It is widely accepted that the esports industry is on the rise, but understanding how that popularity compares to other forms of sports entertainment has been tricky for ad buyers. Metrics like unique views and total minutes watched have created impressive narratives for the growth of esports, but often they don’t tell the whole story.

Unlike how sports TV viewership is measured, where a third party like Nielsen uses standardized metrics, esports viewership is reported by either the tournament organizers, game developers, teams or streaming platforms themselves. While those reported numbers aren’t inaccurate — a view is a view after all — how they’ve been used has been misguided, according to esports sources.

“Historically, some companies in esports have tended to report vanity viewership metrics that tend to be larger like views and hours watched,” said Kasra Jafroodi, strategy and analytics lead at Activision Blizzard. “Unfortunately, metrics like these tend to lead to incorrect comparisons, setting false expectation and ultimately inflating the value of their audiences.”

The hours-watched metric, for example, is often used in esports to compare its viewership against traditional sports. According to Newzoo’s analysis of data from the streaming platforms, the qualifying stage of Fortnite World Cup this summer brought in over 700,000 hours of viewership per week on official Twitch and YouTube channels, with Twitch bringing in 65% of that viewership. Used on its own, the hours-watched metric doesn’t represent much beyond a big number.

“Whether it’s total hours watched or unique views, there’s a lot of attention paid to vanity metrics that can be easily manipulated to obscure the value of audiences,” said an esports exec on condition of anonymity. “If you look at something like views, which is often used to claim big viewership numbers by esports businesses, that metric can easily be inflated by people who are on sites where an embedded video player plays automatically.”

Ad deals are often brokered off the back of those sorts of metrics.

“The hype around esports has been there for some time, but there’s been a lag when it comes to investment from advertisers,” said Misha Sher, worldwide vp of sport & entertainment at MediaCom. “If the esports industry really wants to challenge for the advertising budgets of mainstream brands, then it needs to do more to make them feel more confident in the reach they’re buying. There’s no excuse for it to be a wild west industry anymore.”

More mainstream advertisers, however, have kept their distance due to how unreliable viewership numbers have been. A recent report from gaming business title Kotaku found some esports have used the lack of clarity around viewership to peddle unverifiable and potentially inflated numbers to advertisers.

As the most popular streaming platform for esports, Twitch has been one of the key beneficiaries of how fragmented audience measurement in esports has become. Twitch streamers are paid on a CPM model — for every 1,000 views. Consequently, the concurrent view metric, which Twitch uses to show how many viewers are watching a stream per second, is key for advertisers weighing up which streamers to pay. But every platform counts concurrent viewers differently, so when media buyers attempt to combine those figures to get an overall view of reach, it becomes harder to use.

“There are some brands that have been hesitant to invest in esports because they want to make sure they understand what they’re getting into,” said Nicole Pike, managing director of Nielsen’s esports division. “It’s not that they’re worried the big numbers aren’t accurate, they just want to know what that big number means.”

Nevertheless, Twitch’s ad business has grown to the point where it wants more money from larger advertisers outside of gaming. The site’s relaunch last week was designed to lay the groundwork for those larger budgets by positioning it more as a livestreaming platform, not just a place to watch other people play games. As Twitch’s search for larger ad budgets has evolved, so too has its approach to viewership measurement. The site is in the early stages of using the average-minute audience as a standardized media metric that is more directly comparable to stick-and-ball sports.

Several esports players — from Activision-Blizzard to esports team Fnatic, to gaming network ESL and organizer Riot Games — are all now using Nielsen as a reporting partner. Many of them are adopting the average-minute audience metric. Nielsen wants to establish its AMA metric as the equivalent to its audience ratings on TV. The metric takes the total minutes watched of an event and divides that by the length of the live broadcast to show the average number of viewers at each minute.

“As marketing evolves, we need to be looking at measurements of engagement, content consumption, establishing a brand presence in the cultural conversation,” said Bart Vickers, group director of connections at VLY&R. “What will be really exciting — and valuable for brands — will be deeper, richer forms of measurement,” Vickers said.

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