inevitable that money will be tight across the sector for the next few years. Undoubtedly there will be a consolidation of budgets, which is reflected in international statistics which have already been published and show that there has already been a squeeze. Heather said that she is concerned that the sector will lose money which could be invested for grassroots play unless such investment is pushed. UK teams are late off the mark in terms of organising revenue from grassroots play, and figuring out how to do this should become a priority - whether that is using software, digital platforms and/or exporting the UK esports product internationally to make up for our lack of development models.

Neale Maker said that publishers and sponsors need to fund more players, who can then band together to make teams. These teams will bring revenue back into companies, publishers and sponsors but it needs to be ensured that these players and teams know how to get to Tier 1 and use their money sustainably and wisely. If the esports industry invests in grassroots, we can educate players and teams as they come through the ranks, which will result in a return on investment.

In relation to the recent Six Invitational, Team G2 had two players from UK. One of these players came from grassroots and has now won the world championship – this increased visibility can only benefit the presence of the UK esports sector, which in turn can increase it’s commercial investment opportunities.

Neale was asked whether there are people pushing grassroots internationally at Ubisoft?

Neale confirmed there are, and they all feed into a global ecosystem. He highlighted the importance of ensuring that the UK are engaged with third-party, international tournaments and promote UK and its esports opportunities on international calls. This will lead to more participation and visibility.

The panel was then asked where the UK sits globally in terms of esports teams, and whether they thought the UK could be the leading esports nation in Europe?

Wouter Sleijffers said that in his opinion, the word “esports” currently does more damage than good, as it inevitably results in the industry being compared with those of sports and gaming. This could be reaching a turning point though through tournaments dedicated solely to esports. Wouter highlighted Valorum, Rocketleague and Rainbow Six, which are all becoming bigger, more visible opportunities to publishers and are obtaining more participants. Thus, we are gaining data and knowledge of how to make esports events successful. Wouter said that rather than looking at how the “traditional” sports industry monetise and compare esports to it / try and recreate it, we should look at how competitive sports gaming is successfully monetising, what has been successful in the past, and do more of it. The esports sector needs to separate itself from the traditional sports and gaming sectors and work out what works specifically for esports.

Wouter also pointed out that the language and culture of the UK is competing with the languages and cultures of other nations who are aiming to lead the esports movement globally. However, esports are an export product, not defined by territory but by culture. This movement is similar to music. British culture in music is an export product too which people love and subscribe to across the world. Wouter’s view is the key is to export UK esports as a product or brand, create affinity with international consumers, work with British talents and remember that our product is different because it comes with the UK culture.

James Dean elaborated on this by saying that international esports products and events have been widely successful, and people will travel abroad for their passions. He gave the example of when the IEM Rio Major 2022 went to Brazil. It was intended on being a stadium event, but the popularity was so big that each group stage was held live with an audience, and the organisers had to open a fan village for the international fans. There’s no reason this cannot happen for the UK. However, James drew again on the point that the talent and viewership starts at grassroots and community levels, and so this is where the focus must be. Early investment into esports has started to fall foul because there is a lack of customer revenue, as well as an over-reliance on sponsorship even though revenue from sponsorship deals is also dwindling. This means there are fewer funds to invest. James said that we need to focus on business-to-consumer revenue and social media because of the visibility of these opportunities. We must ask ourselves “what are we offering” - is it sports with a similar business model to the “traditional” sports sector? Or is it competitive entertainment, with a completely different business model, and a focus on partnering with brands to get further investment from commercial deals? Once the esports sector have clarity on this, it will be in a better position to sell itself and the UK product to consumers and sponsors.

Sam Collins thanked the panel for their participation, and finished the discussion by asking them what they are currently excited by in the esports scene?

Wouter Sleijffers said the Mid-Seasonal Invitational, Valorum, Apex Legends and other e-tournaments coming to London, as this puts the UK esports sector on the map. He said that the Covid-19 lockdown didn’t actually bring a lot of focus and financial boost to esports, it was primarily gaming that benefitted, so as in-person events increase in size and quantity, it will be exciting to see how this changes the UK esports movement.

Neale Maker referenced his recent attendance at the Six Invitational in Canada, and said it was amazing. Moments like that bring the esports community together, and everyone can experience the fandom that they invest time and money into with their friends. He also mentioned events like Insomnia (the gaming festival), fans of which now include esports communities. Over time, people will get more and more invested in such events and esports as a whole, which has led to more individuals now considering paths to becoming professional players.

James Dean said that he was excited by moving away from the mentality of the esports format as we know. The sector is bending the idea of competitive play, examples of such include the introduction of a physical esports game called Hado, and the revisitation of retro games by creating competitive formats for games like Pacman. Further, the introduction of Web3 games to the industry allows all users to create, own and monetise their content, and store it solely on blockchain rather than existing third-party servers.

Heather Dower finished the discussion by saying she was excited about the different parts of the esports industry in the UK coming together as a collective, working with the likes of UKIE and the government, supporting grassroots and getting recognition and visibility for the work it does.


esports, europe, gambling, media, sport, video games, uk