While there’s no doubt the UK esports industry is evolving, those involved with industry circles can often be heard ruefully pining for the burgeoning growth seen in Asia, North America, and even mainland Europe. Usually, their wistful gaze centres on one puzzle piece deemed missing: investment.
Then, this April, the UK League Championship (UKLC) announced an eye-grabbing headline sponsor: Barclays. Just over a month later, the banking giant doubled down on UK esports in a partnership with National Student Esports (NSE). With two fell swoops, Barclays established itself as one of the premier partners operating with local tournaments.
We spoke to David Gowans, Head of Creative Technologies, Games and Esports at Barclays Ventures—the company’s venture unit—about his vision for Barclays’ future within the space.
Esports Insider: Could you provide an overview of your goals and the thinking process behind these partnerships?
David Gowans: Ventures’ aim—it was set up about two years ago now—is to explore new opportunities, new ways of working for the business. You know, Barclays is a 330-year-old organisation, spread across the world. So, to create change and move forward, you need a business area able to do that. That’s one of the ambitions and aims of Barclays Ventures: to move forward and deliver positive new activity for Barclays across the entire group—within the UK bank, or in the other areas of activity across the globe that Barclays has.
My team, the Creative Technologies, Games and Esports team within Ventures, is even newer. We’ve been operating for a little earlier over a year now, to help champion and look at what we can do to in supporting two industries.
The first is the video games industry: how we can drive activity to support the industry. And then, separately to that, is esports. Although it’s related, it’s absolutely its own business, its own organisation, its own needs, and we’re looking at what we can do to offer support and help the industry grow.
The whole team has an interest in games, the technology, innovation—I’ve played games all of my life, I connect with friends through online games, that are spread all over the world, after we all went off to different parts of the globe to find jobs after university!—and, you know, it’s really important to us that we approach what we’re doing authentically, and we look at how we can offer support.
“It’s not just about us sticking our badge on; we want to partner and explore activity, because we’re still learning.”
And Barclays, you know, we have a massive history in sport. From the Premier League, to the Barclays Center in New York, the Barclaycard Arena in Hamburg, in tennis, golf, the whole history there. And esports has always been an ambition, and it is an area where we see the growth, we see the potential—even from visiting the [League of Legends] Worlds Final last year in Paris—it’s such a vibrant and special sport. We’ve been looking at what we can do to help support that in the same way. It’s not just about us sticking our badge on; we want to partner and explore activity, because we’re still learning.
The first steps with that are with the UKLC summer tournament that we’re sponsoring at the moment. It’s been great to see the BBC pick up on that and broadcast it, the first esports for them. And then, the NSE—particularly right now, where students can’t be in university, can’t be together; they’re connecting through games, which is fantastic to see—can we support and empower the university leagues through the UK, as well?
So, there’s a lot that we’re doing, we’re trying to look at what we can do, in the right way, to support and add value and find the place for us to operate. As a brand, we really want to work in partnerships with the esports leagues, the teams, as much as we possibly can. And learn from it.
ESI: Considering that esports is very much an international thing, why have you gone for the local, domestic approach with the UK first? Why are you going for the UKLC over, say, the LEC?
DG: We have a strong focus on the UK as Barclays. We’re a UK bank, and I think in discussions with the teams and the UKLC, we saw a great opportunity to spotlight UK esports. I think that’s where the UKLC really stood at out as the place where we could add more value as Barclays and learn more from.
I think, with the UKLC, not only is it an amazing, fantastic league with brilliant teams, it’s a fantastic place for us to start. And that was the ambition with that sponsorship this summer.
ESI: So, rather than reducing focus on sports and putting your money in esports, it’s about adding esports to your portfolio, in terms of sponsorship and support?
DG: From our side, we’ve got an amazing sponsorship team, some amazing activity that happens within Barclays, particularly around football—a lot of the money skills, the outreach that we do as part of that program is fantastic. With this, it’s something additive, it’s something new for us, where we want to learn and explore, and somewhere where we felt we could bring some value. And maybe explore some of our knowledge that we’ve done with our traditional sport partnerships to esports. They are similar businesses, there’s some areas that we can help support—I think a lovely example of that is the wealth and wellbeing work that we do with athletes and sports bodies. Can we replicate that within the esports world, as well? Can we support the teams and the organisations in that way?
So, you know, there’s certainly a place for us to explore. And with the UKLC and the NLC, this is the start of that exploration.
