Interview with Boban Totovski
SportsDegreesOnline staff staff writer, Tim Porter-DeVriese, interviewed Boban Totovski, former President of the Macedonian eSport Federation and current Secretary General of the International Esports Federation. Boban explains his role in promoting international esports competition, how to separate the real from the fake when it comes to esports degrees and certificates, and how IESF is partnering with governments and other organizations tp elevate esports and support players across the world.
About Boban Totovski
Mr. Totovski has more than 20 years' extensive and diverse experience in IT sales, management and Esports. As President of the Macedonian Esports Federation, he organized more than 10 National Finals and participated in more than 10 World Championships. With experience in international relations, negotiations and global representation, he has a unique position in the Esports ecosystem. He served as a Board Member of the International Esports Federation before becoming IESF's Secretary General.
Tim: Can you talk a little bit about how you got into the esports industry?
Totovski: We had an IT magazine here in Macedonia called ENTER. It was one of the first IT magazines in the region. I was working in the magazine for three years as general manager. We developed a special gaming sector for the magazine and then discovered that there is a huge community in esports that was just wandering around, uncontrolled, without any guidelines how to operate or function. This was back in 2005. So the company I worked for, we decided to open a huge internet club with one hundred and twenty PC’s and everything. Once we opened the club, we were approached by Samsung and World Cyber Games to organize national qualifiers for tournaments in Singapore. They supported us and helped create the competition. While doing all those things we noticed six to seven hundred players all representing their countries, bearing their flags, national jerseys and everything. I saw something that I recognized in other sports, that the kids, if organized could benefit from education, jobs and activities. It could also get rid of the mentality that gaming is a disease or a disorder. Since 2005 I have participated in fifteen such international competitions. I’m talking about national completions, not professional teams like we see at DOTA majors. Those are professional teams. I’m talking about people representing their countries and playing for the medal rather than the money.
Tim: That love of the game and pride in one’s country is at the heart of a lot of really exciting competitions in any sport.
Totovski: We are actually facing a unique challenge [in esports] that the game is actually owned by a corporation, which is different from football or basketball. Everyone can practice that because the basketball court is open source, sort of. That’s why professional esports players have a hard time using their contracts to find time to play for their country. But that’s what we at IESF want to work on in the next couple of years, to get the publishers on board and actually bring the professionals to play for their countries. You know, everybody wants to see Messi playing for Argentina and Ronaldo for Portugal. It’s good that they play for their teams but when they represent their country, it has a different feeling.
Tim: Can you describe what your day to day responsibilities as secretary general of the International esports Federation look like and what types of individuals and organizations you are collaborating with?
Totovski: Most of the day to day tasks are the communication with the members national federations and assisting them in development and growth especially now that we have more than one hundred national federations that are members of IESF. It’s a huge task and requires working 24/7 because we have members from the United States all the way to Japan so time zones are different and everybody’s flexibility for time is different. So we try to accommodate them as much as possible. We will probably be opening an office here in Macedonia, in Europe which is kind of in the middle of the world. We will be able to talk during the day time in Asia and other parts of the world and provide better services for our members around the world. We do have members that are quite well developed. For example our Russian member has existed for twenty years. They have had an official esports federation for twenty years which is quite remarkable. Second is in Korea which has been around for seventeen years. They don’t necessarily need our support, guidance or education, but we have other members that do need help in getting international recognition, practice matches and fitting within the ecosystem. Considering we are all nonprofits it’s much harder to be self-sustainable and get proper funding. We also talk a lot with publishers. We are preparing for our world championship now, hoping that it will take place in Israel in November. We are talking to potential tournament organizers in different areas of the world. In the past IESF used to do its own tournament organizing but we have identified the need to outsource it and hire professional tournament organizers to have better experiences for the gamers. We are also working with WADA, the World Anti Doping Agency as we are an official signee. We are the only esports organization following WADA guidelines. It is also a complicated task to have testing samples on site and make sure our players are not using any forbidden substances while performing. We also talk a lot to education centers because people more and more want to find a way to set up a proper education system for IESF. We are preparing our referee courses now. We are going to start international certifications for referees for IESF which is a huge milestone. Among others we also work with sponsors, possible partners and the Korean government. The Korean government is helping IESF in Korea and they are our biggest financial supporters. Trying to put it in five minutes, that’s about all of it.
