2020 was a weird year for me, as I transitioned from a behind-the-scenes guy to someone writing on a regular basis. One of the things that I really wanted to do this year in my writing is highlight stories that show how connected esports really is to what is going on in other industries and in the overall global economy, and how things that seemingly have no connective tissue can actually have an impact on this space we all love so much.
It was a monumental task selecting five stories out of hundreds, but below you’ll find the five stories I enjoyed writing this year or felt had a real impact on our readers. First, though, I want to acknowledge some of the things I either really enjoyed writing about or that I think were important in 2020.
It was not a joy to write about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, but it felt good to see major esports organizations, content creators, and personalities come out in support of racial justice in America. While a lot of people offered messages of support and solidarity with protestors in America demanding racial justice, equal treatment under the law, and promoting the message that Black Lives Matter, Ben. DrLupo” Lupo said it best in this video clip.
Also, in 2020, Hong Kong lost its favored nation status with the U.S. mostly due to its own terrible decisions to align with the Chinese Communist Party and use heavy-handed tactics against pro-democracy protesters. In a joint piece written with Tobias Seck, I explained why this affected investments in esports and gaming, particularly those in China. Also, with the input of a then-vacationing Tobias Seck (the poor guy), I wrote about Guild Esports’ IPO raising more than $25M USD.
It was a joy to write about esports organizations, major content creators like Ninja, and endemic brands such as G2 Esports fighting over the inclusion of a branded skin in the popular game Fall Guys. That friendly competition led to more than $1M USD for the gaming-focused charity Special Effect.
The Esports Observer didn’t cover Fortnite getting banned from the Apple App Store and Google Play or the subsequent lawsuits that followed right away because there were no significant esports activities tied to the mobile version of Epic’s popular battle royale game. But when Apple tried to revoke Epic’s Unreal Engine status, we jumped into the fray, because PUBG Mobile and the Chinese version of the game (PeaceKeeper Elite) both have significant esports scenes built around them.
Politics intersected with streaming in interesting ways in 2020. One story that was fascinating to me was Democratic NY Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez taking aim at the U.S. military for using its budget to stream on Twitch. Many saw this as a sneaky way of engaging in recruitment efforts aimed at children. AOC would later add an amendment to a military spending bill that would have banned the practice, but it was soundly defeated by both Democrats and Republicans in the House and never became part of the final bill. One thing it led to was Armed Forces personnel refining and revising their policies on streaming and how they interact with the public. AOC would return to the topic of Twitch later in the year, when she decided to play Among Us with her friends. People seemed to enjoy that more than her military spending amendment.
Now onto the big stories of 2020!
No. 5: The Origin of UpUpDownDown
One of the first things I wrote in 2020 was about WWE superstar Xavier Woods and the origin story of his popular YouTube gaming channel UpUpDownDown. Woods is a pioneer of the space as it relates to wrestling, as no one really ever thought about gaming as a way to connect with fans and his fellow wrestlers. Now WWE stars streaming has been normalized, and particularly during this global pandemic it proved to be a way to supplement income as in-person wrestling events were curtailed. It was so lucrative that WWE decided that it wanted a piece of the action and told its contracted talent that they could no longer do it unless it was under the company banner. Woods had a great year despite being kept off TV due to an injury; he won Content Creator of the Year at last month’s Esports Awards and landed a hosting gig on the soon-to-be-launched TV network, G4.
No. 4: TikTok and You Don’t Stop
People didn’t really understand why I wanted to write about TikTok and then later, WeChat. What did these silly little apps have to do with esports? Really there were a couple of reasons; earlier in the year The Esports Observer wrote a report about influencers, why TikTok was becoming an important platform for esports organizations and content creators, and why everyone might want to pay attention to it. But the other reason to write about these apps is that they are owned by Chinese companies and the governments of India and the U.S. had begun giving anyone tied to China the evil eye. Since esports lives in a global economy like most other industries in the world, and one company holds stakes in some of the biggest gaming and esports companies, this story was the first entry in a game of connect-the- dots…
No. 3: PUBG Mobile and India
TikTok’s and WeChat’s treatment in the U.S. were the first two blips in a game of “cold war against China” connect-the-dots, but PUBG Mobile getting banned in India was the greatest example about how geopolitics can cripple an esports ecosystem in the blink of an eye. To help understand what was going on I spoke with NODWIN Gaming Co-Founder Akshat Rathee who laid out in great detail why this happened and offered a pretty accurate prediction of how the popular mobile game will eventually make its return.
No. 2: Ridley Scott Creative Group X ESPAT TV
ESPAT TV’s announcement earlier this month that it had signed a partnership deal with Ridley Scott Creative Group was a pretty big deal for the esports industry, though it sure seemed like most people didn’t get the importance of it. ESPAT TV CEO Dante Simpson laid out the particulars of the deal in great detail, but the simplest way to explain it is like this: non-endemic top-tier brands – the Coca-Colas and Chevrolets of the world – now have a partner that can zero in on a lucrative demographic by creating content that is genuine, organic, and affective with an entire generation that is spending more time watching people play games than linear TV, and this content will be better than anything that could be made by the Fifth Avenue marketing agencies that do not and will not in the foreseeable future understand what the fuss is about all this “esports stuff” the kids are talking about.
No. 1: Riot Games and CFIUS
The main event. All roads lead to Tencent. I began writing about TikTok, and in particular WeChat in 2020 because there was a clear line to all of this punitive action by the U.S. and Indian governments against Chinese companies. In an article this summer, I laid out how the Trump administration would likely use several tools to accomplish this including the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, executive orders, and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. President Trump used all of these things, and with the help of the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department, the administration set about to unravel TikTok in the U.S. as a Chinese-owned operation and ban it along with Tencent’s WeChat app. Spoiler alert: those efforts failed as legal challenges to all of the government’s actions have thus far been halted by several federal courts. But the greatest fear – the concern that the government might take aim at esports-related companies in the U.S. because they were either owned or had financial ties to Tencent – happened as I predicted.
In September, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. asked Riot Games, Epic Games, “and other game companies” to provide information on security protocols related to user data to the government because of their deep ties with Tencent Holdings. We do not know where this will lead, but if the government takes the kind of actions against companies with ties to Tencent in the U.S. that it did with TikTok and WeChat, it will be disastrous for the esports industry.
Tencent owns Riot Games and Supercell, has a major minority stake in Epic Games, and has small holdings in Activision Blizzard, Krafton Inc., Ubisoft, Discord, and many more. If the government forced Tencent to divest itself of its U.S. holdings, it would affect every major esport on the planet – PUBG, PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty League, Call of Duty Mobile, Overwatch League, Fortnite, Rocket League, Rainbow Six Siege, Valorant, and the biggest prize of all – League of Legends.
It’s a nightmare scenario for the entire industry, but hopefully the new administration takes a more thoughtful and careful approach to how it deals with China and Chinese companies doing business in America in 2021. We’ll see.
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