From niche market to global phenomenon, eSports is changing the way we think about sports.
Despite the rapid growth of eSports in recent years, many people are either unaware of or confused by the concept of competitive gaming. eSports are competitive multi-player video games typically played by professional gamers.
Similar to traditional professional sports, the term eSports refers to any competitive game that has a large enough fan base to support tournaments.
Even with the growing popularity of eSports, you still hear people ask why would you sit around watching someone else play video games? For someone who hasn’t played many video games, the confusion can be understandable.
However, apply the same logic to traditional sports. Millions of people tune in every Sunday to watch their favorite NFL team play. No one asks why they’re sitting around watching someone else play football. The reason is the same for traditional sports and eSports: It’s exciting to watch players compete at the highest level.
The most popular eSport, League of Legends, or LoL, has an active monthly player base of over 100 million players. This massive following allowed for the most recent League of Legends World Championship to have a prize pool of $6.7 million More impressive than the prize money, however, was the number of viewers.
According to Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends, the LoL World Championship brought in 43 million viewers over 15 days of competition, and peaked at an extraordinary 14.7 million.
To put this into perspective, 14.7 million is three times more than the number of viewers of the most recent Stanley Cup Finals, which averaged 4.7 million over six games in 2017.
In fact, League of Legends was closer to the NBA Finals and World Series, which both averaged around 20 million concurrent viewers.
In fairness, the 14.7 million takes into account worldwide viewership, and countries like China and South Korea make up a large share of the market. However, the number of Americans watching eSports is only growing. It’s predicted that around 7 million Americans tune into major eSports tournaments, a number that has grown 200 percent in the last two years.
So, who are these fans? The demographic of eSports viewers is older than you might expect. According to The Esports Observer, 39 percent of fans are between the ages of 25-34, and the female audience makes up a significant part of the fan base, nearly 30 percent.
The same report also found that 61 percent of U.S. viewers older than 18 earn more than $50,000.
Contrary to popular belief, the eSports demographic is not comprised of young, in-debt male students. This is great news for advertisers, who typically find the 25-34 age range particularly difficult to advertise to.
A common issue regarding eSports is how to watch the games, as most of the time they are not broadcast on TV. The most popular streaming service for gaming is Twitch.tv, which was recently acquired by Amazon for a $1 billion. Twitch doesn’t only give you access to major tournaments, you can also watch your favorite players practice.
Imagine if you could watch your favorite sports player practice, while interacting and asking questions through the live chat. That’s what Twitch provides for its viewers, while simultaneously giving the players a platform to build their brand on. A large enough audience on Twitch can provide the same opportunities many mainstream professional sports players have, such as sponsorships and endorsements.
Typically people not familiar with the eSports scene picture a sweaty basement dweller when they hear the term professional gamer. This, however, is an extremely outdated image. To reach the top these gamers have to be extremely motivated, and a healthy body can positively impact their performance. This is why many of the top teams in their respective games often go through rigorous physical and mental training to prepare their minds as well as their bodies.
Brands like Red Bull have taken this a step further, putting some professional gamers through their regular athlete development program.
This brings up the issue of whether professional gamers should be considered athletes? While there is no definitive answer to this question, steps have been taken recently that point toward eSports taking a seat parallel to traditional sports.
Gamers traveling to the United States for tournaments have been granted athlete visas, and the International Olympic Committee has been in talks about adding eSports to the 2024 Olympics.
In fact, the NCAA is grappling with how to categorize eSports after they have begun to form teams and grant scholarships to gamers. During a 2014 interview on CBS, professional gamer Nadeshot weighed in on this issue.
"I’m not comparing myself to Kobe Bryant or Calvin Johnson or anybody like that," he said. "We’re not in that league, but we definitely have something that takes an equal amount of time, and practice and skill, for sure."
Where does eSports go from here? The growth of eSports in recent years is unquestionable, but growing too fast can be problematic. Without a precedent for how things should be run, companies are forced to tackle new problems as they arise.
The rapid development of the competitive gaming scene is a learning experience for everyone involved, including the viewers, advertisers and the companies that work so hard to produce a successful game. They may run into some hurdles in this uncharted territory, but one look at the closely knit community that makes up the eSports scene shows that it’s here to stay.
Jack McConnaughay is a senior at North Collins High School.