BY JAMES METCALFE: Competitive gaming has become a cultural phenomenon over the past five years and it now boasts more than 450 million viewers around the world. In a relatively short space of time it has been transformed from a niche pursuit beloved by hobbyists to a slick industry packed full of multimillionaire superstars. What is the secret behind its success, what is driving growth in this sector and just how big can esports become?
Esports: A Potted History
The first official esports tournament took place at Stanford University in California back in 1972. Twenty gamers gathered around the university’s PDP-10 computer in the Artificial Intelligence Lab to vie for glory in the inaugural Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics. Up for grabs was a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine and a few beers, and a gamer called Bruce Baumgart seized the prize.
It was not until 1980 that a major tournament took place. Around 10,000 gamers gathered for the Space Invaders Championship that year, with Rebecca Heineman triumphing. Events like Battle of the Bay grew in popular over the ensuing few couple of decades, but competitive gaming only really took off when high-speed broadband was rolled out across the globe. Suddenly everyone was connected, and gamers all over the world could connect and play against one another.
Twitch launched in 2011 and that provided the first major streaming platform for viewers to enjoy the exploits of their fellow gamers. Rivals like YouTube Gaming and Mixer have since risen to prominence, and a healthy competition exists among these streaming services. It is now possible to watch competitive gaming action on a 24/7 basis, 365 days a year, and there is always something exciting to absorb fans.
Esports remained niche until the prize money started seriously ramping up. It began in 2014, when Valve began its compendium model for the year’s biggest Dota 2 tournament, The International. Prize money shot up to $10.9 million and the five members of Chinese team Newbee – Banana, Hao, Mu, SanSheng and xiao8 – each won more than $1 million for sealing victory. These prize pools have allowed increasing numbers of gamers to turn professional, and the entire scene has benefited, as the overall level of quality on show has improved leaps and bounds.
Why Do People Love Esports?
Watching TV is a passive pursuit that requires no specific involvement on the viewer’s behalf, whereas video gaming allows you to actively shape the experience with the decisions you make. Millions of people love gaming and it is on course to become a $300 billion industry by 2025. People unfamiliar with esports have routinely asked why people watch others play games rather than actually playing the games themselves.
The best analogy used to answer this question may come from traditional sports. Many people love playing basketball, but it will not stop them watching the LA Lakers take on the Houston Rockets in a big game. Millions love playing tennis, but they also love watching the Wimbledon final. In fact, many fans of watching traditional sports do not actually play them.
The leading esports – League of Legends, CS:GO, Dota 2, Overwatch, StarCraft II and so on – are similar to traditional sports in that they have a low skill floor and a high skill ceiling. They are easy to grasp and beginners can enjoy them almost instantly, but they are extremely difficult to master.
Almost anyone can play can throw a ball at a hoop, but very few people can dominate the court like LeBron James. Most people can pick up a racket and hit a ball, but only a handful of star players can match the majesty of Roger Federer pulling his opponents all over the place with his mastery of the form.
People watch esports to watch the gaming equivalent of Barcelona taking on Real Madrid, of Federer battling it out with Novak Djokovic in a big final. You are watching the absolute masters of a difficult pursuit battling for glory on the biggest stage of all, with reputations and fabulous prize pools on the line, while commentators hype up the event and millions on social media react to developments.
Esports allows gaming fans to watch their heroes pull off dazzling feats of individual and collective brilliance, and it also inspires them to push boundaries when they are playing their favorite games.
Competitive Gaming in the Modern Era
Many people refer to esports as a single pursuit, but it is actually a diverse ecosystem made up of many different communities. These communities transcend borders, languages, cultures and creeds, but they are loosely based around games or genres, such as MOBA or FPS.
In 2018, the most popular esports were LoL, CS:GO, Dota 2, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, StarCraft II, Rainbow 6 Siege, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Rocket League. Heroes of the Storm has now bitten the dust, while Epic Games is desperately trying to turn Fortnite into a big esport by throwing money at the competitive scene, but that list is broadly the same today.
Some are more skewed to different regions – Koreans are fanatical about StarCraft, LoL and Overwatch, for example, but CS:GO has not really taken off, whereas the best CS:GO players largely hail from Scandinavia, the USA or Brazil.
The games themselves are diverse, but the leading esports have many things in common. They generally operate on a free-to-play model and the publishers make money through microtransactions. A portion of that money is ploughed back into the game in the form of updates, ensuring that the gameplay, graphics and so on continually improve and that the game remains alive and ever evolving.
Some tournaments are organized by external groups and others are hosted by the publishers. Prize money is soaring. The International 2019 carried a prize pool of $34.3 million, while the Fortnite World Cup dished out $30 million this summer.
That has allowed many gamers to become rich through prize money alone. The top earner, N0tail, has made $6.9 million after leading Team OG to victory in The International for the past two years. In total, 83 players have made more than $1 million through prize money.
Players are also paid salaries and they earn vast sums through sponsorship deals and streaming deals. Ninja, a Fortnite player of relatively moderate ability, was paid a reported $100 million to abandon Twitch and stream exclusively on Mixer, and that dwarfs the prize money N0tail and co have made.
A diverse scene has built up around it. There are coaches, sports psychologists, agents, union reps and all manner of execs at franchises and organizations that host tournaments.
Wagering on competitive gaming is huge: check out the esports betting markets at a top bookmaker and you will find lines on a huge range of matches and tournaments each day. Big companies are investing in sponsorship deals in a bid to get their brand messages across to young, tech-savvy esports viewers that shun media like TV and newspapers. Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Intel and Red Bull are among the big sponsors of the scene.
Some people have become rich in the process, but a lot of this money is pumped back into the scene, allowing it to become better organized and more professional each year.
How Big Can the Esports Sector Become?
There is a very real chance of esports eventually overtaking traditional sports in the popularity stakes. There are more than 450 million viewers already and NewZoo forecasts that it will rise to 645 million by 200. By that point, esports will be a $1.7 billion industry, but that does not include the billions of dollars that the producers of games like LoL and Fortnite make each year, or the multibillion-dollar annual wagering handle.
The average age of baseball, golf, horse racing and rugby fans continues to rise with every passing year. These viewers are dying out and youngsters are not replacing them at the same levels. Younger generations have grown up with technology and many of them are more likely to admire the skill involved in Zywoo pulling off an insane 1v3 pistol round ace clutch than a slugger hitting a home run or a golfer chipping in from the bunker.
That trend will only continue in the years ahead. Traditional sports are generally static, whereas the competitive gaming scene is vibrant, dynamic, constantly evolving and at the forefront of technological innovation.
Exciting new games will be released, existing esports will continue to improve and the entire scene will grow larger and more professional. VR and AR will improve drastically in the decades ahead, and eventually competitive gaming could become the most popular entertainment form around.