The cultural significance of sports and their heritage is well recognised almost everywhere. Coming from Manchester, where football is weaved just as much into the character of our city as our music or industrial history, I understand what sport can mean to people. It’s a community, it’s tribal and it’s beloved.
When you appreciate the way sport can make people feel, it’s easy to understand how a passionate community has risen up around competitive gaming in recent years. The budding industry is increasingly popular, with annual revenues that reportedly now exceed $500 million, a 25% year on year rise.
Far from nipping around to your friend’s house with an extra controller, eSports is a fully fledged, commercially viable industry with a bright future, and yet it still faces somewhat of a stigma.
Just two years ago ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd encapsulated the kind of attitude that follows the sport, with some derogatory and controversial comments.
“If I am ever forced to cover guys playing video games, I will retire and move to a rural fishing village and sell bait,” the ESPN pundit told his audience, on air, following a Heroes of the Storm broadcast event on ESPN2. “Somebody lock the basement door at mom’s house, and don’t let ’em out.”
Cowherd no longer works for the sports broadcast giant, though it’s doubtful his comments influenced his departure. The idea that eSports is reserved for basement dwelling youths is still prevalent, but as the sport develops and its audience grows, this kind of attitude is increasingly out-dated.
Just last week eSports took another major step towards securing global recognition as a mainstream sport, as the National Basketball Association confirmed their new pro eSports league. Launching in collaboration with 2k publishers Take-Two Interactive, this marks the biggest match-up between an established major league sport and the video game industry.
The NBA announced the move back in February of this year, and they have now confirmed seventeen of their thirty teams will participate in the 2018 league, including globally recognised franchises like the New York Knicks and Miami Heat.
“This is the first step in what promises to be an extraordinary league, bringing together the world’s best gamers and showcasing elite competition on an international stage,” said the league’s Managing Director Brendan Donohue in a statement.
This is the largest deal of its kind to date, but it isn’t the first time an established pro-sports brand has made the leap to eSports. Here in the UK we’ve already seen Premiere League teams taking their first steps into the electronic sphere, with West Ham becoming the first professional team in the UK to sign an eSports player. Sean Allen, a professional eSports competitor, was put on the pay roll to represent the club at FIFA tournaments.
It’s becoming more common for sporting institutions to recognise the commercial opportunities of competitive gaming, and because of this they are beginning to take them seriously.
In Asia, where eSports boasts some of its largest audiences, elite players can now bring home medals for their country with inclusion to the 2022 Asian Games in China.
The Olympic Council of Asia cited the “rapid development and popularity” of eSports amongst the younger generation as a leading factor in their decision to recognise it as a medal sport. To see players counted amongst Asia’s greatest athletes in what has been recognised as one of the largest multi-sport events second only to the Olympics, is a fascinating insight into the growing affirmation of eSports as a respected part of Asian culture.
This recognition of achievement within competitive gaming is an important part of releasing the stigma that follows it. Just last year, London hosted the first ever eSports Industry Awards. The ceremony recognised excellence within the industry and was streamed live to an audience of over 40,000 Twitch viewers. The event acknowledged success across the community from game developers to professional players. It not only recognised their contributions, but celebrated them in style.
So whilst eSports continues to occasionally face somewhat negative attitudes, its cultural significance is being gradually recognised and celebrated both within sports and the games industry.
More interestingly, this recognition will soon extend into mainstream media in a big way. Legendary Pictures announced last year that eSports will be the focus of their upcoming comedy which stars Will Ferrell as an aging professional gamer.
“Although its audience primarily still exists on sites like Twitch and Youtube, eSports are now being covered on networks like ESPN, Fox Sports, and TBS with more than 200 million viewers for the events this year,” say Legendary in a statement about the upcoming film, “The 2016 prize pool for the game DOTA’s championship was over $20 million, and last year’s League of Legends finals had more viewers than the World Series or NBA Finals.”
According to the statement, the film’s jokes come from Will Ferrell’s inability to survive in a competitive sphere dominated by younger players with superior hand-eye co-ordination. So whilst the film might playfully poke fun of the industry, it isn’t pitching eSports as the punchline. That’s important to note.
With blockbuster movies, mainstream pro-sports teams and inclusion in major multi-sport tournaments, eSports will have more exposure than ever. When you pair that with the desire of commercial sponsors and organisers to improve the industry’s image and develop its audience, you can understand why growth estimates are so optimistic.
A Global eSports report from market intelligence specialists Newzoo predicts brand investment will double by 2020, reaching $1.5 billion. That indicates not only the growth in casual and enthusiast audiences, but also the emergence of eSports as a more valuable, investable brand.
As the next five years unfold and we experience greater exposure to competitive gaming across mainstream media, popular opinion of the sport may well evolve more positively.