Microsoft has found its newest sports partner in esports organization Cloud9, announcing a sponsorship deal that will have it deliver a cocktail of proprietary advanced analytics to the Los Angeles-based team.
The world’s largest publicly traded company, which makes the Xbox gaming console and houses 13 game development studios, plans to source player biometric data and game video content, of both Cloud9 and its opponents, in hopes of bringing traditional sports learnings to esports.
“We are looking at a fast growing industry that is fairly immature on the competition side from a technology standpoint and, to us, that’s a field day,” said Mike Downey, Director of Sports Technology at Microsoft in an interview with The Washington Post.
With specific regard to the biometric data being sourced, Downey mentioned eye-tracking, measuring reaction times, and hand-eye coordination, but said he didn’t want to get too detailed, for competitive reasons.
“There are things you can monitor about an athlete that you can correlate with their performance,” said Downey.
Microsoft’s move follows German software company SAP’s deal with esports franchise Team Liquid and Intel’s extension of its partnership with ESL, worth $100 million over 3 years. But Cloud9’s deal presents a unique wrinkle, in that its partner actually makes video games as well as the consoles and operating system they are played on.
Microsoft denied any notions of unfair access, and said they would be mining Cloud9 for inspiration on how to create successful esports game titles in the future.
While some of Microsoft’s titles have spawned esports leagues, such as Halo and Gears of War, Cloud9 does not currently compete in any Microsoft-developed titles nor on Xbox. They do game on the Microsoft Windows operating system.
“It’s [Microsoft’s gaming department] not really involved in this partnership. … I think from Microsoft’s gaming perspective, their biggest interest is in learning more about how a top team participates in esports to help them inform the new games on the way,” said Downey.
Questioned about a future in which Cloud9 chose to play a Microsoft title, Downey said, “We’d have to handle that very carefully.”
Microsoft’s esports sponsorship follows several high profile deals they have made in traditional sports, including with the NFL, The PGA Tour, NASCAR, and Real Madrid. The NFL sponsorship gained attention in 2016 when New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick excoriated Microsoft’s Surface tablet and vowed to stop using them. The tablets were also repeatedly called “iPads,” a rival product, on television broadcasts and by players.
The partnership with Cloud9 gives the company access to potential insights across a variety of titles, instead of being locked into a single game. This was noted by Downey as one of the reasons Microsoft chose to go with an organization, as opposed to one of the two major U.S.-based esports leagues, Overwatch League and the League of Legends-based North American League Championship Series.
For Cloud9, which raised $50 million in Series B funding last year and recently shared some of their vision of how they plan to spend that money, giving their players access to analytics represents the next phase of what they see as looking out for their players’ welfare.
“We’ve taken care of their bodies, given them access to great mental support and now it’s ‘how can we make them in-game beyond what they can see with the naked eye,” said Jordan Udko, EVP Commercial Partnerships for Cloud9, in referencing the access team players currently have to physical trainers, physical therapy, and a sports psychiatrist.
Microsoft would not reveal specifics, but said they plan to help Cloud9 collect more data, including players’ biometric data. They said much of the work would then be on correlating this new data with outcomes, before determining how to use these connections to help the team make better decisions.
But in both traditional sports and esports, significant challenges of analyzing big data remain, especially when doing it in real-time and in chaotic environments, such as a League of Legends map.
“One of the most important skills is just, ‘How you figure out which data you should be ignoring?’ Because you can get consumed with chasing down patterns in data that don’t matter,” said Downey.
Faced with obvious privacy concerns, and the potential for esports orgs to use such data to drive down the value of a player in negotiations, Udko said that a lot of the analysis would focus on their opponents’ game play.
“It’s less about our hand-eye coordination than about the predictive analysis we can create by understanding how our opponents act,” said Udko.
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