It might sound weird, but e-sports are wildly popular, and Facebook is getting serious about owning those video views. A source tipped us off that Facebook has hired e-sports super-connector and former professional gamer Stephen “Snoopeh” Ellis to build out a new team. As Facebook’s new e-sports strategic partnerships manager, he’ll be recruiting top game developers and players to bring their streaming content to the social network.
Upon request for statement, Ellis deferred to Facebook PR, which told me, “We can confirm that Stephen Ellis recently started working at Facebook. Stephen is joining a collaborative effort between the sports and games partnership teams to support the eSports and gaming communities using our platform.”
A source tells us Ellis will be operating under Guy Cross, Facebook’s head of games partnerships for North America. Ellis will work alongside Ginger Larson, who previously ran biz dev at game companies Storm8 and Digital Chocolate, and Pranay Desai, formerly of Ubisoft.
Hired in May according to his LinkedIn, Ellis seems to have already been busy. He’s been traveling around the world speaking with Facebook’s gaming partners. And last week, Facebook announced a major partnership with game studio Blizzard, makers of World of Warcraft and new blockbuster first-person shooter Overwatch. Blizzard will build Facebook Live streaming capabilities and friend-findings into its games, starting with Overwatch.
But with Ellis working with the team, that’s not going to be the last of Facebook’s e-sports partnerships.
The business is huge. The average Twitch user watched 421 minutes of e-sports per month last year. Twitch had 100 million monthly users as of January 2015, and you can bet it’s way bigger now after two years of support from acquirer Amazon.
In 2015, Twitch peaked at just over 2 million concurrent viewers. Imagine what Facebook could do by throwing an audience of 1.65 billion people at game streaming? It could rack up huge view counts, time on site and revenue as businesses spend ad dollars to sell games and gaming culture to the lucrative audience.
Ellis is the guy to make this happen. He’s respected by gamers for his success professionally playing the world’s most popular game, League of Legends, from 2010 to 2014. He captained his team Evil Geniuses to third place in the world championships. He writes on LinkedIn that during the experience, he “Developed an extensive network throughout the eSports and gaming industry.”
That soon went to use as he became the VP of global biz dev for e-sports betting company Unikrn. There he established partnerships, and negotiated contracts with influencers and third-parties. He also started advising Repable, which helps e-sports stars with financial management, and Vibby, which lets gamers annotate and share their best moments. Ellis recently co-founded the Esports Player Resource Center dedicated to educating gamers about their professional opportunities.
That all seems like the perfect training to run e-sports partnerships at Facebook. Snoopeh understands what it’s like to be an e-sports star, the fame they seek, how their payment deals work and what they want to share.
Facebook’s past forays into verticalized strategic partnerships have been incredibly successful. Its celebrity-focused team has gotten actors, musicians and athletes posting to Facebook and broadcasting on its new Live feature. It struck deals for Instant Articles through its news partnerships team. And it’s got all sorts of businesses building experiences for Messenger.
Using the massive reach of its social network, Facebook and Ellis could lure in more game studios to build integrations with Live that give Facebook content while promoting the studio’s titles. When people watch an e-sports star playing a game, they want to buy it. Combined with the platform’s biographical data, it could be a powerful place for game companies to advertise.
Meanwhile, Facebook could assist the stars themselves to gain a bigger audiences that earns them sponsorships, merch sales and a cross-platform following. In exchange, they could encourage their fan bases to stream them on Facebook. That could boost Facebook’s video view count, which was at 8 billion as of last November.
Once upon a time, casual Zynga games like FarmVille drove huge amounts of engagement on Facebook’s desktop platform that racked up ad money and 30 percent taxes on in-game payments. But with the shift to mobile controlled by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, Facebook lost its grip on game hosting.
Now as hardcore games like the League of Legends battle arenas and Call of Duty shooters hit the mainstream, and spectating has exploded, Facebook wants to muscle back in. Except this time around, instead of a few hundred million users, it has a fifth of the planet to dangle as a power-up for video game heroes and developers willing to join forces.