If you know the slightest thing about esports or ‘competitive gaming’, then you probably know that this new form of spectator entertainment has experienced growth on an unprecedented scale. You may even be aware that esports is soon to make for a billion dollar industry, with investors cramming to make a penny at every corner.
Perhaps you’ve also seen the recent news that esports could be introduced as an official sport at the 2024 Paris Olympics. The point being – if you know the slightest thing about esports, you know that it’s pretty hot stuff at the moment.
What makes esports so popular? And why does everyone seem so certain that it’s here for the long-run? Well – before we look at the sport’s future, we should perhaps delve into its past.
Naturally, people have been playing video games for decades. In the early 2000s, competitive titles such as Counter-Strike, Starcraft and the Warcraft III mod DotA were released and quickly gained popularity for their complexity and strategic elements. Players could develop their skills the longer they practised, and compete against other equally passionate players from all around the world. It was the fierce competitive nature and team spirit of these games that won people over, as this element had not really been seen before the days of these online combat titles.
In 2011 the popular video games streaming service Twitch.tv launched for the purpose of live-streaming video games. This would allow entertaining or skillful players to gain a large and loyal following of viewers. Where there’s an audience, there’s advertisement – and sponsorships came pouring in for the most successful streamers, allowing them to spend even more time playing and streaming. That same year, the Dota 2 tournament ‘The International’ debuted with a $1.6 million prize pool. Prior to this, tournament prize pools were in the 1-10 thousands. This massive surge in funding in one particular eSport gave many the optimism that eSports would continue to grow in the future. For the first time, people were drawing comparisons between eSports and more traditional sports.
Since then eSports have, as predicted, only risen in exposure, popularity and revenue. Prize pools are reaching past $20 million and eSports are fast gaining international recognition and legitimacy, with many governments declaring it an official sport. Some tournaments have even been hosted on the sports channel giant ESPN.
The massive growth over the past decade has been a cause for speculation with regard to what the next ten years hold.
Freddie Wong’s TV show VGHS (Video Game High-School) centers around a group of teenagers who attend an eSport college. A real educational facility offering video gaming as a field of study would have been unthinkable ten years ago, but could become the life for many teens of the future. Several colleges and universities have already started to offer eSports varsity programs and there are even a few that offer scholarships for eSports. In Norway, it is common to find after-school video gaming clubs alongside football or hockey clubs. It’s feasible to think that video games will only come to receive more academic respect as time passes and eSports become increasingly established and reputed.
Interestingly, the recognition of eSports as a profession that demonstrates dedication and skill has been having a knock-on effect on other fields. The US, amongst other nations such as Russia, are currently debating the legitimacy of online poker – an industry that has been banned in the states for almost a decade. How does eSports come into play here? Online poker is one of the most widely watched type of games on Twitch, with many esport players acclaiming the strategic nature of poker and vice versa. In recognizing a previously shunned game (i.e. video gaming) as a legitimate sport due to its strategic nature and widespread spectators appeal – countries like Russia risk being regarded as hypocrites if licensed and popular online poker sites don’t receive the same treatment. Potentially, eSports has paved the way for another lucrative industry to experience destigmatization and a surge in popularity.
That’s not the only cultural effect eSports is likely to have, however. Love them or hate them – you’ll find a sports bar in every city, town or village you visit. All across the world, sports bars are a place people gather to drink beer, play cards or pool and watch their favourite sports teams on TV. Recently, eSport bars have been popping up around Scandinavia – all of them based on the same model of traditional sports bars. ESPN have showed us the potential for hosting eSports on television – and with the continued growth of the industry we should expect to see the prominence eSports bars on the rise internationally.
CONSOLE GAMING & DIVERSIFIED APPEAL
Thus far, eSports have managed to elude console gaming. There aren’t any major or widely recognised console tournaments at all. Almost all of the eSports titles are PC exclusive, and for a good reason. The player base is larger, console exclusivity is not a matter of question and a mouse and keyboard allow for more control. Perhaps in the future we will see eSports develop to include console gamers as well. This exposes, makes available to even more people – with more titles available – part of the reason the industry is set to grow. Feasible even that games will be developed in future especially for esports, consoles or not. This will make esports more appealing for those gamers who prefer consoles.
VR technology has been in the works for many years and is reaching ever increasing heights of technological advancement. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the VR hardware being implemented as a medium through which to play future eSport titles. VR would allow for unrivalled immersion and a new way to play games competitively. This has implications for both game developers and pro players, as the manner in which games are designed, built and played is different through virtual reality.
Demographically, most of the high-level eSports players are male. It varies from game to game, although in the case of Dota 2, there has never been a female player at one of the seven ‘The International’ tournaments. The reason for this is a topic of hot debate. Regardless of the cause, it would be refreshing to see eSports embraced by the other 50% of the population. Given that eSports is relatively new, it’s no surprise that the majority of the fan-base are between 18-34 although this means that eSports is less recognised by older people – though this will naturally change as the current generation of gamers grows up. In time, esports could be a sport for everyone – regardless of gender or age.
Part of the reason for the unprecedented growth of eSports is due to a very passionate player base – consisting of a great deal of people who grew up hearing; “it’s only a game”. Many of these players now feel an obligation to help earn their passion the respect it deserves. These are the same players that crowd-fund tournaments with tens of millions of dollars and their will should not be underestimated. Esports will continue to grow so long as the fans are there to shape its growth. Arguably – it is this spirit which makes competitive gaming most like a traditional sport, and what can subsequently give us confidence that esports succeed.