Esports News UK editor Dom Sacco looks back on tough lessons to learn from esports in 2023 – both within the UK and elsewhere – and tries his hardest to find reasons to be positive for 2024 amidst the so-called esports winter.
As I write this, Microsoft has just announced plans to lay off 1,900 staff across Activision Blizzard and Xbox.
A few days prior, Riot Games decided to let the world know it was cutting 530 jobs.
These join the likes of Epic Games, Unity, Discord, Twitch and more who have announced job cuts. In fact, this year so far, the amount of job losses announced in the games industry is more than half the total job cuts that were made throughout the whole of 2023, according to this games industry layoffs tracker. And we’re barely one month in.
It’s easy to look at so many headlines like these and see the numbers, get upset, but actually not realise how so many individuals’ lives will be affected in the weeks and months to come. The stress of struggling to pay bills, find new work, and the domino effect it may have on spouses, family and friends, not to mention the sapping demotivation of such news.
These cuts are extremely gutting. Many talented people have been let go, and many important to the esports operations of publishers. The LEC has been downsized, and the Call of Duty League apparently doesn’t have any full-time observers anymore.
As someone who’s been working in the industry for many years now, I can’t remember seeing cuts quite like these before.
And this is before I get onto esports team organisations and that competitive ecosystem, which is also facing its own challenges – something I’ll come onto in a bit.
So the cuts are sweeping, and they certainly aren’t exclusive to esports. Everywhere seems to be getting hit hard. As I write this, Channel 4 has 200+ cuts lined up, the John Lewis Partnership is apparently considering 11,000 job cuts over the next five years, Levi is cutting 10% of its workforce, the list goes on and on.
Surely we will be out of this belt-tightening phase soon? That’s what I hope, and what would make sense, but perhaps I’m being naive.
2023: A testing year for esports and the games industry – lessons learnt and the brands that said goodbye
Before I get onto my hopes for the future, I’d like to take stock of what happened in 2023, so we can reflect and learn from it.
I want to start by saying I’m very mindful of the influence articles can have, and the power of words. Sometimes I can put that to one side, and see myself as little old Dom with an independent UK esports site, but a lot of thought goes into how I cover stories and the impact opinion pieces like this may have on people.
I write this because of several conversations I’ve had with people in the industry over the past few months, who have encouraged me not to focus on the negative, but on the positives, and reminded me how articles and news coverage can set the course of discussion and feeling within a community.
At the same time, we have to face reality, and understand difficulties and hardships faced in order to rebuild and learn from them. So that’s why I want to take stock of 2023.
A year ago, we knew 2023 would be tough. An anonymous esports industry insider wrote a piece for Esports News UK, titled, ‘Esports in 2023: A dark age for our industry or a needed wake-up call?’
From the UK, X7 Esports, Lucent and Rix had just closed, and with inflation, a cost of living crisis, and some investment and sponsor money drying up, esports was braced for a challenging year.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from esports, it’s that the community is resilient, adaptable and passionate. So some of those who were in trouble really hung on and dug deep. And it wasn’t really until the second half of the year that we saw the effects of the so-called esports winter in the UK.
Here’s a brief timeline of some of the cuts and companies we lost in UK esports in 2023:
- September 5th: The London Royal Ravens cut UK staff and relocate away from London (this is less of a cut and more of a change, but regardless, we lost a UK esports brand).
- September 15th: The long-running ESL UK & Ireland Premiership is shuttered.
- October 25th: Insomnia Gaming Festival organisers Player1 Events cut two key esports staff in Kharne and GeoSnipe.
- November 3rd: Esports Scotland delays its Scottish Esports League 6 after failing to pay players and staff for the previous event in November 2022.
- November 13th: MNM Gaming go dormant after their Siege roster left over a lack of payments.
- November 17th: London Spitfire let go of their manager Noukky after releasing their roster around the Overwatch League’s closure.
- November 20th: Former staff reveals Promod Esports will close.
