Takeaways from 2021 EsportsNext Conference

Kevin Butler, Henderson’s esports practice leader, recently represented Henderson at the 2021 EsportsNext conference in Chicago. Hosted by the Esports Trade Association (ESTA), the annual conference brings together industry professionals to exchange ideas and insights on the rapidly evolving competitive gaming industry. A variety of topics were presented, and we’ve shared takeaways from conference sessions below.


There’s been a push from female influencers in this predominately male industry to be more gender inclusive. This five-woman panel explored ways to increase gender representation in esports. The panel made the following points, among others.

  • Esports is trying to create an inclusive space for everyone.
  • All genders have the same barrier for entry, unlike most other sports.
  • When hosting a female or coed event, the voices of the females need to be heard so they feel welcome.


In any sport, mental health is key for a positive player experience. Three esport company leaders and a board-certified psychologist discussed this important topic and how it’s especially crucial in esports.

  • Gaming was an outlet during the pandemic to provide people a sense of community.
  • Similar to traditional sports athletes, understanding and improving mental health results in better gameplay for professional esports athletes.
  • Continued work is required to develop the next generation to be good gamers to rid the community of bullying.
  • Various entities are providing structured leagues for kids to help teach them how to play, but also how to win and lose so they can handle themselves appropriately.


The professional esports ecosystem is unique in the world of sports. This panel of industry leaders covered challenges and opportunities for the future of esports.

  • There is no one-size-fits-all approach for professional team organizations. Each publisher has a different approach for their game title.
  • There are pros and cons to all models. The high franchise cost creates a barrier which makes it difficult to see an up-and-coming star on the big stage, which would be possible in an open tournament.
  • A key component for the valuation of professional teams is the lack of availability of franchise rights for the various leagues.


Brand partnerships can bring great value to esports teams, audiences, and advertisers. We heard from agencies, team leaders and more on how brands can be successful in the esports space.

  • Gaming provides a great outlet for brands to connect with younger generations.
  • Brands need to be more informed on the platforms used by esports, which vary from those used in traditional sports, such as Twitch.
  • Esports fans are detailed, so brands need to make sure they are authentic in order to be successful in the space.


Falling in the space between amateur and professional, collegiate esports is facing its own set of challenges, particularly because it is so new.

  • Collegiate esports is still in its infancy at only 6 years old. Most programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are only 2 years old.
  • Further investment in infrastructure for competition will continue to grow and strengthen collegiate esports.
  • Media rights is a hot topic among the industry.


While esports is continuously evolving because of technology, there are several trends industry experts believe are key to keep track of.

  • Young males are the dominant fan base, but females and adults from 35 to 44 are slowly gaining traction.
  • Two in three esports fans are in pre-family stage of their lives, making them an attractive audience.
  • Active following of esports is quickly catching up to top traditional sports among young American males.
  • Gaming influencers are the most followed influencer type among U.S. teens.
  • Lack of knowledge of esports culture knowledge is biggest challenge for event organizers.
  • Absence of esports governance has been the greatest challenge esports organizers have faced in 2021.


A good relationship between esports teams and host cities is critical for the future of the industry. We heard a few tips for pulling off a successful project by connecting with community leaders.

  • Find the champion at the city level to assist with pushing your project forward.
    • We need to continue to educate those outside of the esports community on the benefits of gaming.
  • Successful esports venues today extend beyond just a gaming venue. Many include an educational component with maker space or some other STEM related space.
    • It’s best to tie in with local school districts/ local community organizations to help push your project forward.
  • We need to continue to think about what will get esports fans out of the homes. Unique experiential/immersive environments will be required.

Have questions about these takeaways, or interested in learning more about the esports industry? Reach out!

Written By
Kevin Butler

Venue Sector Practice Manager | Acoustical Consultant


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