An interesting thing has been happening in eSports recently: they’re getting taken seriously.
After years—even decades—of high-level tournaments, thousand-dollar prize payouts turning into million dollar ones, and streaming sites such as Twitch giving tournaments like Evo a broadcast platform to millions of viewers, eSports have found an audience.
The rise of video game streaming as not just a hobby, but a profession, has given video games their own category of celebrities. Audiences and fans follow streamers the same way a traditional sports fan follows a favorite athlete. In turn, the players focus on physical conditioning similarly to a traditional sports icon, as both have the need for stamina in order to endure the demands of the game. The one difference is, many of the gaming icons are “community-made,” meaning their audience is the gaming community. The design of the platform they inhabit inherently reinforces community support through subscriptions and donations, so they are well-known in that “world,” as opposed to the “real world.”
We’re seeing even that change, though, as the gaming communities begin to market their players and form competitions that are, well, major league.
The eSports community already has a rich pool of known talent from which to pull. Unlike their traditional athlete counterparts, these players have not been recruited from high school or college. They have, instead, risen to the top through exposure from streaming, playing local and regional qualifiers, and eventually getting noticed in larger tournaments.
At one time, there was a sense that anyone with enough free time could be a professional gamer. But that was then, and now that, too, is changing.
High schools are developing eSports leagues. Colleges are offering eSports scholarships as well as developing their own teams. Las Vegas has embraced eSports as a new way to attract tourism. Cities are developing eSports arenas to act as stadiums. Traditional sports organizations such as the NBA, NFL and the NCAA are all making eSports leagues that mirror their own content.
One of the biggest catalysts for this explosion in popularity and adoption has been the development of OWL—the Overwatch League. Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter (FPS) that puts emphasis on utilizing unique and diverse character-based skillsets as a team in order to win objectives. The Overwatch League operates much in the same way the NFL or MLB does, except on a global scale.
Twelve cities around the world are now home to their own teams, including Shanghai, Seoul, London, Boston, L.A. and New York. Mainstays of professional sports, such as New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, have invested in and even own some of these teams. Matches are watched in sports bars alongside traditional sports, and fans can get merchandise to represent their favorite teams both in the physical realm and the digital one if they play the game as well. Yes, there are amateurs in esports, too!
Consumers, especially ones that skew younger, are embracing eSports in record numbers. But what happens to fandom, and the sports category as a whole, when its hottest property is digitally native and streams more than it airs on traditional media, such as satellite or broadcast TV?
Esports will fundamentally change the way we interact with sports and athletes, promising a sport that you can watch anywhere, anytime, and even try to compete in yourself, regardless of physical prowess, handicap, age or background. What’s more, it will raise up a new group of sports celebrities.