The following for eSports is simply staggering. Last year’s League of Legends World Championship was watched by 43 million people, a record since passed by the 46 million who tuned into IEM Katowice in March. eSports already boast well over 200 million unique viewers annually, a number set to continue rising as global revenues top $1 billion by 2019 despite hardly any coverage from the mainstream media.
The massive, yet still relatively niche market has drawn large investments and sponsorships from major companies, and celebrities including Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez, Steve Aoki, and Rick Fox currently own stake in eSports teams. Existing in what seems like an alternate dimension to traditional sports, yet expanding at a rapid rate, the question must be asked: just why are eSports so popular?
The answer starts with the games themselves. eSports is a blanket term referring to a number of video games which can be played competitively and professionally. These games are incredibly diverse and complex, a testament to how far technology has advanced over the last several decades, both graphically and technically. Simply put, there wouldn’t be professional Pong. eSports come in many different varieties, including fighting games, shooters, and MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas). With so many options in the market, it’s easy for people to find something they like.
Game developers, in addition to creating games, have also done a great job of continuing to improve their games post-release through patches to keep them updated and interesting. This includes the addition of new characters and abilities along with modifications of existing characters and game mechanics to create a fair, balanced gaming experience.
Obviously, the competitive, addicting qualities of video games contribute heavily to their popularity. Regardless of a player’s skill level, there is always a drive to reach the next rank or level, unlock a new character or weapon, and generally get better at the game. These games are also very social in nature, allowing friends to play with and against each other, help one another out, and of course, learn and improve. And since many of these games are team-based and feature high levels of strategy, players need to be communicating effectively and coordinating movements and attacks to be successful.
Also, a real advantage of eSports when compared to traditional sports is their accessibility. Whereas sports often require specific equipment, playing spaces, and organizations to run them, anyone with a computer can play most of these games from the comfort of their own homes. This also means that once someone begins playing a new game, they’ll frequently recruit others to play and share the experience with them. These games are a great value when their price is compared to the hours of entertainment they can provide.
So, improvements in technology combined with the addictiveness, social nature, and accessibility of video games have led to their popularity. However, there is a big jump from simply playing games to following competitive eSports, adopting favorites players and teams and tuning into live events. eSports benefits from the unique connection between fans and pros which breeds avid support.
Professional athletes typically don’t look like the rest of the population. The obvious example is basketball players, who are extremely tall compared to average people. If someone 5’9″ wanted to make it into the NBA, their odds would be practically zero. Each sport, and typically each position within a sport, has a certain size, body build, and key attributes shared by most of the top talent. Professional gamers, on the other hand, usually aren’t physically intimidating. They’re very skilled in what they do, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that by looking at them.
Similarly, professional athletes are groomed for their sports from a young age. They play middle school, high school, and college sports, and are recruited along the way. Outside of school, there are traveling teams and special coaches working to grow an athlete and realize their true potential. Gamers instead put hundreds, even thousands of hours into practicing on their own to become one of the best in the world and be recognized by a team. The stars of eSports started out just like your average gamer. Add how many professionals stream on Twitch and actively communicate with their supporters, and it’s easy to see the special bond shared between player and fan.
I said it in my article comparing League of Legends and soccer, but the presentation of eSports to the viewing audience is simply superb. I believe Riot Games, publishers of League of Legends, do it best through their sponsoring both the North American and European Leagues. Matchday coverage is free and easily streamed on a number of channels including Twitch and Youtube. Games are commentated by “casters” who are entertaining and do an excellent job of explaining the action before sending things back to the analyst booth in between games, just like a halftime show. Live interviews are conducted with the players, and everyone seems to have energy and be genuinely excited about what’s going on.
During matches, there are real-time displays of scores and statistics, along with visuals on the players. It’s all very similar to watching traditional sports on TV, with added bonuses of no commercials and being able to learn and improve your own game by watching. It’s an efficient system, both professional and casual, perfect for an audience of millennials.
With all the similarities between traditional sports and eSports, you could call the latter “Sports 2.0.” eSports have both regional leagues and international competitions. Players have different personalities which attract fans. Player and team histories lead to plenty of storylines and rivalries for friends and fellow fans to discuss. Exciting lineup changes can be made during free agency. There are fantasy eSports and sports betting, and fans can buy merchandise of their favorite teams. It’s a new form of sports for the modern age, and it’s completely legitimate.
So, will eSports continue to expand in the future? The short answer is yes. There is a rapidly growing base of both players and fans. Investors know this and will put more and more money into the industry. Compared to traditional sports, eSports is still very young, and just now are we raising the first generation of people who will really grow up in the eSports age, viewing these games in a similar light to sports.
Getting eSports into the mainstream will be a slow, difficult process, but honestly, eSports doesn’t need the mainstream. Teams and leagues already have their own sponsorships and are drawing high viewership without being on TV. In fact, a large portion of the audience for these events are cord-cutters, and as that seems to be the growing trend, it seems unlikely that TV will ever prominently feature eSports.
With the high potential for revenue, new games will continue to be made, and existing games will continue to be updated and perfected. Opportunities will form, such as competitive gaming in colleges and the NBA’s upcoming eSports league. The future is still largely unknown, and many of the timetables for expansion depend on whether the field can turn non-gamers into gamers or at least casual viewers, but eSports are certainly here to stay.