In the world’s first truly digital sport, esports, analytics is emerging as a key competitive advantage, and the technology industry is taking note — and writing cheques.
Last year, SAP signed a three-year sponsorship deal with one of the world’s biggest esports teams — US-based Team Liquid — and the companies have been collaborating on innovation approaches off the back of the German software giant’s HANA analytics platform.
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The move was a significant one by SAP, which already has a strong footprint in women’s tennis, football and sailing.
The partnership seems to be paying dividends.
The last 12 months have been good for Team Liquid. Its League of Legends team has won three back to back North American championships in the world’s largest esport. And, says Victor Goossens, founder and Co-CEO, Team Liquid, “By being victorious at several premier tournaments in CounterStrike we managed to claim the #1 spot in the world ranking. In addition, we have won live tournaments in DotA 2, Smash Melee, Smash Ultimate, PUBG, Quake and Clash Royale in the past few months.”
Analytics plays an increasingly important part of the team’s success.
Team Liquid is already one of the world’s most successful esports organisations. Founded in 2000, its earnings from prize money alone already exceed $US25 million. On top of that, it generates sponsorship and media rights revenues.
Goossens told Which-50, “As with any sport it is incredibly important to review what went right and wrong. SAP is helping us get as much information as possible to pinpoint the good and bad in our matches.”
According to Goossens, the kind of data available runs the gamut from in-game stats and strategy to voice communications in important matches.
“Because at this highest level every small improvement can make a huge difference, we need to have a partner like SAP so we can develop the custom solutions for each game we are competing in. It is one very important way we are giving players the tools to succeed. The scene has grown a lot and these days all major teams have full-time coaches and a whole support team around them. We believe we need to be at the forefront of these developments to ensure we can bring home championships.”
SAP’s initial decision to sponsor Team Liquid was itself a data-driven one, with the company focusing on the game DotA 2 (sequel to Defense of the Ancients) because of the huge amount of data generated in each game — and because Valve — the owner of the game —makes that data easily available.
The data analysis of in-game performance has definitely reached the stage where Team Liquid can give its players individual guidance about improving their own performance, says Goossens. And they can also use their technology firepower to better understand how competitors play.
The analysis platform is built on SAP’s HANA technology and allows the organisation to interrogate the data at a very granular level for both the performance of the team and individual players.
“This can be done by our analysts, coaches, and even teammates — but players oftentimes get individual guidance on how and where they can improve,” Goossens says. “We aren’t so big that we have full-time ‘position-coaches’ but as the industry grows and matures and more professional players retire I believe we will also see this being implemented across the board.”
In esports, knowing the opponent is a huge factor in being able to win, and data is crucial when it comes to reviewing how competitors play. “Because we work with SAP and have custom software solutions we can quickly gain access to all sorts of stats to summarise various facets of strategy. These provide a quick overview of something that could have taken hours to collect manually.”
We asked the Team Liquid founder if he could imagine teams reaching the stage where they could analyse a competitor’s performance and have a machine create a version of that team to practice against before a competition.
Simple answer: yes.
“There is a lot of work being done to develop AIs that can be competitive at a pro level. The two most prominent projects are Google’s Deepmind AI for StarCraft, and OpenAI’s efforts in DotA 2. In both games, the projects are making progress and coming closer and closer to beating professionals,” he said.
He noted, however, that part of their advantage is in mechanics such as mouse click precision, and speed. “Currently, the professional teams are asked to compete against the AI with handicaps, which can diminish the need for the AI to outperform strategically. When they are consistently beating professionals for the first time it will not immediately mean that there’s strategic innovation. However, if we give it long enough — it is just a matter of time.”
According to SAP’s Technology & Innovation Lead, SAP Global Sponsorships, Milan Cerny, the impact of AI will likely allow teams to build virtual models of their competitors prior to tournaments to help them train.
