ESL UK interview: 'We want to keep investing in UK eSports – we're not doing this to make money'

eSports News UK got the chance to sit down with ESL UK co-managing directors James Dean and Spike Laurie for ten minutes at the recent UK Hearthstone finals.
We asked about what’s next for ESL in this country, their thoughts on Overwatch, the importance of making money from eSports and more. Here’s our full interview:
 
The UK Hearthstone finals drew record viewers. Why do you think that is?
James Dean: I think the UK is particularly good at playing Hearthstone – we’ve got some champions in the running.
This is a typical example of where we’ve seen the core reason why grassroots national league will create champions for our country. Okay it’s a bit slow on Counter-Strike and League of Legends, but we just qualified a team into the Challenger Series – now let’s see what happens with Hearthstone.
It’s our first Hearthstone season ever, it’s hit record numbers… I think the excitement, the hype and the stream was genuinely good entertainment and that’s why people invested in it. So it’s been superb.
 

“We live with the fact that every penny we make from the UK Premiership goes back into that project. We want to keep increasing it, adding new titles, paying more prize money, growing that grassroots and doing what ESL does best – serving the community.”

 
The Hearthstone inn-style stage setup at MCM was impressive. Can you tell us about setting that up and why you went to all that effort?
James Dean: It’s a similar size to our Counter-Strike stage so obviously we could get a lot more creative. It was a really good, fun project for us – it was the first time we were doing Hearthstone. When you go into something like this and you’ve not run a live event with that particular game, and considering it’s the first season we’ve ran for Hearthstone, you think, oh God is it going to attract people?
I think the fact that we can make it a bit more theatrical and fun… we had Sean Charles from ESL HQ helping, all that adds up to an experience that makes you think: ‘Oh that looks cool.’
We live with the fact that every penny we make from the UK Premiership goes back into that project. We want to keep increasing it, adding new titles, paying more prize money, growing that grassroots and doing what ESL does best – serving the community.

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The ESL UK Hearthstone Premiership finals stage at MCM London Comic Con

 
The live audience seemed really interested in watching UK Hearthstone live. How many did you have watching?
James Dean: We had 26,000 watching online and about 1,000 seats at MCM too – around 750 were filled. It’s good that people want to physically sit there. I think we’ll borrow from that. It’s a massive show – 130,000 people come to this show – so they can’t sit here all day as they’ll miss a lot of action and will have to queue up for things to buy and other shows to see. So maybe we’ll look at extending our activity and extending MCM past 6pm in the evening.
 
Do you think more eSports fans in the UK are interested in Hearthstone than League of Legends? The viewer numbers for League seem lower…
James Dean: Our record for the League of Legends ESL UK Premiership was about 24,000 online viewers. League sits closely with Riot, and Riot do support us in a big way. We’re seeing some natural growth with CSGO and Hearthstone in their own right – it’s good to see the community driving this.
 

“We don’t look at these as opportunities like, ‘Oh, let’s go to Comic Con to… [make more money]’. It’s an investment for us and an investment for UK eSports. For us that’s super important we can do that.”

 
 
What are your thoughts on Overwatch? [Note: This question was asked before the ESL Gamescom tournament and UK Overwatch Community Cups announcements]
James Dean: ESL have got over 500 teams in the European Community Cup. So it’s hugely exciting, we’ve got our eyes on that.
Spike Laurie: I think it’s a really great game with huge potential. I think we’ll see the community determine… we’re working very closely with Blizzard on lots of things and now’s the time to see and to prove it out. I think it’s got a very strong chance and with a fair wind I think it will do very well.
 
There seems to be a bigger buzz around UK eSports compared to a year or so ago. Would you agree with that?
Spike Laurie: I think eSports in general is on the rise and we’re investing a lot in UK eSports. That’s one of the luxuries we have as ESL – being the world’s largest eSports company – that we can really have that laser focus on the UK with the Premiership, other activities like that, our new ESL 1 studio and really give the UK fans that direct pipe to eSports content.
It’s all about layers. At that top layer there’s the big stadium events which will always attract viewership, but we want UK fans to think there’s a path to pro, that they can follow a UK player and really get behind them, and feel proud about what’s happening in this country.

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ESL opened a new UK studio in Leicester earlier this year

 
The UK games press don’t seem that bothered about local eSports. You’ve just hired Bastion as a PR agency – do you think that will help the press warm to UK eSports in general?
Spike Laurie: I think education is required in general for mainstream media. eSports is huge, but it’s sort of the world’s biggest niche. It’s 235 million people, but if you just asked a random punter in the street if they know what eSports is, if they know who Fnatic are or who won the UK Premiership last week, they’d say: “What are you talking about mate?”
And actually it’s more fool them for not being aware of what’s happening. The millennial audience is watching and absorbing and competing and participating in eSports on a daily basis.
 

“I think Overwatch is a really great game with huge potential. W4we’re working very closely with Blizzard on lots of things and now’s the time to see and to prove it out. I think it’s got a very strong chance and with a fair wind I think it will do very well.”

 
How focused are you on making money? I’ve heard you break even with events like this, do you want to generate higher revenues?
Spike Laurie: It’s not about that. We don’t look at these as opportunities like, ‘Oh, let’s go to Comic Con to… [make more money]’
It’s an investment for us and an investment for UK eSports. For us that’s super important we can do that. The reason we can do that is we have the legs as ESL to support investments like this, with all the other cool stuff we’re doing.
 
What’s next for ESL in the UK?
Spike Laurie: We’re a good team, we’re a strong team, we’ve got great facilities. It’s about asking the UK community: ‘What more do you want? What else can we provide you with at filling those gaps?’
 

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