ESI: What is it about the UKLC that you think is a worthwhile activity for yourselves to get involved with?
DG: They’ve been around for a long time; League of Legends is very established as an esport, with it being the most mature game within esports right now. It’s certainly one of the biggest, if not the biggest. So, it just came as a natural good starting point for us.
And the guys have been fantastic with exploring what this partnership and sponsorship can be, and how we can learn—and how we can take those lessons and that learning that we’re getting from esports. It really helps us understand what we can do to better support the sector.
ESI: Esports has got a very young and subsequently desirable demographic of fans, but they’re not known for heavy interest in corporate banking, wealth management, or investments. So, how big is this in terms of customer acquisition, as opposed to just supporting where you can and having your brand attached to it?
DG: The audience for esports is fantastic, I think it’s an incredibly engaged audience—and I would hope that naturally, the audience would see that Barclays really do care in the way that we’re approaching this, in esports and the games industry as well.
“It’s been fantastic to see the way esports can adapt, how agile it is.”
Getting out there and being associated with the UKLC and League of Legends, that’s obviously a fantastic plus as well, with that audience—it’s great just watching some of the streams on Twitch! And being part of it is fantastic—but for us, we’re very much in that learning journey right now. And working with the UKLC to explore how we can support and work together as esports continues to grow.
And it’s been fantastic to see the way esports can adapt, how agile it is. We ran an esports event in our HQ in January. We invited a number of teams: we had a Barclays team, and we had Warwick, Roehampton, Kent universities. It was fantastic to see and to educate the senior leaders in Barclays around esports and how it functions, and just how vibrant it is as a sport. And I think, since January, from when we could have those physical events, seeing people turn to esports when people have not been able to be at physical events for competitive activity has been great.
ESI: Why are you specifically looking at the student market here with the NSE, and what are you hoping to bring to them?
DG: [The event we ran] really helped showcase to our senior leaders within Barclays the vibrancy of esports, and just having a live event in our HQ was great. Obviously, right now, students can’t be together at university. The fact that university esports has been able to take place, and to be able to have students connect with their friends through those esports has just been great to see.
What we were really keen to do was to see how we can support and work with the NSE to help them achieve their ambitions over the next year in a sponsorship with them through 2020-2021. That was really the aim of it. As much as we’re learning and educating ourselves in professional esports with the UKLC, I think at the collegiate level, we’re looking at how we can support and learn and add value to what the NSE are doing for students around the UK.
ESI: Once the current situation has passed, are you looking at continuing with live events and helping with those kinds of productions in future?
DG: Within Ventures, I think everyone is keen to connect back with people when the time is right and when it’s safe to do so. We have within Ventures the largest incubator network in the UK, with Eagle Labs—we have twenty-five locations up and down the UK. And some of those locations, pre-lockdown, had a programme to support games developers or people working within games. We even have a couple of those Labs that have full esports setups with machines for teams to take part with.
We also have a number of esports companies that work within that Lab network. Ahead of lockdown, I was over in Belfast with G-Science, that work within our Lab networks. There’s a couple of parts: we want to support, through our Eagle Lab network, businesses and people that are working in the space. And we’re also at physical events; within Ventures, we’ve partnered with a company called Fortress that is the UK’s largest provider of access to stadia. Obviously, we have a good, long tradition of sport; we’re the sole financial partner of the Premier League, and we have the Barclaycard Center and Barclaycard Arena, which have both held physical esports tournaments in those spaces.
So, it would be great to help support activity which happens when the time is right.
ESI: Do you now have an idea of where the long-term future of Barclays in esports could lie?
DG: I do, but I think that we need to learn more! I have some ambitions which I won’t share—I think everyone with the team does—but look, it comes to a really easy point: have we found the place for Barclays within esports, where we can help and support?
We’re starting at that grassroots level. We want to be as authentic as possible in our approach with the sector. We’re here to work with the sector and I’m always happy for anyone to reach out, at any scale, to the team to see if there’s an area where we can work together and explore activity. Or even address some of the pain points that the sector has.
Like I said, within Barclays, this is a learning journey for us, as well. We’re educating our teams within the business, like with that event in January that I mentioned, to understand the needs of esports, and how we can best serve that industry with what we can offer. So, it’s going to be a continual journey, and we absolutely have ambitions to do as much as possible, but I think you can boil it down to a really simple line: we want to be the bank for the sector through the activity that we’ve done, by providing the best services and the support for the industry.