Tim: Sounds like a lot on your plate. You’ve been in this industry for a couple of decades now. What are the skills and experiences that have helped you succeed in the esports industry?
Totovski: First of all is the belief in the prospect and seeing the future that this sport will become a sport. A lot of people are skeptical but let me share some information with you. There are more than fifty countries where esports is an official sport. We are looking to at least twenty more to complete their process this year. It helps with the vision that esports will be a sport and that it needs some sort of, not governance per say but some sort of regulations in order to protect the players. At the moment the top five percent of the athletes are being treated well financially but the other ninety five percent are actually being used and are not getting compensated for their time, effort and energy. So we want to find a way to ensure they are respected. Another important skill is communication. I’ve also come to understand in the past two years that diplomacy is also very important. You need to learn to say things without actually saying it because there are very different people, cultures and political systems. For example you have Israel and countries from the middle east with players that want to compete in esports but behind the curtains you have politics interfering with relations and sports. For us it’s one of the challenges that we are trying to work through. We don’t want to insult anyone for example by scheduling a game that is not allowed by their governments.
Tim: In the US we have a growing number of university level courses focused on the esports industry, basically sports management programs but with an esports focus. Do you have any advice for students who are trying to choose formal programs to prepare themselves for the esports business world?
Totovski: Yes of course. The first thing is, if you are a gamer, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can succeed in the esports world because esports and gaming are two different things. Gaming mostly entails playing the game, creation, development, 3D design, architecture and selling the game afterwards. That’s one part of the ecosystem but it’s not esports. esports is about actual competitions. They also have a lot of employment opportunities at the moment because it is new. We are at the point football or basketball was at sixty or seventy years ago. If you told someone one hundred and fifty years ago to train so they can play in the NBA , they wouldn’t see much prospect in it. It takes time. esports is a fast paced industry but getting to the point where you are happy and satisfied with your position might take a while because students lack the experience which they need to get the good position, good salary, and more importantly, make a change to the industry. That’s the ultimate goal, when you work for something, is to make a positive change and help develop it. Another thing is to do good research on the program before applying. As the esports competition sector is not regulated, I don’t know how it is exactly in the US, but I am sure there are some less reputable organizations offering courses. It’s important to check the credentials of the organization offering the course to see that it’s valuable and can actually offer you a proper education. We are seeing lots of fake organizations claiming that they are the official esports organization as well as fake institutions claiming they are providing education for esports. Before embarking on such a journey, students must do their research to see what they offer, see how long it’s existed and check the social media to see that it’s legitimate.
Tim: What kind of jobs are most in demand these days in the esports industry? And what kind of experience are employers looking for?
Totovski: Everything is now focused now on COVID. Two years ago it was a completely different situation. Before, event management would be a great skill however it’s not required now since there are no events. The technical background and administration of the tournaments themselves is very important. There are not many people that understand the whole ecosystem of organizing the tournaments themselves from point A, the participants, to point Z, the execution of the tournament itself. You have to understand different technical aspects such as audio and video streaming. Another important job is for streaming professionals and casters that can work on the game itself and streaming of the competitions. There are also product managers and team managers. We are now trying our hand at hiring professionals outside of the industry. Ultimately, our industry depends a lot on what the publishers say, the COVID situation, and our sponsors. The national federations throughout the world are also looking for international relations and properly governing and structuring these events. The legal side of esports is very important. I don’t know if there is an educational avenue for this in the US but I know there is one in Spain. IESF’s Players Commission member is going there on MBA studies, learning the legal aspect of esports. It’s going to have a lot of future opportunities.