- End of 2023: We understand Blast made a few redundancies. However, Blast told ENUK that ‘any changes with our full time staff has been in line with normal movement of personnel, if anything we have been actively adding to our employee base’.
- January 19th: Vexed Gaming is set to shut down (okay so this was in early 2024, not 2023, but it follows the timeline).
- January 29th: TSM make more job cuts including letting go of experienced UK social media manager Dunc.
MNM Gaming haven’t tweeted since September. While people being left unpaid is not something you ever want to see, MNM had done some amazing work prior to this and I understand the investment they were seeking fell through.
Them going dormant especially stings to me, given the recent news that the first UK Blast R6 Major is heading to Manchester, and knowing MNM won’t be there.
Looking at MNM and Esports Scotland, ‘payment issues’ became a frequently used term throughout the fourth quarter of 2023, and not just within the UK.
Galaxy Racer announced a bunch of NA layoffs amidst unpaid claims, and there were multiple financial issues with Women’s Car Ball to name just a couple.
Globally, we saw a lot of closures, cuts and consolidation. So many to list. The Overwatch League. The Quake Pro League. Gamebattles. CLG (closed and acquired by NRG). FaZe was acquired by GameSquare. Evil Geniuses and Golden Guardians left the LCS. Orgs left certain games (Liquid in Rocket League, Galaxy Racer in Fortnite etc). Enthusiast Gaming posted increased losses and job cuts. Companies in the esports betting space also scaled back, including Luckbox, Unikrn and Midnite.
Before I answer that question, I promised lessons to reflect on and take stock of. It comes down to a few things, in my opinion.
Honestly, esports has been overinflated. The gold rush of the 2010s saw teams and tournament organisers make big promises to investors. We got excited, we got greedy, we got bloated. The return on said investment didn’t come, and now we’re in a pickle.
Some esports player salary caps have been implemented, for example in the LEC, and I know some players in certain games are being offered less than usual by teams – and they’re taking those offers.
Several have been saying for years that something has to give. And 2023 was the year esports buckled.
The other thing to note is how the pandemic brought unusual levels of growth. Gamers were stuck at home, they gamed. They bought new PCs, new gaming chairs, new games, new platforms, new hardware. Companies got excited, they got greedy, they got bloated. They overhired.
Now that the pandemic is over, gamers don’t want to buy new PCs, new hardware, new gaming chairs, and perhaps not as many new games. They already have loads of great stuff which will last them for years. Growth has been underwhelming. So it’s no real surprise we’re now seeing a downturn – but it should be.
It doesn’t take a genius to predict a drop in growth after the pandemic. I know 2020 and 2021 were full of uncertainty, but it frustrates me to see companies overhire, only to collectively cut thousands of jobs a couple of years later, and shutter projects with potential.
The sad thing is, I don’t think the industry will learn from this mess. You and I might, but boards of directors and CEOs won’t. They literally only want one thing – and it’s fucking disgusting. They don’t care about us, they care about their bottom line.
This of course all comes at a time where Saudi Arabia is pumping millions of pounds into esports and gaming. The juxtaposition couldn’t be starker. Guild Esports are even saying UK esports is ‘very healthy’ as they prepare to enter Saudi’s Esports World Cup and expand into MENA.
I’m well aware my words here won’t do anything, but someone needs to document this stuff.
And yet, despite all of this, I still remain hopeful.
Reasons to be positive about UK esports in 2024
Just typing that line makes me feel uneasy, like I’m almost forcing myself to publish something I know isn’t true.
However, call me an old fool, but, I honestly do have hope for the future.
Someone was complaining about lower viewer figures in the NLC to me the other day, and my response was: ‘I’m just glad we still have a UK league at this point.’
I am acutely aware that games publishers can close a tournament at the snap of a finger, as we’ve seen several times over the years (who remembers Acti Blizz’s savage and sudden dismembering of competitive Heroes of the Storm?). This makes me feel thankful for what we do have, but reluctantly and resentfully, like I’m Oliver Twist holding out a bowl begging for esports to be kept alive.
