Despite its widespread popularity over a number of decades, gaming has always been seen as something of a waste of time. Where the arcade was once a space for social gathering, the development of personal video games turned the hobby into a more solitary affair, with the explosion of internet gaming further cementing the pastime as a domestic, single-player activity. For the very best players, this is changing. Large-scale competitions have begun to pit the most dedicated gamers against one another at packed out, fully live-streamed events, with prize money only going up. If (competitive) gaming is a subculture, it is on the road to infiltrating the mainstream.
According to those within the industry, there is absolutely nothing casual about eSports, and to refer to it as gaming is partly misleading in itself. The ‘progamers’ are subject to a level of professional training you’d more readily expect of a professional football player, with intense practice sessions, 10-12 hour days, and in depth post-game analysis. In 2013, the US first issued ‘athlete visas’ to competitive gamers in a move that symbolized the industry’s long road to acceptance among the mainstream.
eSports has emerged in recent years as a genuinely profitable enterprise, though. Such is the global appetite for competitive digital sports that companies like Riot Games - maker of the hugely popular League of Legends - made over $1.6 billion in 2015. Competitions are no longer fringe events, either; the DreamHack Masters 2017 had a prize pot of $450,000, for example, with $200,000 going to the winning team alone. Tickets to the show sell for between $30 and $300 and, considering the competition started only last year in Malmo, Sweden, the move to a much larger Vegas arena speaks volumes about its immediate popularity.
What might surprise a lot of people about eSports competitions is not so much the prize money involved but rather how seriously the tournaments are taken. Not only did the DreamHack Masters feature 16 teams from all over the world, it also had an 11-strong reporting team, complete with commentators, analysts and hosts. The MGM Grand Garden Arena is a plush space and, taking a look at the website, you’d be forgiven for confusing the Masters with a long-standing, prestigious sporting event. And, complete with meet and greets, fan signings, and merchandise, does it not already have that prestige among its not-that-small and extremely dedicated fan base?
It’s difficult to see the same sponsorship opportunities arising in eSports as in traditional sports as far as the competitors themselves are concerned. The players may become well known within the very select - albeit growing - circle of eSports enthusiasts, but its difficult to see them having the same mainstream appeal as traditional athletes, at least for now. Not only are the players all but hidden behind the giant screens, the most popular competitions centre around team games, so the notion of a superstar emerging in the traditional sense seems farfetched.
But the events themselves could be hugely lucrative. When Amazon bought game streaming site Twitch for nearly $1 billion it did so because, most nights, Twitch viewers outnumber those of the conventional cable channels. It’s the first ‘sport’ that’s gotten commercially successful outside of television. The online viewership is huge. Last October, some 30 million people tuned in online to watch the finals of Riot Games’ League of Legends. To put this into perspective, the Oscars pulled in only 6 million more viewers. More people now play League of Legends than live in France - the scale for commercialization is immense.
How exactly this commercialization will look is yet to be properly explored. As quickly as you’d expect, top brands have been rushing in to claim a foothold. The likes of Coca Cola, Red Bull, and Monster have all sponsored numerous events, and talent agencies are already scooping up the hottest prospects in the industry. When US teams visit South Korea, for example, there are stories of Justin Bieber-like levels of adoration and fandom, though one struggles to see how this appeal can extend further than the niche hardcore audiences. For small companies, getting involved can be as simple as vying to sponsor a team in a competition. With that many eyes on an event at any one time, simply having your brand out there could be invaluable.
The flurry of corporate involvement in eSports extends as far as the gambling industry. In a sport that lacks any real regulatory oversight, offering odds for eSports might seem risky at first, though the lack of any major scandal thus far has given betting companies little cause to be overly cautious. SBC News’ Susan O’Leary disagrees, though, stating that ‘regulation done properly does not impede operators and markets, rather it encourages them to succeed.’ We will doubtless see regulation in eSports betting before long, at which point even more companies will get on board.
The world of eSports is a fascinating one. Though it may be difficult to see the appeal in attending competitive gaming tournaments, the demand is clearly there. The attitude in the industry today is very much one of ‘the sky is the limit’, and it’s going to be fascinating to see just how far the commercialization of eSports can go.