Tim: I know we have some sports law programs in the US but I’m not sure if I’ve seen one as an esports law program.
Totovski: That’s a very interesting topic and I know there will be a lot of engagement in the future.
Tim: What do you expect to see in the next decade or so? What’s exciting to you at esports?
Totovski: At the moment, speaking on the grassroots and amateur levels, we as federations and mid-level tournament organizers are still trying to explain what esports is to people and reaching out to sponsors and governments for support. In the next ten years we will see that change. We will be the one contacted, asking to do a tournament, asking for proper guidance, how to treat players correctly and follow regulations. Also important is showing respect to our players. What often happens is a tournament will be organized and the prize will just be equipment, which is insulting for the players. They are practicing five to ten hours every day to compete, the brand makes money off the streaming but the only compensation for the players is the brand’s product or equipment. They need to be properly rewarded financially to cover their costs and be incentivized to compete. We all know the brand is paying huge amounts of money in marketing yet they don’t properly pay the players. We also hope to see the publishers join IESF and be represented on the board. We want to align our strategies and work together. We don’t want the WHO saying that gaming addiction is a disorder. Everything can create an addiction, even sugar or coffee. We want to be able to regulate and educate the sector to properly game. There are many studies that say kids with active social and physical lives perform twice as well [in esports] as kids that are playing on the computer for sixteen hours a day. Proper training is important and I see that it will become a must. The biggest challenge of all is the true identity of the players in order to decrease hate speech and toxic behavior while gaming. It’s something that we see as a big challenge. We want those who cheat, insult or have unethical behavior to be known and discourage that behavior in esports.
Tim: Do you have any resources or podcasts that can help readers stay on top of the latest developments?
Totovski: I’m following everything, even the fake or misleading ones. I’m following the tournament organizers, publishers, anyone that is talking about esports. There is a huge difference between what is happening in Asia and the United States and I’m trying to keep track of what is happening in both. In the US, 80% of it is business. In the Asian region we see a lot of grass root level support to put esports on solid ground so it can develop much better. In fact 80% of their governments are sponsoring and helping the growth of esports, which is not the case in other parts of the world. I now also see the Nordic countries doing the same thing. We have Norway helping the federation. We have Finland and Denmark doing great educational courses and trying to get esports and sports combined into a hybrid system. It’s also another project that IESF is working on that we will probably launch in a month or two, to get the esports players to play sports and vice versa.
Tim: If someone is looking at esports and they are coming from a traditional sports background, maybe they have done a sports management program or they have worked in sports, is that an easy transition? Are their skills going to transition or are they going to be starting from scratch?
Totovski: It’s easy if they are in the professional sector with the top teams that are playing the tournaments professionally, communicating with the managers, with everything arranged by a huge corporation. But if you want to do a community event where you need to talk to a huge audience of players, teams that are not organized, that is very difficult. Can you imagine someone working in the NBA and having to talk to all the players one by one, take their picture, get a biography, ask them for social media? I’m coming at it from the bottom up and I know all the inner workings. If you come from the top to the bottom, you see that you actually need people for tasks that you don’t need for a normal environment. It might be challenging, but with our President of IESF coming from the sports world, the experience that he is giving us is beyond valuable. It’s a win-win scenario when you have people from the esports and [traditional] sports ecosystems joined together. That’s why I think it’s important to have as many people as possible from the sports management side come into esports, but they need to be open to understand how gamers work, especially now with the younger generation. Their perspective is different. In football, nothing has changed in two hundred years, but for gamers they can start with League of Legends then move to DODA or Counter Strike. Game rules change, power up’s change, a lot of things change. The education starts a bit later too, let’s say about twelve years old.
Tim: This has been great. I think you’ve really touched on a lot of things that will give people a realistic idea of what’s going on in your world and esports. Thank you for being so generous with your time.
Totovski: I want to help wherever I can.