Esports is growing very rapidly in 2017. Twitch views are going up as companies like ESL strike broadcasting exclusivity deals with other platforms, professional sports teams are investing in esports organizations and established esports leagues are looking to franchise models to secure their futures.
If ever there was a time for a mainstream organization with money to get into esports this would be it. Which makes it strange that Planet Odd, a startup esports organization with just one sponsor and a handful of notable players, is making a go of launching a grassroots esports organization in the middle of a relatively unstable growth period. But one of Planet Odd's co-founders believes that there's still a lot a smaller organization can do in the space.
Jonas Axelsson was working in digital marketing at Casumo, an online gambling site, before founding the Planet Odd. While his co-founders ran Clutch, an esports talent agency, before starting the organization, Axelsson came into esports without much of a background in the scene, which he believes offers him some advantages.
"Esports is not very defined," he said. "But the industry has matured up, and given us possibilities that weren't around two or three years ago. I've been in contact with a lot of big media agencies throughout northern Europe, and there is that talk going around. They're very curious, but they don't know how to approach it. Talking to these guys, who handle bigger sponsorship deals or set big media budgets, two or three years ago they weren't ready to talk esports, but I think they're getting closer to that point."
Axelsson readily admits he didn't play or watch any esports titles before starting Planet Odd. Instead, he got interested in the space when he saw the high views some tournaments were pulling in on Twitch and thought about how he could harness that. Of course, he says he wishes he and his co-founders had a chance to launch the organization earlier.
"I would have loved to have done it a couple of years ago, or even earlier," he said. "But now is as good a time as any. I guess the consolation between me and the other guys, and also having a good, stable investor backing our vision made it all possible right now. I think it's still very early days for the esports world. There are some big players moving into the world, but when to comes to starting an organization or creating a team, there's still a lot to do there I think."
As for what there is to do, Axelsson says that Planet Odd's focus for the first year and a half is creating a respectable brand. He's heard the horror stories of players failing to be paid on time or being mistreated by sponsors and doesn't want that to be Planet Odd's reputation.
According to Axelsson, Planet Odd will not be monetizing their organization for the first year and a half or so of their existence, and is focusing on branding instead. The organization signed a CS:GO team, Counter Logic Gaming's former Hearthstone players, and Thunderbirds, most of a Dota 2 roster that placed second at The International 6 as Digital Chaos. Axelsson says Planet Odd chose these three games because they were the most popular ones they could get into, and now wants to turn these players' fans into Planet Odd fans.
"I think most esport fans are more loyal to the players than they are to teams," he said. "Which in some cases in traditional sports that's true as well, but you know, when looking at European football, you are in most cases born into a club almost, and it doesn't matter what players come and go, you'll stick to that club. That doesn't exist in esports."
Part of that, Axelsson says, is the way esports teams have treated their players. He argues that fans don't stick with an organization when they kick under-performing players, and follow players around instead. As a result, Axelsson says Planet Odd wants to foster growth in the rosters they already have.
The issue with that is that securing key sponsors to fund a team like this is getting more difficult, especially big-name, non-endemic sponsors. Alexsson says Planet Odd is fine for now with Casumo as their primary investor, but they'll need sponsors if they want to grow, and he isn't sure why they haven't gotten involved yet.
"Typical male brands like Gilette or Axe, they're not major players in this scene and I don't understand what that is," Axelsson said. "But then, the viewership of esports is extremely distributed all over the world. Say we have 2 million simultaneous viewers. 15 percent comes from Korea, 20 percent from America, 30 percent spread across the whole of Europe, and even if you're a multinational brand it's not sure that you'll have representation in all those markets. In most cases you'll probably end up wasting quite a big chunk of your budget, because maybe you're not interested in the Korean market, or the American market."
The solution could be growing smaller, more local teams, but Axelsson says that doesn't quite work for Planet Odd. He doesn't think he Swedish market is not over-saturated yet, but he'd rather play in a bigger pond, especially because copying sports teams' business model isn't what he sees as the future of esports.
"I think there are aspects of the traditional sports world, which [has] a more physical presence, that you can learn a lot from," he said. "But I don't think you can mimic that business model of the local football club to be pushed into the online world. The great potential is that is it is distributed all over the world, so I think the biggest challenge when it comes to a sponsorship is finding that middle ground. Either geo-targeting it or maybe making a local product accessible in a global environment. There's a lot of potential and challenge in that."
Either way Planet Odd chooses to grow, Axelsson says that he's certain there's still space for a team like his in the esports market. Bigger names might be closing in, but he believes that a strong brand with a focus on supporting players is what esports needs right now, if only because there are so many different ways of going about that.
"The rules aren't really set yet," he said. "The boundaries [between] a platform and event organizer and [what] their relationship is with teams and organizations, even within organizations [and] with what is expected of a player or a team. When people talked about what they want from an organization, in a lot of cases they weren't really sure what they can ask [for], they have no frame of reference, which, yeah, in there lies a big potential to set the new standard for how esports organizations should look and act and also feel."
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.