2020’s impacts stretched far and wide, and the world of sport was no exception. These effects even induced long-term changes in fields as unique as eSports. We interviewed Mika Kuusisto, the CEO of Finland’s ENCE eSports, about the last year and his expectations for 2021.
2020 brought about several changes in people’s lives. At the beginning of 2021, how do you feel when you think back to last year?
Mr Kuusisto: I feel relieved to see the vaccinations being delivered in an increasing pace; on the other hand, there are many unknowns still within the eSports ecosystem, and financially the industry will struggle in many areas in the coming months.
COVID-19 had effects on both our private and work lives. What were the biggest challenges for you?
I believe I speak on behalf of many other professionals when saying that finding the balance between work and private life became harder during the pandemic. Additionally, running a team “fully remotely” is taxing for everybody, while not being able to meet people physically.
In traditional sports, it was a huge shock that the Olympics and several other sporting events had to be postponed, while for outsiders eSports seemed to be less affected. But what was happening behind the scenes during this period?
We feel fortunate to be able to work in the industry that can keep delivering in an online world without physical events. However, not having offline events makes it more challenging to create value for partners and sponsors, as LAN events are key elements of eSports. Behind the scenes, many eSports clubs, tournament organisations, and the like have been going through hard times financially.
How much was the economic side of eSports affected by the recession resulting from the pandemic?
Global eSports revenue forecast for 2020 was revised by Newzoo after the summer to 950 million USD, which is 0.8% less than what the industry generated in 2019. 2020 was supposed to be the year of grossing more than 1 billion USD for the first time in history, so eSports has been impacted significantly as well.
How did eSports athletes experience the changes of 2020?
As in many other industries, we have seen more challenges with mental health than before. While players have been able to compete online, and there has not been a need to travel, not being able to practice, compete, and hang out with the team has been taking its toll.
How much did the limitations on travelling and “home office” tournaments influence the performance of athletes and teams?
In general, live physical events provide an environment where some players perform better than in online events. Technical challenges such as high ping (=network latency) when playing from home can create unfair advantages to others, while not being able to play from same physical space as a team might cause issues for team dynamics for others. The bottom line is that physical/offline events provide a competitive environment where every team and player play with a similar setup, and where the skills and strategy can be truly measured.
How were athletes supported in this period? What means were used?
Firstly, we tried to make sure every player has the best possible technical setup in their homes. Secondly, and more importantly, by paying full attention to guidelines, we had the team playing from our office a few times as soon as the restrictions were lifted. This was naturally based on every player’s consent, and we limited the office space for the team and supporting staff only. Once restrictions were tightened again, we went back to the full home environment for all players.
What do you think, to what extent will eSports get back to pre-pandemic times? What changes will remain?
We will surely get back to the good old times of having all the best teams competing for the biggest trophies in the biggest arenas!
I think the industry will learn many lessons from the changes we were forced to implement due to the pandemic. I believe eSports clubs and tournament organisers had to create more entertaining products to keep the audience attracted. For example, having teams and players committing to play with their web cameras on was a small but important action. This has led to creating more digital content by teams and more digital products by tournament organisers. Eventually, this means the audience not able to travel to physical events in the future can enjoy higher quality entertainment and are also more likely to spend money supporting the teams of their choice.
What could be the key to successful teambuilding and preparation in 2021, given the great deal of uncertainty that is still around because of COVID?
I think we all need to closely analyse what we did well and what went wrong in 2020. Having players going through burnouts is a signal everybody in the industry needs to pay much more attention – for example, we at ENCE have invested more on the coaching staff by having a psychotherapist regularly spending time with the team and players. This is an area where I am convinced that the organisation behind the eSports players and coaching will also benefit.
How did 2020 change the possibilities of youth players and academies in eSports? What kind of trends may appear in the future?
Academies in eSports are definitely a thing in 2021 and beyond. We, as an industry, lack the roadmap for young talent to become professional eSports players today. There are great exceptions, however not universal models which exist in traditional sports.
What do you expect from your athletes and teams in 2021? What will this year be about?
2021 in some way is a year of rebuilding for ENCE. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is our most visible and successful team, and after a difficult 2020 competitively, we want to get back to being one of the top teams in the world. From our Starcraft2 World Champion from 2018, we might want to expect another year of success, while our PUBG team is currently in South Korea (yes, a first physical eSports event for us in a long time) competing against all the world’s best teams in a 3.5 million USD prize pool tournament. As an ice hockey nation, we want our NHL star to keep delivering to our fans and win lots of trophies on the way.
So, this year will be all about getting ENCE back to where it belongs competitively, and building sustainable business along the way!
What advice do you have for other managers, even yourself, for how to move forward in 2021?
Prepare for the unexpected; the pandemic is not going away any time soon. Despite vaccinations being delivered, we might still get bad news, lockdowns, and strict restrictions. Most importantly, everybody should focus on keeping their teams safe. If we can all commit to it, we’ll beat COVID and can go back to our lives this year!
Thank you for the interview.