But seriously, when I think of esports, I don’t think of the companies, the CEOs, the Bobby Koticks and money mongers of the world. I think of the community.
Since the early days of competitive gaming, the community has dug its roots into the earth and sprouted forth incredible things. The Half-Life mod that became Counter-Strike. The Warcraft 3 mod that built Dota, which inspired Riot to make League of Legends. The little LAN parties that became Insomnia and Epic.LAN. The fighting game players in local arcades who went on to become legends, like Ryan Hart.
Esports will live and die by its communities, the decisions and actions we make as a collective.
When we speak loudly, the devs have no choice but to listen. Sometimes they revert on planned changes or partnerships. (I’m aware this can also lead to some pockets of the community crying wolf or harassing devs, and I of course do not advocate that. But when done professionally and amicably, protests can work.)
When we complained about regional LoL tournaments being shut down, they u-turned eventually, and we got the UKEL back. Where there’s a space for an opportunity and an audience that wants to watch, broadcasts and initiatives will follow.
When job cuts are made, some people set up their own businesses. New ideas emerge, new roads traversed. When ESL closed its UK operations in late 2019, several staff went on to forge new careers elsewhere. Hotdrop was born, for example, creating new jobs in the industry.
When we come together and stand united, we have incredible potential. I know some potential might not be realised, but that’s also why I’m talking about hope.
I was at the 2024 NSE Intel FutureGen day last week, meeting this year’s 20 rising stars in the industry.
Knowing that they and others like them will be shaping our industry in the years to come does give me hope.
We need new ideas, new blood coming in and dare I say new companies formed to challenge the existing hierarchy in esports.
When I look at UK esports teams, too, I see promising orgs like K10 making an impact. I see college students building their own orgs, like CTRL Esports (pictured, top of this section).
I see Verdant putting together good rosters and always maintaining a professional attitude. I see Ruddy taking no prisoners, building a following through a unique mix of hard work and humour. I see Lionscreed turning over a new leaf.
I see hardened names like Method, Endpoint and Excel Esports (now GiantX) forging their own futures, with Endpoint opening their HQ, running LANs and seeking investment to keep on growing, with their UKIC filling in the gap left by the ESL UK Prem.
I see SAF and Futwiz doing good things in football esports.
I see Epic.LAN correctly connecting with the community, setting an example to other companies. I see TradeIt trying new things in UK CS.
I see exciting new names that have flown a little under the radar in UK esports circles, potentially becoming the biggest and best here, like Quadrant, who recently secured seven-figure investment and said they generated multi-million-pound revenue in apparel and partnerships in 2023.
I see the Copperbox Arena becoming a home for many esports events in London, and other venues like the world-class Confetti X in Nottingham and British Esports’ National Esports Performance Campus in Sunderland (disclaimer: I do some freelance work for British Esports and their weekly newsletter). I encourage those in the community to check these places out.
I see many other orgs, talent and more doing promising things in UK esports that aren’t listed here. I see you, I watch and I am here to shout about what you’re doing. The good, the bad and the ugly.
I know money makes the world go round, but when the money mongers have got bored, or lost their money, or made their money, we the community will still be here, following the storylines, twists and moments that esports throws at us.
Yeah, the industry is in a bit of a mess. But we’re in this mess together – and hopefully there will be brighter days ahead.
But we’re not through the storm yet. I’ve no doubt it’s going to get bumpier still, so let’s buckle up, brace, and get through this shit. Together.
Dom is an award-winning writer and finalist of the Esports Journalist of the Year 2023 award. He graduated from Bournemouth University with a 2:1 degree in Multi-Media Journalism in 2007.
As a long-time gamer having first picked up the NES controller in the late ’80s, he has written for a range of publications including GamesTM, Nintendo Official Magazine, industry publication MCV and others. He worked as head of content for the British Esports Federation up until February 2021, when he stepped back to work full-time on Esports News UK and offer esports consultancy and freelance services. Note: Dom still produces the British Esports newsletter on a freelance basis, so our coverage of British Esports is always kept simple – usually just covering the occasional press release – because of this conflict of interest.