Video games might be all the rage during the pandemic, but pro video game teams are not.
A year ago, esports companies—which play competitive versions of games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, sometimes in front of crowds of 40,000 or more—were gushing about war chests; oversubscribed funding rounds; celebrity investors like Drake, Stephen Curry, and Jennifer Lopez; and a future that would see gaming teams eclipsing NFL teams in monetary value.
That bravado has been tamed. The average value of the top ten teams flatlined at $240 million in 2020, following a 54% rise in 2019, according to our exclusive annual ranking of the most valuable esports companies. Industry-wide revenue, which was expected to jump 16% to $1.1 billion in 2020, instead fell $150 million after the pandemic canceled most live events, according to industry research group Newzoo. A lack of stadium-packing tournaments had knock-on effects on merchandise sales, as well as forfeited media rights and sponsorships.
“We’re starting to see valuations become more in line with realities,” says Bobby Sharma, an investment advisor for New York-based esports advisory firm Electronic Sports Group.
Plateauing values are leading early investors—including many venture capitalists, who according to Pitchbook have poured $4.8 billion into esports over the past five years—to put the pressure on companies to make money. Seeking to broaden their appeal, esports companies are now morphing into broader entertainment companies.
“The modern battlefield in gaming is for larger social media and YouTube talent,” says John Robinson, COO of 100 Thieves, a Los Angeles-based game outfit that owns franchise teams competing in League of Legends and Call of Duty.
But the pivot comes at a cost as investors have shredded the multiples they are willing to pay for competitive teams while valuing the newer businesses at even less.
Topping the list: Los Angeles-based TSM (formerly Team SoloMid), with a value of $410 million. The company added to its seven-time North American champion League of Legends team by acquiring Blitz last year. The ad-supported app, which has 10 million active monthly users and offers playing analysis and training sessions, now accounts for half of the company’s $45 million in revenue. In second on this year’s list is Cloud 9, another LA-based company that is valued at $350 million, down 13% from 2019.
Valued at $190 million, 100 Thieves jumps to the fifth spot on our list, from No. 10 in 2019. The company, founded by former Call of Duty champion Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, 28, expects to make $16 million in revenue this year, a leap of 60%. Most of the company’s revenue has occurred outside of competitive play.
In January, the company opened a 15,000-square-foot training facility and production studio, and in October, it signed with talent agency CAA for help getting its content distributed to mainstream platforms like Netflix and Amazon. In addition, 100 Thieves is dipping its toes into traditional sports; in November, it signed YouTube stars 2Hype, who have amassed a following of 18 million subscribers through their basketball-themed challenge videos.
It’s a page borrowed from FaZe Clan’s playbook. The Los Angeles-based company generates 80% of its $40 million in revenue by focusing on creating videos around gaming culture and its stars. FaZe’s lineup includes Nickmercs, one of the most popular gamers on Twitch and highest-paid in the industry, earning $6 million last year. FaZe now boasts over 230 million followers across all its related social platforms and is worth $305 million to rank No. 4.
“What you have seen in the last year is other esports companies are catching on to what has been our philosophy from Day 1, which is to explore the outer reaches of what gaming can be,” says FaZe Clan’s CEO, Lee Trink.
But the losers outweighed the winners this year. Among the hardest hit was Immortals Gaming Club, another Los Angeles-based group, which fell off the list because of a singular focus on competitive gaming. Over two years, IGC paid $58 million for city-based teams that compete in each of the three major franchise leagues: the Call of Duty League (CDL), the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and the Overwatch League (OWL). Live-event cancellations hit revenue by 23%, and the company began unloading teams.
Last month, it sold its CDL franchise to 100 Thieves and its OpTic Gaming brand name, worth $10 million by Forbes estimates, to its original creator—Hector “HECZ” Rodriguez, now NRG Esports’ co-CEO—to use for that company’s Chicago-based CDL franchise. Immortals is now reportedly shopping its OWL franchise. With revenue expected to fall to $8.5 million this year, the team’s value is less than half the $260 million Forbes estimated in 2019.
“Many esports companies raised capital based on inflated expectations of how the market will come together, particularly in the U.S.,” says Jens Hilgers, founding general partner of esports investor Bitkraft Ventures and co-owner of G2 Esports, which ranks No. 7 on the list at $175 million, up 6%. “Now some of those companies have to play catchup with those expectations.”
It’s an industry-wide reckoning that Sharma, the esports investment advisor, says will trim the weak, empower the strong, and open up “very meaningful opportunities and upside.”
Revenue flatlined at Los Angeles-based NRG after its CDL and OWL teams had to cancel ticketed in-person events and stage them online for free. Some of the gap was filled with its higher-margin online content business, including sponsored streams on Twitch and videos on YouTube. Last month, the company opened the Castle, a funhouse, gamers’ version of a fraternity house and production studio to churn out digital content that can be sold to sponsors. NRG is worth an estimated $155 million this year, up 3%.
“If your goal is just to be the Dallas Cowboys and just operate in competitive gaming, that is cool, but it’s a long way off,” says Andy Miller, CEO of NRG and co-owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. “There’s not going to be one thing in gaming making you money.”