Esports, betting, what pro gamers and football players share

Konrad Wasiela was stunned after his first time watching the Intel Extreme Masters professional gaming competition in Poland. It had all the trappings of a serious sporting event: a packed stadium, tens of thousands of fans, and esports athletes as committed as Wasiela’s teammates had been during his days playing in the Canadian Football League.

“I felt like I was in a football stadium — and I’ve only seen that once before when I was playing pro sports,” Wasiela says. “I thought: ‘This is the real deal.’ ”

After four years in the CFL, playing cornerback for the B.C. Lions, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Montreal Alouettes, Wasiela pivoted to gaming. He worked as an adviser for a localization service, called APlus Translations, translating video games for major game studios, including EA Sports, into more than 40 languages.

After watching the Intel Extreme Masters in Poland, Wasiela wanted to go deeper.

So he called some of his closest contacts in Europe and pitched his big idea. The result was ESE Entertainment, a media and technology company focused on providing anything a game studio would need to promote, enhance and sell its games to the world. Since 2019, the company has grown from Wasiela’s core group of friends to 150 employees worldwide.

Esports is to video games what a pro-level NFL franchise is to a high school football team; some of the best players of video game titles, such as “Overwatch,” “Call of Duty,” and “Rainbow Six Siege,” compete in tournaments around the world for millions of dollars in prize money, sponsorships and glory. According to Insider Intelligence, a market research company, owned by the business publication Insider, top esports teams like TSM, 100 Thieves and Team Liquid are valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars each.

And just as in football, baseball, and other offline sports, there is a lot of money to be made beyond sponsoring teams and charging for admission.

How would you explain ESE Entertainment to someone new, who knows nothing about gaming?

We make your game a success by acquiring new video game players to play your existing games. For example, if you’re FIFA and you’re coming out with a new version of the FIFA World Cup video game, and you want to go out and acquire new players for that game — you’d hire us. We use our own proprietary technology to bring those new users to your platform.

We have our own proprietary technology that integrates big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. We have a whole data-lake of information. Our technology sorts that information in a particular way, so we can go out and target specific, potential new players for games.

Let’s use a simple example: you’re FIFA, and you tell us Brazil is a really tricky market; how do you access 15- to 21-year-old players in, for example, Rio de Janeiro? That’s a very specific ask. And that’s something we can do because we have this tremendous data set. We’ll sort through it, and be able to actively go after those potential new players for your game.

What do you think is the most unrealized market for esports?

It’s remarkable when you get access to the data and really start seeing how entrenched some countries are in gaming. Poland is a major hub in Europe. Brazil has been coming on so strong as of late. I think it’s probably growing faster than anyone right now.

I just read that India announced esports as an official sport. I wouldn’t be surprised if India becomes the next big country in esports. If the government is behind the sport, generally speaking, there is capital to be spent. If they want to build esports infrastructure, that’s where scalability happens.

Where do you think Canada stands?

I think Canada is a great example of a smaller country, as it pertains to population, but one where esports are still very popular. We have a lot of successful pro esports teams. Toronto is a big hub.

We’re never really going to match Brazil, let alone India, for the sheer number of esports teams.

Or the U.S. There is a tremendous community in Canada. There are a lot of avid gamers and pro talent here, too. But we’re simply a smaller country as it (relates) to population.

You were a former pro football player for the B.C. Lions, Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Montreal Alouettes. Do you see any similarities between what you used to do, and what esports athletes do?

I think the biggest misconception about esports is that gamers are sitting in a basement somewhere. What I found was really fascinating: these players have nutritionists and personal trainers; they go to the gym; they have training schedules. When there are millions of dollars on the line and you’re a professional, you’re always going to take it to the next level. Why? Because if you don’t, someone else will.

A lot of the players are pretty young, between 15 to 21 years old, but they’re taking it as seriously as guys who I played with in traditional sports, which I think is super cool. They have a huge passion for it. And now they have the infrastructure to support professional esports, which is tremendous. These guys are making, sometimes, tens of millions of dollars in tournaments. So there’s a lot on the line.

