Game theory: Let's Play Live's John McRae on the rise of eSports

Idealog's sister title NZ Marketing/StopPress selected the best of the bunch in the media business for its 2018 Hot List. John McRae, the man driving New Zealand’s eSports bus up and down the country for Let's Play Live, was the winner of Media Visionary category.  Here he explains the rise of eSports for both participants and spectators – and the potential it offers brands who get in early. 

There is no shortage of talent carving out new digs in our media landscape. From talented humans such as Dr Mark Sagar from Soul Machines, to Sir Richard Taylor from Weta Workshop, forward thinkers are shifting the industry with new realities and shiny new platforms. While the list of finalists is a discerning bunch, a real cherry is John McRae, the man driving New Zealand’s eSports bus up and down the country.

Previously part of Duco events, McRae has been making waves in the burgeoning competitive video gaming market. McRae is the managing director of Let’s Play Live, New Zealand’s largest eSports entertainment and broadcasting company, and sees eSports as the next big thing in broadcasting and wants to educate brands about the opportunities. McRae has also helped to implement a governing body for eSports named the eSports Federation, which has been established to represent and develop what is considered the fastest growing entertainment sector globally.

While it still sounds strange to many non-gamers, eSports is starting to boom as a viewing and event experience and is drawing massive crowds, to the point where billionaires who own NFL and NBA teams have started to buy gaming teams and professional players are getting rich. It could be a huge driver for economic growth, as seen most in the Chinese market, where eSports is expected to generate $3 billion yuan (US $462 million) of revenue and attract 140 million users this year. Additionally, eSports revenue is experiencing 40 percent year-on-year growth globally, and a global viewing audience of around 385 million.

While eSports is still fledgling in New Zealand, there is significant interest, and McRae is ensuring that Kiwis aren’t left behind in the red-hot sector.

“eSports has been around at a grassroots level for a long time in New Zealand, our job was to provide a platform and give eSports access into a mainstream audience, there is no reason why it can’t be as big as it is overseas and continue to grow here in New Zealand.”

While the thought of video gaming replacing traditional sports like rugby and netball is giving sporting purists indigestion, millennials are flocking to eSports and presenting a real opportunity for brands. There are 1 million gaming participants in New Zealand, while rugby union comparably has 155,000 participants (but larger viewing figures).

With numbers like this, McRae says: “If you don’t know about eSports and you own a business and your customer base are millennials, you should probably nd another job”.

“Companies who support eSports are getting a great affinity with what kids are passionate about, we are seeing globally how brands have harnessed the opportunity really effectively, from Coca-Cola, to insurance companies like Gecko, and Star Insurance Specialists here in New Zealand who are aligned with one of our latest events Project Cars, there are also restaurants, schools and many others jumping on board.”

He adds large brands like Mercedes Benz are investing in eSports with a long-term strategy, because although the audience may not be buying a new Mercedes Benz now, these are the kids that will be buying electric cars, and are likely to purchase their products down the line.

To further incubate young talent, McRae launched the first New Zealand High School eSports League in 2017. The national programme is free for schools to submit teams, and involves one hundred teams playing up and down the country. The league has a mixture of public and private schools playing, female, male and mixed gender teams, who are all playing competitively against each other. McRae shares an official high school photo of an established eSports team, and adds that there are digital prefects popping up as a result.

“It has been one of the most rewarding aspects for me, to create a platform for kids to stand up and be proud, and because it is team-based, if they are not already involved in a team-based sport, it gives them an opportunity to participate.”

McRae says many elements from traditional sports are transferable to eSports, from management and production, to sporting attributes such as coordination, sportsmanship, and teamwork. It’s an offering to kids who are disinterested with traditional team sports to participate in, and he adds that eSports is a proven bridge to participate in active sports, in particular team sports.

It could also be a bona de full-time job for up and coming talent as McRae says most professional players are getting paid similar incomes to a new law graduate, and internationally recognised players are on million-dollar salaries. And if you add on the opportunities for a secondary income, such as appearances and influencer programmes, and streaming, it can be extremely lucrative. An example being a player named Ninja, a Fortnite streamer, who through his paid Twitch subscribers is turning over $US500,000 a month.

ESports also presents a huge opportunity for local broadcasters. In 2017, McRae penned a partnership with media broadcasters Sky TV and NZME to live stream eSports events on Sky Sport. He’s since held multiple events from the Let’s Play Live studio space tucked inside the SkyCity Sky Tower, which have been aired on Sky Sport across the country.

“We have been incredibly lucky to have Sky TV as a partner through our growth period, they do get a lot of stick but niche sports wouldn’t exist without them, it was the same for boxing, snooker, darts, and now eSports, they are a great partner to work with.” 

It could present a new direction for Sky after getting rattled with the loss of the Rugby World Cup rights, and shunted by cheaper alternatives Netflix and Lightbox.

Furthermore, McRae says eSports is on the road to becoming an Olympic sport, and while it has already been cemented in the Asian Games, he predicts eSports will feature at the 2022 Olympics.

“It’s one of the things we really want to see is for eSports to be recognised as a formal sport, so New Zealand’s young eSports players have the same accessibility to facilities, just like rugby or football, because we are competing on a world stage, and it is just another category New Zealand can compete for a gold alongside 27 countries who now recognise eSports as an official sport.”

When asked what the future holds for eSports in New Zealand, he says while he doesn’t have a crystal ball, he sees major leagues being run in New Zealand with big eSports franchises owning their own teams as well as privately-owned teams. They will compete in big national leagues with high stadium attendances.

“All the infrastructure is there, the fibre is there, it is just a matter of time.” 

Nominees: Richard Taylor, Dr Mark Sagar, Lisa Taouma, Tony O’Regan, Sinead Boucher, Aleisha Staples, Amie Mills, Quinton Hita, Ian Taylor, Rhonda Kite, Robett Hollis, Laura Maxwell, Duncan Greive, Bailey Mackey, Jon Bridges, Richard Poole, Todd Scott.

Check out the rest of the Hot List winners here

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