In 1980, aged six, Ralf Reichert was given his first video games console. It was the defining moment in his life. “I’m lucky,” he says. “I grew up playing video games so it’s a very normal entertainment medium for me. Generally, how deep you are into gaming depends on how early you had access to the technology.”

And Reichert is, it’s fair to say, very deep into it. As founder and co-CEO of ESL, he oversees the world’s largest and longest-running esports company, which operates high-profile live video games leagues and tournaments both online and in stadiums around the world.

Some commentators were skeptical about esports in the beginning and wondered aloud why anyone would want to watch other people play video games. Yet Forbes reported that 57 million people tuned in to watch a recent professional esports match – three times more than the 2018 NBA finals – while more than 205 million people watched ESL events live and online in 2017.

German-born economics graduate Reichert has always enjoyed technical innovation and, crucially, had the foresight to see that video games offered real business potential. “I would call myself an early adopter,” he admits. “I’m curious about things generally, and about technology and how it can help improve our lives specifically.” He founded ESL in the year 2000, a few years after co-founding and running professional esports organization SK Gaming in Cologne. “From the beginning, we had a social mission to turn world-class gamers/athletes into stars and give them a stage on which they could shine,” he recalls. “We also knew that if we had enough people who wanted to watch, we could make a business out of it.”

ESL started slowly in small venues with just a small number of fans; but, over time, its live stages became bigger and glitzier while audiences have now grown so large that tournaments are played in stadiums. There is plainly an enormous market for it, with the global esports economy estimated to reach $905 million this year. “Now we can say: ‘We proved everyone wrong,’” says Reichert. “But it took a while.”

Why are so many people attracted to esports?

Compared to traditional media like TV, radio or books, gaming has a few distinct advantages. First, it’s interactive, so you decide what’s going on in the game you’re playing. Secondly, it can be an extremely social experience: Games can be played together and against other people. And third, it’s very accessible. Compare esports to traditional sports. To play in a regular football match you need around 20 or so people inhabiting the same physical space. That’s actually quite a logistical challenge whereas video games players can be anywhere in the world and just need an internet connection. Also, gaming is entertaining! And we all like to be entertained.

What has been your biggest success?

The best thing we ever did was to internationalize our company and go global. At the same time, of course, that made it so much harder to run! But I would say our biggest success is creating these big, social stadium events, which bring people together to celebrate their passion for video games. From a cultural perspective, that’s the most important thing we’ve done.

Do ESL’s live events create big logistical challenges?

Oh, huge. We take massive stages around the world, so it’s comparable to the largest sporting events on the planet. We have so many camera angles with an entire video editing team managing the in-game footage – which traditional sports don’t have. In broadcast terms, what we do is much more complex than, say, a Champions League football game.

Is there a risk that esports is growing too quickly?

Everything that grows quickly has a risk of creating expectations that are too high. That’s definitely true. So as an industry, we need to be careful not to overpromise and underdeliver. However, there are so many people playing esports and watching the competitions that literally nothing – apart from a power outage across the entire planet – can stop it.

Will it become an Olympic sport?

Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Do you think there will be a place for regular sports in the future?

On the one hand, participating in regular sport is unbelievably important for our health, so I have no doubt it’s something that will always be around. On the other hand, a lot of traditional sports are not great to watch and only became popular because they were marketed well and because there wasn’t much other content to consume at the time. I think those ones will struggle. Major sports such as football will remain highly relevant for a long time; but I believe esports will start to rival them and become a driving force in overall sports entertainment. And in 40 or 50 years, watching ­esports will probably overtake watching traditional sports.

Are you also a fan of analog technology or do you think it’s outdated?

I don’t think analog or digital is either “right” or “wrong.” I take a very pragmatic approach and ask: What can deliver the best outcome for me in the most convenient way? For example, film photography is a fantastic hobby for some people. Now, I’m not the right guy for it because I love being able to edit images on a PC and then send them directly to my social media accounts. When new media is more convenient and more advantageous than “old” media, I’m not a traditionalist. Then again, sitting down with people, talking, having fun together and going out with them to see or play sport is something I believe in absolutely. It’s a basic human requirement for living well. — Tony Greenway

Published: November 2018

Images: ESL