HP has a plan to win the hearts and minds of pro-level gamers everywhere.
eSports is big business. Not only are revenues set to reach over $US639 million (around this year alone, but Activision Blizzard's Overwatch League is now attracting the attention of some of the biggest names in sport. We're approaching a turning point where eSports is about to go mainstream, breaking out from internet streams and onto primetime TV.
This big break means a lot for those currently vying for a portion of the eSports pie. Most of the industry's early sponsors were peripheral makers, but companies such as Dell, MSI and other OEMs have recently joined the party. However, it's HP – with its Omen brand of gaming computers – that believes it has the best chance at becoming the number-one manufacturer in the eSports space.
“What we would like is for Omen to be the international brand for gamers,” said Louis Perrin, HP's EMEA consumer business unit director, when we met to discuss the launch of the HP Omen range. “If you want to buy something, you don't want to think about it, you have blind faith – you buy it, you have the best.”
“You don't have to worry about performance, about optimisations, about anything. You can just focus on the gaming. That's what we've tried to achieve in terms of product development with Omen, offering up both great design and lots of features.”
But why the focus on eSports, especially as HP hasn't been in the space for as long as many of its competitors? “Two years ago, we launched the Omen brand with a couple of products. Now you can see the range is totally different, adopting a more mature and serious tone.” So far, this shift – along with HP's drive to grow consumer trust in the brand – seems to be working.
“Today we're number one in Europe for desktop gaming PCs and number three in notebook gaming PCs,” Perrin explains, highlighting that only a year or so ago they sat at number six in the desktop gaming PC market. For HP, now's the time to double down in the emerging sport – but it's not as straightforward as putting your products in front of a captive audience.
“Being part of eSports, being one with the community and not just providing hardware, is a completely different story,” Perrin explains. “What we would really like to do is embrace the world of eSports and its culture. It's why we're sponsoring pro-gamers, sponsoring eSport events and investing in beyond our products into the technology, software and designs.”
Is banking on eSports smart business?
As eSports reaches its tipping point, with money pouring into the industry and viewing figures going up, why is one of the longest-running eSports tournaments shuttering its doors?
“There's a convergence of several factors,” Perrin muses when questioned about why eSports are suddenly taking off compared to the slow burn of South Korea's decade-old Starcraft tournaments. “Firstly, there are more eSport-friendly games on the market, and it's easier for a community to form online linking players together.
“Secondly you have Twitch and YouTube Gaming bringing players together, but also bringing in spectators – so much so that even traditional channels like ESPN are getting involved.”
Last year ESPN began broadcasting eSports, and Yahoo News began covering it in the same way it covers other sports.
“People are saying, 'okay, we cannot resist this any more'. The iceberg is emerging because, for a lot of people, it was simply an internet phenomenon. But when you look at the number of players just playing League of Legends alone – around 30 million people – what comes next is massive.”
Bringing it 'Ome-n
So what makes HP think it can win over the eSport masses?
For Perrin, it's the Omen team's major focus on gaming. This isn't just a marketing play: the very teams involved in the development, manufacturing and marketing of HP's subdivision are avid PC gamers. “We have a complete dedicated team taking care of Omen products from the very beginning,” he explains. “We have designers, engineers and product managers all focusing on gaming and gamers.”
But Perrin also wants HP to feed back into the eSports industry with its products. “We organise a lot of focus groups, work closely with pro-gamers and use teams as consultants alongside our sponsorships. We talk to team coaches because a coach's vision is super important to [a team's success].”
Since HP is aiming for the pro-level and high-end gamer with its range of PCs, customisation and optimisation is key. “Say, for example, I'm playing Overwatch, talking to my teammate, recording data for later analysis and streaming my gameplay to Twitch,” Perrin explains. “With Omen Control, I can prioritise data transfer, putting gameplay on priority one, recording as a secondary priority, and Twitch and chat on number three. It means you can fight against latency. If you're using a Omen keyboard or mouse, you also have the same level of customisation. They've been totally designed for gamers.”
"HP is an innovative company, we've got the cocktail needed to make great products"
This isn't HP's first rodeo: it's been in the tech industry since 1939, and it's been running a successful gaming division since it bought VoodooPC in the late 2000s.
“Our experience and research has given us a lot of knowledge and, as HP is an innovative company, we've got the cocktail needed to make great products.”
Overwatching what comes next
To ensure Omen manages to get the foothold it deserves in eSports, HP is making a few bets on what comes next in the sector. One of its major gambles is an investment in Activision Blizzard's Overwatch League as principal sponsors. In the eSports scene, Overwatch League is more than simply a new tournament for Overwatch-focused teams to play – it's an entire usurpation of the current eSports competition standard.
Unfortunately, due to the ongoing nature of Overwatch League's development, Perrin dutifully evaded my probing. All he would say on the matter is that yes, Overwatch League is “completely different. It will bring in a lot of new sponsors and the [eSports] ecosystem is becoming more mature. [Overwatch League] will become a big part of it – a lot of people will be looking at its success.”
Aside from direct investment in eSports, HP is experimenting with emerging technologies, with the Omen VR backpack being one such foray into the unknown. “VR today is a great technology… but it's true that in terms of eSports, VR is not there yet.”
But that's not to say it won't get there. Perrin points out that Valve's DOTA 2 allows spectators to don VR headsets and explore matches at hero height, wading into the battle to see the action up close. Perrin believes that if VR can take off, eSports could become a whole lot more involving than many traditional sports.
“Look at Formula 1. On the TV it's a real event; at the event, you're also mostly looking at a TV. It's practically virtual and the chance you'll get to drive a real F1 car is close to zero.
“Compare that with what you can do with games and VR – the experience is really quite real. You can get close to the action, you're involved and can share your experiences with others. You can be inside a game, on the field, in the race car. The convergence of VR and sports is just a matter of time.”
That dream, however, is still just a little too far away to be a truly viable business opportunity. But HP is experimenting now so it can be there when it's ready. As Perrin sums up HP's aims, he reiterates just how important it is for the brand to be at the heart of the eSports community.
“[Omen] is about providing the best possible solution for gamers – we want to be a part of the complete eSports experience,” he explains. “The overall ecosystem is different. We're discovering a new world of possibilities and it's super exciting. But we're just at the beginning of something big – for us, for our end users, for everybody.”