How eSports Could Soon Be Bigger Than The NFL
I am a huge sports fan. I blame my Dad for this.
He would spend hours watching almost any sport that was on the TV and when I say any I mean that he was not fussy about what sport was being shown as long as it was sport. Soccer, American football, baseball, cricket, rugby, curling, darts, Greco-roman wrestling, beach volleyball, cycling, athletics … the list was endless and inevitably caused friction in the house.
Dad was a traditional sports fan. A real person playing real sports was his mantra. Video games were not sport, neither was anything that didn’t involve some element of physical activity. Tennis, yes. Chess, no. You get the general picture.
So I often wonder how he would have classed eSports. Sitting in a darkened room starring at a screen and “playing video games” did not fit into his world view—an ironic statement bearing in mind the hours that he sat in the dark himself.
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Numerous online video streaming channels on Twitch and YouTube Red now show eSports tournaments and game play from all over the globe. ESPN broadcasts eSports as part of its regular programming and the United States has 18.7 million eSports fans, reported Fortune.
eSports Can Be For Everyone
As consoles, smartphones and tablets have changed the way we conduct our lives, they have changed the way we game.
A recent report by Nielsen said that around 10% of the population are aware of and interested in eSports. Most of them are not what we would call avid gamers. You don’t need to play a sport to be a fan of it.
Juniper Research forecast in 2015 that by 2020 revenues from eSports will increase by 250% with subscription rates alone reaching nearly $1 billion.
According to the founder and CEO of mobile eSports company Skillz Andrew Paradise, eSports is the future of human competition. Of course the founder of an eSports company would believe they are the future. The problem is that this future depends on breaking down the boundaries of what he calls “online” and “offline” sports.
“The hypothesis we have is that you have to have multiple generations of people who are interested in a game to transcend from what we call a game to what we call sport,” Paradise said, in an interview with ARC. “A game has competitive gameplay so you have competition between players or as a team element, you have a written down rule set and then you have to have spectatorship … without spectatorship, it is not really a sport.”
Sport is defined as, “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual competes against another or others for entertainment.” The important word in this definition is skill—video games require varying degrees of skill to complete and a dedicated gamer can spend hours in a game as a result.
San Francisco-based Skillz runs around 150,000 tournaments every day through its mobile app—with 5% of those offering “real world rewards” in the form of cash—which can host anywhere up 1,000 players. Try and imagine a physical representation of sport where that many people are playing at the same time and the mass appeal of eSports is not hard to understand.
Gaming Has Long Been A Spectator Sport
Competitive video gaming has existed since 1972 when five Stanford students played Spacewar against each other, while a Space Invaders championship in 1980 attracted 10,000 competitors.
The 1982 movie Tron used video games as its major plot strand. The 1989 movie The Wizard followed the trials of a boy traveling to play a Nintendo tournament. Watching other people game was part and parcel of growing up in the console generation in the 80s and 90s. In more recent years, the Internet has spawned legions of game players who (technically) compete against each other online but eSports has emerged from the shadows to create a professional element which obviously needs viewers.
“So much about what we consider sports in society are as much about the spectator experience as it is the play itself,” Paradise said.
Think about the NBA, Paradise said. Millions of people watch a skilled group of athletes play at an elite level either on television or in the arena itself. The majority of fans will never be able to replicate what their heroes do on the court and make do with spectating. The same can be said of every sport—professionals are paid money to “entertain” the fans—and video games are just a natural evolution.
An arena is designed for competition, irrespective of whether that arena exists in a physical sense. Paradise said offline games—both amateur and professional—are easy enough to arrange and follow a well-established set of rules. And rules are what make it a sport.
See also: A Closer Look At How Much Games Dominate The App Stores
The same is true of eSports. The medium for eSports has always become the Internet. And while console gaming came first, the ubiquitous computer in the pocket has made games available to a huge potential audience. Competitive and addictive elements within a game like Candy Crush encourage the player to want to get better. Which is kind of the point of gameplay.
“This type of content is popular because it is custom-designed for the device,” said Paradise. “That is going to persist and our [Skillz] place in the ecosystem will be around providing the competitive social network around all these games.”
Mobile eSports May Eclipse The Field
Juniper Research said last year that eSports would have bigger audiences than the NFL by 2020. In 2014, the global audience for eSports was around 102 million unique viewers compared to 220 million for the NFL tournament, said Juniper. The important aspect to consider is that NFL audiences don’t really vary that much—primarily Americans interested in sports—and eSports can tap into a desire to see something new.
“First you have gameplay, then you have competitive gameplay and then that transcends to sport when you build out an audience,” Paradise said.
The key is understanding what an audience wants to see. Professional skateboarders and snowboarders were fundamental in making extreme sports mainstream and eSports will likely follow the same path. Ironically, a video game—Tony Hawk’s skateboarding series—was instrumental in the rise of real-world professional skateboarding as a spectator sport.
Over three days in New York in March, the FIFA Interactive World Cup 2016 saw 32 of the world’s best FIFA-franchise players battle to win both a trophy and prize money. Live streaming online channel Twitch has signed a multi-million dollar deal with mobile app developer Super Evil Megacorp to broadcast the latest Vainglory tournament with three-player teams competing for a share of $80,000, Engadget reported.
Games Are Ingrained Into The Fabric Of Human Existence
Paradise believes that anything can be a game. The important aspect is building a competition layer on top of game apps.
Wearables are a good example. I have a fitness tracker that allows me to “compete” against people with the same app and post my high score for them to see. Leading brands have used gamification as a means to engage with customers online and gaming concepts appear in numerous non-game-related mobile apps.
star_wars_android_gameAround 2.1 billion people play mobile games on a regular basis, said Paradise. It may be difficult to fact check that particular stat, but the point stands. Most people play games from time to time. Games dominate the app stores.
The first wave of feature phones had basic games like Snake and Minesweeper built in to the operating system which allowed to people to game on-the-go. Smartphones and social networks turned casual gamers into people who wanted to play Farmville in front of their friends. Improved graphics and gameplay turned simple yet frustrating games like Angry Birds into a global phenomenon.
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The processing power of the smartphone makes eSports a viable option for developers and players. Paradise said that mobile is going to kill the gaming industry and in 10 years time consoles will be similar to the audiophile market today.
“This is the era when we are transcending into everything becoming digital,” said Paradise. “Electronic sports or video games being played competitively are the first instance of that. When you look at the trends in augmented and virtual reality, it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination that all sports will probably become computerized.”