In the world of sports, there have always been the fringe activities whose participants know that what they do is a sport while still trying to convince outsiders that this is the case. In the past, dancers, cheerleaders, and even track athletes have had to defend their positions as athletes to friends, family, and professional organizations. It was not too long ago when the International Olympic Committee voted to remove wrestling from the games before facing a wave of backlash that forced them to reverse their decision. However, in a time where the world has become more and more digital, there is a new wave of competitors fighting to be recognized as athletes, and they compete almost entirely online.
The world of eSports really started before the turn of the century, but it has seen nearly exponential growth in the past decade as the rise of online game has taken the world’s teenagers by storm. In 2010, approximately $5 million was paid out to winners of eSports tournaments worldwide—that number skyrocketed to over $30 million in 2014. In March of 2014, a single tournament for the computer game Defense of the Ancients 2 featured a prize pool of over $6 million. In late 2013, the League of Legends Championship sold out the Staples Center, home of the Lakers and Clippers, in about an hour. Besides the 15,000 in the arena, approximately 32 million fans watched live streams of the tournament. Compare this to around 15.5 million fans who watched the 2014 NBA Finals and you’ll begin to understand that eSports is no joke.
Nearly all of the eSports viewership comes via some form of internet live streaming. This is similar to the system that the NCAA has been perfecting that allows fans of March Madness to watch any game from any mobile device with internet access, and it is an extremely successful system. The most popular streaming service, Twitch.tv, was the subject of an intense bidding war over the summer between tech giants Google and Amazon which the latter won, acquiring Twitch for around $1 billion. The main drive behind Twitch is the personalities behind these professional gamers, who often draw well over 10,000 viewers to their long-lasting streams and, consequently, attract large amounts of advertising revenue. Picture being able to watch and chat with some of the best and most likable pro athletes like Rob Gronkowski or Chris Bosh as they practice with their team each day; that is the best explanation of why so many fans tune in to watch others play games.
All these numbers may still leave many unconvinced, but that has not stopped the rapid growth of eSports across the globe. Several governments have begun to grant work visas to professional gamers to allow them to move to areas where the competition is fiercest. Similarly, some American universities, like Roger Morris University in Chicago, are beginning to grant athletic scholarships to eSports players. Meanwhile, Major League Gaming, a company that hosts its own eSports leagues and tournaments, and has a popular streaming service similar to that of Twitch, recently announced their plans to build a dedicated arena for tournaments in China. Last spring, Call of Duty became the first eSport featured in the Summer X Games when eight of the games’ top teams competed for gold medals alongside skateboarders and BMX riders. Only a few weeks ago the PC shooter Counter Strike: Global Offensive followed Call of Duty and was featured in the Winter X Games. As for individual standouts, former MLG employee Ryan Wyatt—now the Global Head of Gaming Partnerships at Google—and professional Call of Duty player Matthew Haag were both named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 to watch in 2015.
Despite all the recent breakthroughs made in the realm of eSports, it’s hard to consider them equivalent to something like baseball or football, at least in the West. In Asia, eSports are essentially equivalent to conventional sports. The biggest StarCraft and DOTA players in Asia see the popularity that Tom Brady or Sidney Crosby see in the U.S. In 2004, well before the exponential rise of eSports in America, over 100,000 gathered at Gwangalli Beach for the final of the StarCraft pro league. Essentially, eSports are the opposite of many products in the world: they have a huge following in Asia and an emerging market with room to grow in America and Europe.
Thus, while many conventional American sports are busy marginalizing their influence, the eSports communities are beating conventional sports in the race to provide younger generations with On Demand content from any internet connected device. While the debate over if eSports are actually sports continues to rage, I don’t really think professional gamers should care; the popularity and legitimacy is there even if the title isn’t.