How Esports Has Leveled Up Customer Advocacy to Support Gaming 

Author: Elliott Kaplan, General Manager of Customer Advocacy

We talk a lot at Skillz about how our monetization model exponentially uplevels the experience for mobile gamers. Many popular games drive players to pay by disrupting the user experience with ads or gated content. Conversely, Skillz players opt into our monetization loop when they want the thrill of live competition. That’s a better approach for the consumer, which we see directly translate to a Net Promoter Score that’s consistently above 40 for our pro players.

One topic we don’t often cover but will dive into here is how esports have fundamentally shifted the way industry professionals approach customer service. As the world’s leading mobile esports company, Skillz is pioneering that change. To understand where we’re headed, we first have to look at the industry itself. The video game industry can largely be broken into three waves: boxed games, live services, and esports. Each of these revenue models is living and continuing to evolve today, but each can only exist because of the advances made by its predecessor:

  1.     Boxed – Originally, the only way to access your favorite game was to physically obtain a disc or cartridge. Stemming from self-contained entertainment like film, the game shipped complete and had an “end.” Developers hoped they had found any bugs in the title and taken feedback into account, because in a pre-internet era, developers didn’t have the chance to patch in any improvements once the product shipped. Revenue came from boxed sales, largely driven by marketing and PR.
  1.     Live Service – The move from boxed titles to live service gaming followed a similar trend to cloud computing. With the advent of performant online distribution, developers realized they could continue to engage with (and monetize) their users by delivering digital content piecemeal for as long as players would continue to pay for it. Games no longer had to end and could instead continue to iterate and evolve, with microtransactions (including pay-to-win mechanics) and ads emerging as the  key to funding those updates.
  1.     Esport – With live service games on the rise, it quickly became apparent that some had more longevity than others. Echoing the history of offline games, players began to organize on both the player and viewer sides, with the developers moving away from short-term pay-to-win monetization strategies in favor of emphasizing a healthy sport with decades-long retention. Microtransactions continue to exist in this model, but only as part of it. The broad appeal of a sport lies with its accessibility for everyone and an easy-to-understand sense of fairness, giving developers an entirely new path to sustained revenue.

Customer service for boxed titles was extremely straightforward and worked like any other physical consumer good — you set quality expectations for the product, policies around returns, and then retailers largely handled it from there. The challenge for customer service professionals centered around enforcing policies that would drive consumer loyalty without hurting the bottom line, along with the logistics that come with shipping and storing physical items. There was no expectation or need for developers to maintain large customer service teams in the boxed game era.

This shifted with the move to live service gaming, as consumers need an escalation path in case they encounter an error with a virtual purchase. Physical retailers may still sell your base title, but neither the retailer nor the player would expect to return to a brick-and-mortar store for assistance with the add-on they purchased online. Developers maintaining live service games suddenly needed robust customer service teams tasked with a variety of new responsibilities, including answering extremely in-depth questions around how a purchase would impact the game mechanics, deciding if a bug had truly cost someone money, and maintaining extensive policies to prevent digital fraud.

Customer service in the live service age was certainly more interesting than when titles were shipped fully self-contained, but it was still considered a cost center that handled reactive inbound requests. The expectation was that gamers would eventually churn out of a title and customer service was there to delay that as long as possible, at the lowest cost possible.

Then esports arrived. I first realized the paradigm had shifted while working for a live service developer. I was at a customer experience conference chatting with the head of support for a well-known pioneer in the esports space, asking about how they budget a per-ticket cost. The response: “I don’t have a budget. If I can improve customer satisfaction or retention, it’s approved.” Gaming customer service had made the transition from cost center to a true value-add. 

In this new wave of gaming, players are expected to stick around for years and when they’re not playing, they’re watching pros play. Developers are free to focus on the long-term — they don’t have to constantly maximize revenue in the next 30 to 90 days, so their customer service is no longer a balancing act of operating as cheaply as possible. 

Instead, we are the de facto experts on player behavior and act as the voice of the players throughout the end-to-end development process. The stakes are too high to act otherwise; if you’ve invented the next baseball, you’re not thinking about how to maximize quarterly profits before you release a sequel. You’re thinking through how to create a cultural phenomenon and ensuring the next generation will continue to be just as passionate about the game as this one is.

With the rise of esports, the relationship between developers and consumers has never been closer — and customer service is the glue for that bond. The industry is on track for 3.8 billion smartphone users worldwide by 2021 and the esports market is expected generate $1.8 billion in 2022, making it more important than ever for customer service to ensure the voices of players are being heard.

Skillz is the platform building communities of people who find daily entertainment in social competition. With over four million tournaments hosted daily and a total addressable market of 2.6 billion smartphone users, we’re working to add every kind of game to the platform so every kind of player can find something they love to play. 

We’re building a truly groundbreaking company that’s pioneering an entirely new industry, and we’re searching for top-notch people to join us in that mission. If you’re up for the challenge, check out our careers page and apply.