ESE Entertainment seems to have its fingers in every piece of the esports pie, from events to communications. What’s the long-term strategy here?

We wanted to provide a 360-solution for big game developers. How would we do that? We would have to provide significant value-add services and technology in many different aspects. So we went out and acquired what we believed were the top assets to create that 360-solution. Now, with over two years of having those core assets, we’ve realized that ESE’s Trojan horse is our technology arm and our media production arm.

So we’ve really narrowed down the core focus to those two main pillars. I’m not saying the other elements of the business aren’t as important. Our two main pillars just naturally excelled, and we want to put as much of a focus on them as possible. It really simplifies our story.

But the concept is still the same. When the big game developers come to us and they want to sign a contract, they’ll always ask: “Can you guys also do this? Can you do that? We’re looking for this.” It’s really cool. Everyone is working in unison now. It’s a true 360-solution for a game developer.

I read that ESE launched an online gambling division in Canada last April. Is that the case?

Yes. Our iGaming division is more exploratory. We believe that our player acquisition platform and technology could also be used in the iGaming space. We’d be bringing in new players and users. So we’re currently going through a lot of tests and seeing if that would be possible moving forward, because we believe it could be very lucrative for the company.

To be crystal clear, we wouldn’t actually want to be a part of the actual betting component. Quite frankly, the market for betting is completely saturated, and I don’t believe in competing with the big guys, because you’re just not going to win. It doesn’t make sense.

You have a goal of $100 million in annual revenue for ESE Entertainment. Your financial statements released in July show $39 million in revenue within a nine-month period. What do you think it’ll take to reach your goal?

Looking at our Q3 numbers, we did just shy of $16 million. You take the quarterly number, $16 million, and you annualize it moving forward. That puts our run-rate at about $64 million. So our run-rate is actually getting fairly close to that $100-million goal.

Our Q4 numbers are going to be coming out in the next 30 to 45 days. I think that’s going to paint another picture of how close we are to our goal. So I really believe we’ll just continue to build off of what we have. I think $100 million in annual revenue is a very realistic goal for us for 2023.

ESE’s stock price is down 20 per cent in the last month, and 72 per cent in the last year alone. What’s going on there?

I don’t feel bad, because Tesla and Facebook are also down 75 per cent. Big tech on a global scale is getting absolutely hammered. There’s a war happening in Ukraine, rising interest rates and inflation, our big COVID episode. I think it’s more of a macroeconomic situation.

What I do believe, and this is what historically happens in tough times, is that all of the best companies come out of it. Unfortunately, we’re going to see a lot of companies close their doors over the next six to 12 months. All of the strong companies are really going to come out with a shining light on them. We believe ESE Entertainment has positioned itself to do that. The goal, from the very beginning, was to create a fundamentally sound company that can weather any environment. And I think we’ve done that.

Your father’s hard work ethic inspired your own. What do you do to ensure you don’t burn out?

Growing up with a family of hard workers sets a new standard that, in many ways, puts you a little above the rest as it pertains to work ethic. What I do during an ordinary day is unordinary for a lot of people, so it puts me in a position where I don’t feel the pressure to do more, because the baseline is so high.

What I do to ensure I’m not burning out is constantly go to the gym, focus on mental and physical well-being, always carve out that extra hour to eat right. I really believe you’ve got to look after yourself, to go for a walk, to be able to be off the screen and off your phone.

Esports are constantly evolving. How are you ensuring the tech you’re developing is going to be useful for whatever game becomes the next “Rainbow Six Siege,” or the next “Call of Duty,” or the next “Overwatch”?

One of the big-picture aspects of my business was always to work directly with game developers. Why? Because they’re the ones who really drive the industry. They’re going to let you know what they’re doing next year, because you’ve got to start planning for next year. We have some really great insights into the direction the industry may be going.

Brennan Doherty is a former staff reporter for Star Calgary and the Star’s 24-hour radio room in Toronto. He is now a freelance contributor.


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