As esports experience massive growth and are thrust into the mainstream, statements like “League of Legends had more viewers than [major sporting event]” become more common.
Various esports events have been credited with dwarfing The NBA Finals, the Champions League and even the Super Bowl. These statements try to show that the esports industry—no matter what the reader might think about it—is massive and has the numbers to back it up.
The only problem? The stats can be incredibly misleading.
Indeed, esports is a massive global phenomenon with an audience of millions, but the numbers used to showcase the viewership have more holes than Swiss cheese. Online streaming platforms like Twitch count a viewer differently from how Nielsen tracks traditional sports viewership.
But that’s about to change.
The developers behind the biggest esports in the world have been working with Nielsen to develop a metric to finally allow for apple-to-apple viewership comparisons. It’s called AMA, average minute audience.
The math is simple: Take total minutes watched and divide it by total minutes broadcast to discern AMA. It’s the same way Nielsen has been tracking viewership for decades, but now it’s being extended to esports.
(This is a tale as old as time; every medium has struggled with an agreed-upon metric, if not also an agreed-upon measuring firm. Welcome to the club, esports.)
“The need for AMA really came from the use of other ‘new’ metrics that emerged from within the esports industry over time, a result of there being no single standard for viewership reporting and often rights holders themselves being accountable for their own performance read-outs,” said Nicole Pike, the managing director of Nielsen Esports. “These metrics (such as “peak concurrents” or “uniques,” for example) created confusion for marketers and ad buyers who were used to transacting on average audience figures.”
She continued: “Furthermore, many of the non-AMA, esports-specific metrics used are at times leaned on as a way to report higher numbers than an average audience metric would represent—which unfortunately started to build distrust among brands who realized there were a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons being made with respect to esports.”
Some people in esports who wanted to bloat their viewership count would pick and choose statistics that shined favorably on them, and ad-buyers can pay a premium on inventory that may be more sizzle than steak. The esports industry is maturing quickly, and so are the sponsors getting involved.
Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League (OWL) brought on Coca-Cola as the official beverage and Toyota as the official North American automotive partner. Riot Games’ League of Legends signed Mastercard as a global partner and Honda as the North American automotive partner.
When massive companies like these enter a space, they need to know what they are buying. For Activision Blizzard and Riot, AMA is a crucial step to bringing these companies into the esports space.
“When you talk to brands or agencies or investors, giving them the ability to directly compare Overwatch League with their other investments in traditional sports is extremely valuable,” said Kasra Jafroodi, strategy and analytics lead at Activision Blizzard Esports. “It allows them to quickly understand how things are performing, and, when your story is positive, these numbers are even more valuable.”
Here’s what the numbers say about the Overwatch League. Opening week of the second season of the league saw an AMA of 440,000, a 14% increase over last year. As the season went on, that number dropped to an AMA of 313,000, which still represented an 18% year-over-year growth rate from the first season’s average.
But those numbers aren’t why so many companies are buying into esports. It’s the demographics that have companies clamoring to get in.
Individuals aged 18-34 in the United States represented an AMA of 55,000, up 11% year-over-year. According to Activision Blizzard, all the major American sports leagues are down in that demographic.
“55,000 in the 18-34 U.S. demographic actually makes us bigger than the MLB and MLS in that demo,” Jafroodi continued. “That’s a very positive story. We’re not bigger than the Super Bowl, but the fact that the Overwatch League in its second year is already bigger than two well-established leagues is a big deal.”
To reach this point, Activision Blizzard had to make some concessions. Because of the faulty data, many people genuinely believed that esports was already outpacing the largest sporting events in the world. But the wool wasn’t going to stay over their eyes forever, and Activision Blizzard needed to get out in front of the issue before investors began asking more questions.
“Esports wasn’t going to magically overnight become the biggest sport in the U.S.,” Jafroodi explained. “But if you can see that growth and you have good numbers, it’s not very hard to see what the next 10 years are going to look like. It’s when you have those bad numbers that you begin doubting what everything looks like.”