Announced in April, the deal leverages the power of SAP’s HANA analytics platform to dig into Dota 2 replay data and provide swift, actionable insights for Team Liquid’s players. Over the last few months, the two companies have worked together to hone SAP’s software to meet Liquid’s needs, and give Team Liquid a unique advantage to try and stay atop the Dota world.
Why did SAP turn its attention towards esports, how has this collaboration taken shape, and what is SAP’s esports roadmap? With The International 2018 underway, The Esports Observer spoke with Milan ?erny, technology & innovation lead for SAP Global Sponsorships, and Frank Renkes, chief development architect for the P&I HANA platform & database, to find out.
How did SAP get interested in esports?
?erny: We started evaluating esports last year, sometime in early 2017. The way we got interested was that we were looking for a new sponsorship activity which would help us improve on employer branding. From a business perspective, that’s the overarching mission.
It’s twofold. The other reason is that esports as a topic is an amazing fit for SAP, just because everything is digital, everything that’s happening is available in terms of data, and we have the tools and the software to analyze and process that data. Take that and combine it with the fact that we can reach an audience that is young, typically tech-savvy, and in general considered to be the target audience which we would like to see as our employees, or somewhere within our ecosystem, and it becomes kind of a natural fit for us to deal with esports.
Why choose Dota 2 as the first game to focus on?
?erny: There’s a variety of reasons for that, one of which is certain that Dota 2 is a title that is very complex. As you know, it’s a 5v5 real-time strategy game, and it is very much data-driven. We feel like it’s the perfect fit for us to demonstrate how well we can deal with data to provide valuable insights. Now, in order to do that – and that’s the second reason that I have –the data that is generated in Dota is available, and you can work with it. It’s open, we can access it, and we can apply our system and our software to it.
Another reason is also that our partner, Team Liquid, is hugely successful in this game. They won The International 7 last year, so it’s a nice challenge for both sides to see: How can these top athletes become even better by using our software? How can they improve on their processes and their training methodologies with us?
Obviously, there’s little better than becoming the TI champion, but keeping it up and maintaining that performance, and at the same time improving on processes like match preparation, is a whole different challenge. That’s where we want to come in, and that’s where we want to help.
How did you partner up with Team Liquid?
?erny: When we started evaluating esports, we spoke to many different stakeholders within the ecosystem – and those were different teams, different leagues, and different event organizers. We really tried to get a 360-degree view of the domain. At some point, we just happened to be on the call with Victor Goossens, the co-CEO of Team Liquid. We spoke about our approach and strategy, and Victor described their strategy and their mindset. We felt like these two entities resonated really well.
The first conversation was kind of informal. It was more of an exchange, and we wanted to learn what the other thinks. But we very quickly realized that the two brands fit very well, just because Team Liquid has a great approach towards both esports and also technology and innovation.
For us, this is absolutely crucial in choosing our partners. We don’t see ourselves as a sponsor who comes in with a purely financial contribution and then puts their logo somewhere. We really want to be part of the ecosystem and provide value with our software.
This is what Liquid understood pretty much straight away, and they even came in with their own ideas. How could they use SAP? How could we help, and where could they use a sponsor like SAP in general? That really impressed us, and we took some time to craft the partnership and to come up with a good way to collaborate. But here we are, and last April we were able to launch the partnership.
What kind of data and insights are players getting from the technology?
Renkes: If you look at Dota 2, there is a lot of insight gained just by looking at the statistical data of historical matchups. Besides that, after any Dota game, you can get the replay files – and in every replay file, you will find 1.5 million events with all of the details that occurred during the match. There’s a lot of insights you can get out of that, like the hero matchups, picks and bans at the beginning of the game, how the heroes move, and how they play during the different phases of the game. You have access to nearly everything, and all of that data can be analyzed and give you a lot of insight.
There have been some comments in the past days that you can get everything by just watching replays, and that is true – you can get the replay file and just watch them. We try to automate this process to make life easier for the players and the teams, to get much faster to the interesting insights.
How did you help Team Liquid prepare for The International 2018?
?erny: We started working with their Dota team from the beginning of our partnership in April, and it was an ongoing process of starting to develop the software which helps them – not only at TI8, but also beyond that. There was a crucial moment for the partnership where we went to a workshop in The Netherlands where they were boot-camping, and the entire development team from SAP spent two days with the Dota team.
We really got into good, deep conversations with the players and the coaches, about: What are they doing? How are they working? How are they preparing? What kind of data are they interested in? What actually helps them the most? And where are the quick wins now for TI8, but also the bigger challenges moving forward? There were a few aspects which we could cover on a very short notice. One of the examples is that on the first day of that workshop, we spoke to one of the players and he said, ‘I would like to see this and that,” and gave us some tangible requirements.
The good thing about this project is that we have a development team which is led by Frank – that team is hugely motivated to work on this stuff. They are young guys and they are very strong in development and data science, but also they have a profound Dota 2 knowledge. What happened to them is they took the knowledge from the player, and they worked until late that night and implemented almost everything that they’d been told on that day – and they could turn it around in a quick manner the next day and present it back to the Dota team.
To see that moment happening was really eye-opening, and I think it was a moment where the Dota team realized, “OK, these are people who understand what we want, and they can help us.” And for us, it was also good to see that what they tell us, we can actually manage to do. On both sides, I think it was a great learning, and it showed us where this partnership can go moving forward. The very positive aspect about this is that they’re actually using the software now at The International. That’s an amazing win for us, considering we’re only four months into the partnership.
How will you know, or will you even know, if your data and technology has helped their success?
?erny: I mean, you’re talking about sports, right? You’re talking about esports and performance. We speak to them on a regular basis, so we get that feedback on their usage, but if you’re referring to something like, “Is it measurable whether they use our software and does it directly influence their performance”? That’s very, very difficult to say in any sport.
Software can always only be a tool and a help for humans to perform better. In the end, it’s the humans making the decision. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not in any way linked to the success at TI8, whether this partnership is successful.
It’s also a long-term partnership. It’s a multi-year contract, and yes, TI8 is happening this year – and it’s an amazing win, like I said, to have the software ready already. But that’s about it. We are definitely watching closely and speaking to them closely, and we want to see them use it. If it’s going to help them, that’s great. But there’s no link whatsoever to the results.
How much of a market do you see for analysis tools in the esports industry?
?erny: For us, at this point, it’s an investment. We want to figure out what’s possible. This is why we work with someone like Team Liquid: they are professionals, and they know the domain very, very well. We have some other people that we work with very closely who are experts in esports.
We kind of want to figure out where this market can take us, so at this point, it’s pretty much – I wouldn’t say a question mark, but it’s very open. Like I said, we’ve only just begun, so it’s kind of difficult for us to answer that question at this point.
Do you have a sense of what SAP’s next move will be in esports, or is it just watching and seeing what happens?
?erny: Yeah, definitely. We do have a roadmap, we have plans, and we do want to expand our footprint in esports for sure. I’m sure you will understand – we can’t speak about the conversations we have with potential new partners, but they are definitely happening.
What I can tell you is in traditional sports, we’re typically taking three different perspectives. You have one perspective covered by player, team, and coach support with software. The second one would be fans, spectators, and broadcasters, and the third one would be leagues, organizers, and governing bodies and such.
At this point, in esports, we have Team Liquid, which gives us an amazing platform to tell stories for players, coaches, and teams. For us, the next step might very well be towards fans, spectators, and broadcasters, to show what we can do to a broader audience and also maybe to help the sport grow a little bit better.