“It would be great to give a team like Liquid the possibility to simulate their opponents, and then according to those simulations, prepare strategies. That would be amazing,” he said
“We’re not there quite yet, today, but it’s certainly something we’re looking into. And it kind of goes into the realm of AI and machine learning as well.”
Some extra big data
Not all the data Team Liquid analyses is directly connected to the games it plays.
Goossens says, “For example, we’ll look at developments in communities like new ways to practice or positive trends in fan interaction. The support staff for our teams is fantastic and innovative in integrating new ways to improve the environment around the players to facilitate top performance. This is in addition to looking at things like other teams’ in-game movement, moment to moment vision and blind spots, individual players, data around development changes (think constant rule changes and how they affect a sport, etc). There’s really no limit to the areas you can find improvement in.”
Esports is is both fully digital and fully global and increasingly competes on an equal footing with traditional sports for the loyalty of fans, and for sponsorship dollars.
The approach taken by Team Liquid on analytics demonstrates another key characteristic esports shares with traditional sports: a commitment to high-performance techniques to improve player performance.
“One of the most important high-performance elements for us is bringing in professional help for sports psychology. Our players are oftentimes in extremely stressful environments, yet perfect communication is needed to perform,” Cerny said.
“Figuring out together how to optimise all of this is one of the important keys to improving our performance.”
And, of course, it is important to take care of the details.
“It is really important to us that we take care of any unnecessary distractions. When our players travel we make sure that there’s a shuttle to pick them up. When they are at training camps we make sure there’s a chef cooking multiple meals a day. We provide gym memberships and have physical therapists and other professionals on staff to make sure the players are in optimal health and any issues can be quickly remedied.”
Data also plays an important part in the way the organisation markets itself and its players, though the approaches here are more in keeping with traditional business intelligence methods.
“We have our own internal Business Intelligence department that analyses trends and stats across the board. This can be for our social media performance, sponsorship tracking, optimising our merchandise strategies and various other things that can help us improve as a company.”
According to Goossens, for a long time the organisation ran more based on intuition and deep industry understanding, “but the bigger our company and the industry becomes, the more it helps to have statistics on hand to back up our decisions.”
Marketability is incredibly important to ensure that Team Liquid can keep functioning on the business side of things, with sponsorships and media rights, he says.
“When it comes to participating in competition sometimes it can be hard to pick marketability over raw competitive ability, so we must really ensure that the players we bring on board for our teams are also developing their individual brands together with the organisation’s.”
By understanding more about its market, and as sponsors mature as they become more comfortable with the results of sponsorship, the organisation has also been able to evolve its approach.
“As we grow, we notice that we are more able to compartmentalise rights and able to work out partnerships focused on specific sections of our activities. We don’t always have to include the jersey anymore, which is the case for our partnership with SAP that is focused on co-innovation. Nor does every sponsor look to be associated with every game that we are in. We see this compartmentalisation as a natural progression that comes with the increase in audience.”
Discussing the Team Liquid deal, Cerny told which-50, “All of our partnerships have a very important technology piece to them. It’s kind of crucial to us to do content driven, technology-driven storytelling. This is the same approach we wanted to take in esports.”
At the time there were not many people at SAP familiar with the subject. “We took a few months, went to a few events, we spoke to stakeholders, teams, event organisers, and publishers to understand the market as best we could, and in that process, we also got in touch with Victor Goossens, at Team Liquid.”
According to Cerny, what began as an informal conversation developed quickly.
“After a few months, we said ‘Look, we actually think Team Liquid could be a good fit for a brand partnership with SAP.’ From the get-go, we discovered very quickly that we have a very, very similar mindset. They are very open toward innovation, which we really demand from our partners. We want to tell those innovative stories.”
He said the reason for focusing on DOTA 2 initially was that it was a very complex and strategic game. “It really lends itself to be analysed using our software like SAP HANA and the SAP Cloud Platform. And the data is accessible, so everything that happens in the game is fully digital and available via public APIs.”