How Ubisoft’s measured approach to esports paid off at Six Invitational 2024

esports gamers

With the success of last weekend’s Six Invitational competition, video game publisher Ubisoft may have finally cracked the code to make esports a worthwhile venture for all involved.

Last weekend marked the eighth iteration of the Six Invitational, the year-end championship for Ubisoft’s popular first-person shooter game “Rainbow Six Siege.” As game developers look to adapt to changing times, the event’s record-breaking viewership (according to Ubisoft) could show that esports is the industry’s long-awaited savior after all.

The last few years have been a mixed bag for “Rainbow Six Siege.” After peaking at nearly 200,000 concurrent players in March 2021, the game’s player numbers began to decline post-COVID, according to the website Steam Charts, which tracks player counts on the popular gaming platform Steam. Some esports organizations exited the scene in late 2022 and early 2023.

Since then, Ubisoft has revamped its esports ecosystem in partnership with the esports company Blast — and its efforts to breathe new life into “Rainbow Six” esports have paid off. This year’s Six Invitational was the most-watched ever, peaking at 521,323 concurrent viewers, according to figures shared by Ubisoft. (Note: Ubisoft paid for this reporter to travel and board for the final weekend of the event.)

The 521,323 figure represents the total number of peak viewers of Ubisoft’s livestreams across all platforms, as well as official (and paid) restreams by popular gaming influencers such as Nicholas “Jynxzi” Stewart and Alexandre “gAuLeS” Borba Chiqueta — an intentional move by Ubisoft that accounted for hundreds of thousands of additional viewers.

Since Ubisoft and Blast announced their “Rainbow Six” partnership in December 2022, the number of advertisers participating in the game’s ecosystem has gradually increased — from one or two when the partners hosted their first major event together, in Copenhagen in May 2023, to seven at Six Invitational 2024, according to Blast chief business officer Leo Matlock. Blast and advertisers declined to share the specific value of Six Invitational’s sponsorship deals.

The popularity of “Rainbow Six” esports has had a restorative downstream effect on the game’s casual player base. Over the past 30 days, “Rainbow Six” has enjoyed an average concurrent player count of roughly 57,000 — a significant year-over-year increase over the roughly 41,000 concurrent players in February 2023, according to Steam Charts. Much of this bump came at the same time as Six Invitational 2024, which ran in São Paulo between February 13 and 25.

A look at esports revenue

The health of the “Rainbow Six” esports scene is in part an endorsement of Ubisoft’s longstanding approach to its esports ecosystem, which features a promotion and relegation system with monetary incentives for the victors. Since 2018, for example, the company has operated a revenue share system that gives participating esports teams a cut of branded in-game item sales — an opportunity that other major esports developers such as Riot Games are only just beginning to introduce to their ecosystems in 2024.

“For the game, for our presence in it, I’ve been very happy,” said John Lewis, the senior director of esports for Team Liquid. “It’s a model and a system that we honestly describe to other publishers who are thinking about building something in esports: ‘Hey, Ubisoft built this. They did a lot of things right.’”

The specific amounts of revenue shared with each participating team varies based on in-game sales figures, but typically range between the low six figures to roughly $1 million for the most popular teams, according to Marco Mereu, CEO of the esports organization M80, which competes in “Rainbow Six Siege.”

“If you’ve got the ability to build a successful team and have a good fan base, the revenue you can generate from the skin sales is significant,” Mereu said. “This is a pretty well-established esport, so you can model pretty effectively what you can expect to get for revenue based off of what you’ve done in the past or how your team is doing.”

Ubisoft also refrained from charging esports organizations multi-million-dollar franchise fees to participate in its ecosystem, an error made evident by the collapse of the Overwatch League and team owners’ resulting lawsuit against Activision Blizzard.

“Ubisoft didn’t dangle the carrot — ’hey, go get $5 million and you’re in,’” said longtime esports industry observer and analyst Scott Smith. 

But the rejuvenation of “Rainbow Six” is also the result of the changes that Ubisoft has made as part of its contract with Blast. Instead of taking the usual vendor/client approach, representatives of the companies made it clear that “Rainbow Six” esports is a co-production funded significantly by both partners, although they declined to specify exactly how production costs are split.

The co-production aspect of “Rainbow Six” — R6 — esports makes it more likely that both partners are committed to the venture in the long term. For Ubisoft, marketing the central gaming product is the main goal — but maintaining a vibrant esports scene is a key secondary goal to accomplish that objective. For Blast, building a vibrant and effectively monetized esports scene is the primary goal, but one that can only be accomplished with the buy-in of a satisfied publisher such as Ubisoft.

“It’s not a vendor–client relationship,” said James Shilkret, associate director of North American esports at Ubisoft. “They have some skin in the game and we have some skin in the game to make this the best esports out there for ‘R6.’”

Brands — whose marketing dollars form the lifeblood of the “Rainbow Six” and all other esports scenes — have taken note of the close collaboration between Blast and Ubisoft and its positive effect on the esport as a whole. When Alex Matthysse, the president of the meal replacement and snack brand CTRL, attended the Atlanta “Rainbow Six” major in November 2023, the esports veteran was wowed by the level of fan engagement at the event.

“We got some of the viewership numbers from the Atlanta major at the end of last year, and when we saw how many people actually tuned into the stream, it was like, ‘hey, this is an actual top tier esport,’” Matthysse said.

Although CTRL’s sponsorship of “Rainbow Six” was negotiated through Blast, the company’s partnership with Blast quickly evolved into a working relationship with both Blast and Ubisoft, a reflection of the close collaboration between the various stakeholders in “Rainbow Six” esports.

“We started off with Blast, because it was specifically just for the events in Atlanta, and it quickly shifted into more of an overall partnership during that event,” Matthysse said. “I went to lunch with some of the Ubisoft and ‘Rainbow Six’ guys and also the Blast guys, and we had a big conversation about how they were fans of our brand and how we were fans of the event they put on.”

By embracing the publisher–third party model, Ubisoft has created an ecosystem that is potentially satisfactory for all stakeholders, including the publisher, players, teams and Blast itself — which became profitable for the first time in 2023 thanks to publisher partnerships like its agreement with Ubisoft. The esports industry as a whole is still far from becoming truly sustainable, but it’s a blueprint that could prove effective for other companies in the space.

“Much like other publishers and developers, Ubisoft is taking the tact of less one-hundred-percent ownership of the esport,” Smith said. “So Blast is their partner, which takes a lot of the day-to-day headache and hassle of your game being used as an esport — but esports helps keep that game going.”

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