The constant growth of esports is no secret to anyone. Yet as the industry continues to rocket forward, it’s worth considering that different regions of the world have experienced this growth in very different ways.
How would you describe the response to esports in Russia to date?
Shahbazyan: It compares very well with traditional sports, and it’s healthy even without any government support. I think it’s notable that football, the only sporting practice supported by governmental structures here domestically, has far less audience than Dota 2 or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Those two games, Dota and CSGO, are the primary focus in Russia.
How would you evaluate the esports industry’s progress in Russia overall?
I don’t know of any other sport in Russia that sees as much investment as does esports.
Last year, two of the biggest esports organizations in Russia, EsForce and Gambit Esports, got very strong investments from IT giant Mail.ru Group, who are traded in London, and from cellular provider MTS, who are listed in the New York Stock Exchange.
If we talk numbers, research puts the Russian esports audience in third place in the world by volume. There are about 22 million Russians involved in esports, which is a big number.
Due to the economic situation in the country, financial opportunities in the Russian esports marketplace are still fewer than in most European nations. The audience in those countries is lesser by volume, but has greater purchasing power.
We hear a lot about the sports betting market in Russia. What are the current prospects for the betting market specific to esports?
There’s a strong and dynamic betting presence across all types of sport in Russia, including esports. There’s also a unique betting company that markets itself specifically to esports players and consumers. Today, most Russian sportsbooks have esports markets available for players.
Are there sponsorships readily available for these sportsbooks in Russia?
Yes, but only a few. If we look at Russian football, for example, most of the teams have contracts with bookmakers that represent a significant portion of their operating budget. Comparing this situation with the equivalent in the esports economy, there’s definitely a presence for sportsbooks, but in my mind it’s still not enough.
The average esports sponsor tends to be a soft drink or snack producer, or maybe a gaming equipment manufacturer. But I think we’ve seen an interruption in the growth of esports sponsors, and it’s high time that we seek new potential markets to continue this growth. Betting companies are a great option here, just as they are in any traditional sport.
How would you describe the volume of esports betting in Russia?
It’s not yet as strong or as stable as it is for traditional sports. There’s a strong presence in Dota 2, both for major and minor events, whether domestically or internationally. I’d estimate that the esports betting markets only made up between 4% and 7% of the overall number of sports bets made in Russia last year. That would put the total esports betting market value between $1 and $1.3 million in 2018.
These figures are not as big as they could potentially be. But if we look within the relative framework of growing this aspect of the betting business in Russia, we’ve seen double-digit increases in esports bets over the past year. So the future outlook for Russian and CIS esports markets remains very strong, and we’re still far from reaching the ceiling.
There are sometimes concerns over match-fixing in Russian and CIS competitions. What are your thoughts on those concerns, and how might they be addressed in the future?
We have to look at the origin of most match-fixing instances, which is low player salaries. The greatest number of fixes in sport come through tennis, because for the vast majority of tennis players, earnings from competitions are very low. And they still need to earn their keep.
It’s a common story for a young person to trade in the murky potential of future success in sports, or in esports specifically, in exchange for more immediate financial gains.
Esports sees a lot of fluctuation from a bookmaking perspective. There’s a low entry barrier for potential competitors and their needed wages, so I think fixed matches are less common. Match-fixing does happen, but those instances are generally isolated cases.
Employment contracts for some professional players in esports ensure monthly salaries of around $20,000, but many players maintain their living primarily through sponsorship agreements. For such a player, risking their reputation in match-fixing is irrational.
That being said, as we look into a future in which esports are increasingly popular and the number of professional and semi-professional players increases, and the number of bookmaking opportunities increases, we may then see an increase in cases of match-fixing.