What’s with the Rapid Rise of eSports?


eSports viewership outpaces the Super Bowl, NBA Finals and Wimbledon — by a long shot. But why?

Soon, average sports fans may become avid fans of what some don’t even acknowledge as a sport: eSports.

When it comes to traditional TV sports ratings, the NFL — and specifically the Super Bowl — is unmatched. We saw 111.9 million tune in to watch Peyton Manning ride off into the sunset in Super Bowl 50 earlier this year. More recently, 44 million watched the Cleveland Cavaliers dismantle the Golden State Warriors in game seven of the NBA Finals to bring an elusive championship to the shores of Lake Erie. Even more recently, a combined 13.3 million tuned in to the Wimbledon Singles finals where Serena Williams solidified her spot in history at the top of women’s tennis while Andy Murray laid claim to the elite among Federer, Djkovic and Nadal. Some 13.9 million watched in agony as prodigal son Jordan Spieth collapsed at Amen Corner in the 2016 Masters. And 17.2 million watched the Royals make good on their Cinderella story in the 2015 World Series.

All these stories, these championships, are recognizable to average sports fans across the nation and around the world. However, eSports have an even more enormous following: 334 million watched live streams of the 2015 League of Legends World Championship over the course of four weeks with an average of 4.2 concurrent viewers. Some 36 million watched SK Telecom T1 take out the KOO Tigers in the finals with an average of 14 million viewers at any point in the match.

Tournament View 2 - eSports2015 League of Legends World Championship

These numbers are, of course, nothing to scoff at, but League of Legends and other popular competitive multiplayer games fall under the wide umbrella of a rapidly growing and thriving entity, one that has been continuously dismissed throughout its unprecedented ascent. The reason mainstream media constantly challenge eSports may have little to do with its success and most to do with the name itself.

When people think of professional athletes, they think of physical prowess and specialized skill sets. eSports don’t require the athletic conditioning needed for mainstream professional sports. A professional Call of Duty player doesn’t display the athleticism of an NFL quarterback, an NBA point guard or a Major League starting pitcher. Neither does an NFL quarterback have the skill set of an NBA point guard, or a professional golfer have the skill set of a professional tennis player.

Each professional sport requires a different set of physical traits, preparation and training both physically and mentally. Similarly, a professional Call of Duty player and a professional League of Legends player have different skills. When a professional eSports player manipulates a mouse and keyboard or the triggers of a game controller to secure an objective, with the pressure of the best in the world staring back at them, it is a feat that the average human being is incapable of. Before a quarterback completes a pass over the center of the field between coverage, he must call the play and read the coverage. Likewise, before a professional gamer executes a move, he must make a plan and survey the battlefield.

League of Legends gameplay - eSportsLeague of Legends

To those who believe eSports can’t possibly be considered sports because millions play video games online as a hobby with no barrier to entry, the same can be said about recreational basketball at the YMCA. For those, and there are many, who say sitting on a couch twiddling thumbs in front of a TV doesn’t qualify as a sport, what’s to say sitting in a car and driving around a track isn’t any different?

The career of a professional gamer mirrors that of a professional athlete in many ways. Grueling hours, constant dedication and doubt but, above all, perseverance and a drive to become the best. eSports gamers peak in their late teens and retire by their mid-20s. A 10-year career is lucky.

Some may ask the same question sometimes asked of pro athletes: Why put your life on hold for a career that doesn’t train you for life after retirement? Are the time and dedication worth the risk?

Super Smash Bros. Gameplay - eSportsThe 2016 EVO Smash Tournament awarded over $50,000 to participants.

The answer is similar: Money, financial stability and, yes, fame. Nearly $60 million, representing the 10 most popular eSports video games, was awarded to tournament participants in 2015. The League of Legends World Championship awarded $1 million to the top team. The only reason these massive sums of money are on the table is that people are taking notice, tuning in and supporting the business.

Spectator growth is the single greatest indicator of increase in any sport marketed as public entertainment. Ask PGA Tour professionals how Tiger Woods helped their own pockets by putting golf on the national stage. When people start to pay attention in droves, a sport has the ability to become a global force. In 2011, Twitch, a streaming service for watching people play video games, launched. In that same year, eSports was valued at $194 million. Three years later Amazon acquired Twitch for close to $1 billion when eSports had reached a $463 million valuation. Experts predict that by 2019, eSports will be worth well over $1 billion. The rocketing surge is due to widespread public interest.

As the industry grows, jobs under the eSports umbrella will continue to populate. Turner Broadcasting and ESPN are now major players in eSports. Just as retired NFL players often gravitate toward football broadcasting, retiring eSports players will become the professional commentators for eSports tournaments. Infrastructure, publicity and marketing departments, technical support — these vital aspects of any spectator-driven business exist within the world of eSports.

Hearthstone Gameplay - eSportsRoughly $2 million is up for grabs in 2016 Hearthstone tournaments.

Does it matter if people consider eSports a real sport? No, of course not. After all, there are still those who don’t even acknowledge NASCAR drivers and PGA Tour golfers as athletes. When it comes down to it, though, there’s no denying that the few who can compete at the highest of levels of eSports have skills that far surpass the average gamer’s.

Regardless of whether people consider eSports a real sport, the general public decides whether an entertainment venture prospers or erodes. Millions tune in to watch professional sports because the players’ abilities are awe-inspiring. That’s exactly what hundreds of millions of eSports spectators tune in to witness. end


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