IEM Sydney 2019: Keeping score with Intel’s Lee Machen

Last year’s Intel Extreme Masters Sydney (IEM) brought us face to face with Intel’s general manager for gaming and VR/AR sales, Lee Machen. This year’s IEM Sydney gave us the chance to catch up with Machen again and take stock of where Intel expects esports to go and grow in 2019.

Right up front, Machen is optimistic.

He says that “esports is doing very well. If you go back a couple of years, it felt like the whole esports world revolved around League of Legends and Counter-Strike.”

Lee says that, in the time since, several other major esports have emerged - including DOTA 2, Rainbow Six: Siege and the Overwatch League.

Machen says that “It’s a topic of a lot of discussion whether that’s the right model and whether the franchises are too expensive and all that kind of stuff but the viewership for Overwatch League has been growing like crazy.”

 “Then you’ve got Fortnite and the crazy stuff that they’re trying over at Epic.”

“I haven’t figured out yet if Fortnite is going to take its place as a ‘ten year esports title’ like League of Legends and some others have but they’re putting money into the scene and they’re trying some interesting things.”

Asked to explain on what he means by ‘ten year esports titles’, Lee elaborates by saying that “I don’t think that’s a term that’s broadly used but that’s how I think about it. Counter Strike has been around for about ten years and its at the top of the esports game. Same with League of Legends.”

“They’re like Blue Chip stocks – [they’re] always going to attract an audience”

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

“Games that are popular and have been popular for a long time.”

I ask Lee whether he thinks that the future of esports lies with convergent events like the Melbourne Esports Open and Intel Extreme Masters - where multiple titles are played on-stage rather than just one.

“I think its best that if you’re bringing people to a big location like this obviously the main draw is what’s on the main stage. For IEM, that’s been Counter-Strike. And while they’re there, there’s plenty of other stuff for them to see as well.”

Machen says that “It’s the perfect place to try new things and see how it resonates with an audience without making the high-risk investment of putting it on the main stage – which, if it’s not popular, is kind-of a disaster.”

“At each of our IEM’s we like to have a couple of titles beyond the one that’s on the main stage as a way of testing out what works and what the audience likes to see.”

“If we see that something like that really resonates, then maybe that’ll be a main stage event next year. Intel and ESL are not 100% tied to any one game.”

“The only thing Intel is tied to is that it be played on a PC and I think the only thing that ESL is tied to is that there’s an audience for it and that what they bring as far as first class events is something that the audience wants to see."

"We’re both constantly looking for are there new things the audience wants to see.”

“I don’t see us or ESL ever converging to the point where we’re just doing one title. We’re always looking for a diversity of titles,” Lee insists.

In contrast, one area where Lee hopes Intel are able to bring effort towards in the future is grassroots esports.

“This is an area where I think that intel - and others as well - need to focus a little bit more.”

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

“Today, working with ESL, I think we do a pretty good job participating in the top-level esports events. IEM and ESL One – the ESL will call them Masters Level events. Now, ESL is active in levels below that and, honestly, so are we but, to be honest, we don’t spend enough time there.”

“There’s a lot more we could doing to help motivate people in that space, to activate people in that space – not just from a viewing standpoint but from a playing standpoint as well.

“In the US, we’ve looked a bit into how we could participate in the starting to emerge collegiate esports scene, but, to be honest, we haven’t found the right entry point there and frankly the viewership isn’t there to the point where a large investment makes sense.”

“It makes sent to be here: participating in a top-level event where millions of people are going to be watching.  At a grassroots level the ROI calculations are a little difficult just because fewer people are watching.”

“From a grassroots level, I’m more interested in how do we participate? We’re forging connections with the players themselves more so than we are with the viewers.”