Organised sports have been the subject matter of electronic games for decades, but now it looks like the tables are being reversed – there’s a sport that’s based around online gaming. Initially scoffed at by critics, eSports have now reached a stage where they have become competitive with traditional sports events themselves.
From the hundreds who witnessed the first Spacewar tournament at Stanford University in 1972, the League of Legends Championship (the most important Multiplayer Online Battle Arena of the current time) Final was streamed by nearly 70 million viewers last year and the recently completed Dota 2 Tournament, The International 2018, organised by game creator Valve Corporation, attracted over 66 million views on Twitch.tv over its 122-hour airing. (For comparison’s sake, the NFL Super Bowl in February attracted about 103 million viewers.) Beyond these two tournaments, 2018 estimates from Newzoo project a global eSports audience of 380 million, with 165 million of that number being classified as enthusiasts. Not only does this represent a total viewership growth of 38% from 2015, but, in the next 2 years, it is expected to grow by another 35%, approaching 600 million viewers.
Simply put, more viewers means more revenue and more revenue streams. From 2015, revenue has almost tripled to a projected USD 906 million in 2018, with an expectation of assuredly passing the billion-dollar mark in 2019 and almost reaching USD 1.9 billion by 2020. While USD 906 million in revenue represents a 38% increase from 2017, some revenue streams have seen growth over and above that, with media rights (USD 93 million in 2017) and sponsorship deals (USD 266 million in 2017) increasing by 72% and 53% respectively.
Aside from individual competition in tournaments, eSports has also reached a point where it is becoming harder to differentiate structurally between eSports and actual sports. For example, the South Korea-based International e-Sports Federation, much like a typical sports governing body, offers annual World Championships for national teams. Specific games and specific geographic areas have organised their own official leagues, such as the FIFA Interactive World Cup, Call of Duty World League, or the European Gaming League. Even getting down to the city-level (like any domestic sports league), The Overwatch League, controlled by game developer Blizzard Entertainment, boasts 12 global teams (9 in the US, 1 in South Korea, China, and the UK) based on city location and, in its inaugural year, counted more than 10 million viewers and sponsorship deal with the likes of Toyota and T-Mobile.
Though many will argue that eSports have already legitimised themselves and need no further recognition now that eSports is debuting as an exhibition sport at the Asian Games (and slated for possible full inclusion in 2022), there’s only one major hurdle left: the Olympics. The argument can definitely be made that eSports players share the same competitive drive and cognitive skills as their athletic counterparts; on the other hand, eSports does currently lack an official governing body, an Olympic requirement. Apart from this, there’s also the controversial issue of whether or not most eSport games would fit into the Olympic ideal due to violent content. Still, considering the massive revenue and viewership of eSports and the International Olympic Committee’s consistent drive to appeal to new demographics, eSports seems like a good fit. Essentially, the Tokyo Olympic Committee’s plan to use eSporting events to lead up to the 2020 games is likely only the beginning.
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