It is an activity and a sector that has never been in a sharper spotlight with the challenges faced by sport in terms of social distancing and restrictions on gatherings.
There is still a lack of understanding across many working in the sporting environment about what it is and what opportunities it presents.
In August 2019 Sport for Business hosted a Members Round Table to gain a greater sense of where it sits in the spectrum of sport, and tomorrow morning we will host the sixth in our series of Live Webinars on where it is in 2020.
Demand for that has been very strong and we look forward to diving into the subject with Jonny Madill from Sheridans Sport in London, Enda lynch from Munster rugby who last week announced their new entry to the market and with Trev Keane who has long been an advocate and adviser to the industry and is one of the four co-founders of Ireland esports.
He is joined in this by Darragh Cunningham, who works within the Leisure sector with Dublin City Council, Paula Prunty, the operations and Planning Manager at the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and Stephen Daly with a long and successful past in financial services.
We sat with them in a virtual sense last week to get a sense of where they see the future for esports in Ireland.
SfB: What was the moment that inspired this coming together?
Trev Keane was lecturing to the UCD Masters Degree in Sports management group last year and talking about esports as having 2.2 billion players worldwide and 700,000 in Ireland alone. With a bigger global audience than Netflix, ESPN and HBO, combined and a global revenue stream that rivals FIFA he was unequivocal that this was a huge activity.
Darragh Cunningham raised his had at the end of the presentation and asked the question “Is anyone governing this nationally?” The answer was no and that was the spark for the foundation of Ireland esports.
The driving motive was the need for someone to take hold of this and provide governance and structure for the good of the players.
Darragh is a former CEO of Pentathlon Ireland and so has experience across the private, public and high-performance sectors.
Within a week of that classroom session, he had agreed with Keane that they should work together.
Steve Daly was the next to come on board. He is another on the Master’s Course having returned to Ireland after a strong career in international finance and is a real driving force to get things done.
It very soon became apparent that more expertise in the area of sports administration and governance was needed and Paula Prunty was identified as one of the best sports administrators in the country, working in a sport that caters for over 200,000 members.
We have four key people all pulling together and really enjoying achieving things together.
This is a real team effort and we have hit milestone after milestone at an incredibly rapid rate.
SfB: What will Ireland esports do?
Ireland Esports will do the same thing as any other National Governing Body, we will bring the community together.
We’ll provide governance, safeguarding and education to the industry. We’ll aim to provide better access to courses and supports for our affiliates.
We’ll provide support to the young elite players who are currently being taken advantage of financially because they have nowhere to turn for support when they achieve success.
It is all the typical roles of a sporting body but one significant exciting thing we can do,within the sports industry, that perhaps others can’t do, is to collaborate with traditional sports to add value to the work they are doing.
Esports provides an avenue for traditional sports to engage with young people who otherwise might not be engaged. We can work with NGBs to utilise esports as a means for driving participation in their sports, and that’s exciting.
Luckily Irish sports administrators are amongst the best in the world and already see the potential in this so we are already a long way down that particular road with four Irish NGBs of Olympic sports.
Another thing we will do is provide much needed safeguarding. One in four players are under 18 which means that 3 out of four players they encounter are adults.
We will be looking to provide age-specific leagues, just like in any sport where the under 10s (for example) can log in and play only with other U10’s in a safe and secure environment.
They can use the chat functions to talk to friends and make new friends, with an important aspect being that parents can be assured that it’s all managed in a safeguarded manner. That is something we are particularly passionate about bringing to Ireland esports.
SfB: Who will the membership be drawn from?
Esports is not just a sport of the future. There are already 700,000 players in Ireland. It doesn’t cause traffic jams or stop you getting a parking spot near the park on a Sunday morning so it’s easy not to notice but esports is in every home in the country.
Our membership will be drawn from everyone. Young and old. There are12-year-olds in rural communities who can’t go out on dark nights but they can put on a headset and talk and laugh and play with their friends.
There are OAP’s who can play drafts together all over the country and have a good old natter with a new friend while doing it.
Then there are the adults. The average esports player is 35 years old, has 2 kids and owns a house according to a Goldman Sachs report form 2018.
Esports is inherently gender-neutral and disability friendly. A recent study in New York showed a Doctor who used esports as a part of the treatment for quadriplegics. The results were so positive they now have an esports team that competes against able-bodied players.
Additional to being in every house in Ireland we can also be in every Irish household around the world. Irish people living anywhere in the world can sign up to Ireland Esports and get involved. They can even play on teams with their friends on a wet Tuesday night.
We call this the Super-National model. Esports can be an incredible tool for connectivity.
SfB: Do you envisage recognition over time from Sport Ireland and the potential for some funding from Government?
That’s not for us to decide. Ireland is one of the last remaining EU countries without a recognised NGB for esports so we’re playing catch up.
In Germany, esports has been declared an official sport. Players receive athlete tax rates on earnings and teams are free to bring in professional players from other countries as other professional sports teams are.
It’s already a featured medal event at the Asia games. The International Olympic Committee has a subgroup chaired by the President of World Cycling who is looking into esports as an Olympic sport. Initially it was considered premature but that stance is quickly softening right up to the point that the IOC have now begun sanctioning official events such as the pre-Tokyo event.
Nobody wanted to see the Olympics postponed this year as we all have friends competing or involved and it’s awful for them to have to deal with the disruption but we will do our best to support Irish players who aim to qualify for that event in 2021.
One thing is for sure. We are using the absolute best of best practices policies and structures as we build this NGB from the ground up. That’s everything from the governance code to taking ideas on sports governance from France, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.
Ireland Esports is going to have a prototype governance model that will be amongst the best in the country and possibly the world. It’s something we believe in very strongly and we have no previous history or cultures as a barrier.
Every policy and procedure we put in place is taken from the best practices around the world and adapted for the Irish system. It’s innovative sports governance of the highest standard.
SfB: In the meantime do you have partners that are able to fund the initial requirements of providing a service?
We absolutely welcome anyone who would like to speak to us. We have a number of exciting and innovative projects in the pipeline that might be a perfect fit for a number of potential partners. Imagine getting involved with The Beatles before they released “Love me do”?
SfB: What do you see as being the first ways in which you will seek to shine a light on eSports as a sport?
Esports is here and we believe people have started to realise that. It’s not going away so burying heads in the sand isn’t going to help anything.
The level of support we’ve received from within the sports industry is beyond fantastic. People can start off a little sceptical but after 5 minutes they are really behind us, excited and offering support.
We don’t need to shine a light on esports. We just need to provide support structures. Esports is a massive global phenomenon. The esports players will shine the light. We will just provide the platform.
Are each of the directors involved on a voluntary basis for the moment, and are you all continuing with your current positions?
We’re volunteers. We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do and we have the expertise to do it. It’s an exciting space and venture and we genuinely enjoy working together.
It’s an incredible experience. How many people can say they have built an entire NGB from the ground up? It’s really exciting. Hopefully, very soon Ireland Esports is in a position to hire staff.
With 700,000 potential members maybe we’ll even have a crack at the big 3.
It’s great to see such enthusiasm and what better a time to put a structure around esports? We wish the team of four every success in achieving what they are setting out to do.