In case you didn’t know, Esports is a form of competition based on video games. Esports come in many forms, but generally speaking, these contests take place in either team-based or last-man-standing types of games, and the astonishing popularity of these tournaments has taken pretty much everyone by surprise.
In the early years, many questioned if “electronic sports” even qualified as genuine sporting disciplines. That debate was settled long ago, however, when it became clear just how much physical and mental agility was required to play these games at a professional level.
The Evolution of Esports
In just two decades, we have come from tiny, home-organized games that were streamed online to stadium-filling events featuring teams of players from around the world. Video game competition has surged in popularity in tandem with the rise of Esports, with speedrunning being another common area of interest that regularly attracts tens if not hundreds of thousands of viewers to the Twitch channels of the very best streamers.
It wasn’t long before big-name sponsors got involved in the action; think Red Bull, Intel, Honda, Coca Cola, and even the U.S. Air Force! Backing such as this brings in big money, and where there is big money, you can bet the bookmakers want to get involved too – you can now even bet online on up-and-coming contests on games such as Leagues of Legends, DOTA2, and CS:GO.
Comparisons to Traditional Sports
It seems ludicrous to many to even think of comparing a team of gamers sitting down to play video games with tournaments such as the NFL or NBA, but the current trends are truly shocking and if they should continue, we may well end up in a situation where more people are tuning in to watch Esports than traditional sports! Let me explain.
First, we have fan numbers; the Technology consulting firm Activate has been keeping track of data relating to Esports for nearly a decade now and states that there appears to be no slowing down when it comes to the incredible growth they have seen over the past five years. The number of people who identify themselves as Esports fans has increased from 270 million in 2016 to 411 million just two years later. In 2020, the number reached 500 million.
Then we have the stars of the show; players like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who is idolized by gamers in the same way as LeBron James or Tom Brady. Some like to watch him play purely for entertainment, whilst others will copy his tactics and use them in their games, as they dream of becoming an Esports star themselves.
Viewership & Income
Blevins averages more than 72,000 viewers when simply streaming from home during competitions, and he has more than 12 million followers on Twitch – sure, that may be dwarfed by the 51 million followers that LeBron James has on Twitter, but Blevins engagement numbers are far higher – few people bother writing a message to LeBron as they assume they’ll never get a reply, whilst Blevins makes a big effort to stay directly in touch with his fans. Furthermore, Blevins averages around $300,000 in passive income from his Twitch sessions – LeBron isn’t making a penny from Twitter.
In 2020, more than 70 million people logged on to stream the final of the League of Legends World Championships. That’s a higher viewership figure than almost every U.S. professional sport including baseball, soccer, and hockey. If you look at the numbers from all platforms combined, consumers are watching as much as three billion man-hours of Esports – that accounts for 10 percent of all sports viewing.
Brace yourself, because this really is shocking – 2021 statistics for sports viewership in the United States:
NFL 141 million
Esports 84 million
MLB 79 million
NBA 63 million
NHL 32 million
MLS 16 million
How Esports Plans to Continue to Grow
Speak to the companies behind the biggest Esports titles such as Blizzard or Valve and they will tell you they are just getting started – the growth they have already experienced has shocked even them, but it has done nothing to change their plans for expanding their viewership numbers even further.
Esports companies are borrowing ideas from the traditional sporting industry – after all, they want to be regarded as a real sport, so why not? Competitive leagues are being established in countries all around the world, and deals are being made with sports broadcasters to get these tournaments on TV screens all around the globe.
And, as we all know, money talks – developers are investing hugely into massive prize funds for their flagship competitions such as The International – the annual Esports tournament for the hugely successful DOTA2. Back in 2018, the purse for The International was $25.5 million. The largest purse on the PGA Tour Golf Tournament the previous year was the U.S. Open’s $12 million – less than half the figure on offer for playing in The International.
And the most interesting development? Tie-ups with traditional sporting leagues. There’s no reason these two disciplines cannot complement each other – something the NBA evidently recognizes, as the first professional sports league to form an esports partnership with Take-Two Interactive, the publisher of the NBA 2K series of video games.
So, can Esports compete with traditional sports? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.