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Mike Tomlinson takes an in-depth look at one industry that has seen a boom despite the pandemic
For the longest time, Esports has been looked at by the general public as a tacked-on extra to the video game world, populated by those too invested in gaming to develop a healthy relationship around what they would call ‘real sports’.
In truth, the esports industry is on track to become a billion-dollar powerhouse, with international level events alongside league based competitive tournaments driving the gaming scene further into a social norm.
Esports are looking to be on the rise at the moment, and with the worldwide cancellation/postponement of athletic sports the esports world is happily welcoming traditional sports fans into its folds – and not for the first time. So, to the questions. What are esports? Why are they popular? And why are they getting more popular?
What Are Esports?
Esports, simply put is a competitive scene based around individual games that garner a huge popularity or following. If you are a traditionalist, then it is easiest to think of the term ‘Esports’ as the equivalent of the blanket term ‘sports’, and of individual games like CS:GO, League of Legends and Fortnite as ‘Football, Basketball or Hockey.’
Now, we could go a little further and start talking about the different genres of games, like shooter, sports, MOBA, and others, and how they are comparable to saying a track sport, a ball sport or an extreme sport – but this might make things too complicated.
Suffice to say esports are popular, with a lot of variety available for the audience both in terms of games available to watch, and the level of players competing.
Sure, its possible to enter tournaments via local groups and communities, but professional-grade esports tournaments featuring gamers who play these games for a living can easily fill out arenas and still have a very healthy following via live streaming at home. In short, the esports popularity and business model now looks incredibly similar to that of traditional sports.
In fact, in 2020 the esports industry as a whole was set to make over 1 Billion USD. An insane amount of money for a competitive sports sector that really only began to gather a true mass following in 2001.
Esports players, as I mentioned, can range from beginner level competitors starting out in their first tournament on an amateur level, all the way through to professional-grade athlete level, complete with pro athlete level pay grades, full sponsorship deals from the likes of mice and keyboard makers, clothing brands and even food companies. Plus, lots of the professional esports teams out there live in specialized training compounds that let them work all week on their training regimens, with professional chefs, personal trainers, and gyms on-site to help them stay in the best shape and mentally alert.
Really, that’s what you need to know about esports – insanely competitive multiplayer games that are played at the same level as professional sports. The thing is, no spectator sport is worth a thing if not for its audience – but who watches esports?
How Popular Are Esports?
Right now we are in the grips of a pandemic that has never been seen in living memory. That means that esports is in a position to become the biggest spectator sport on the planet – but it seems unfair to talk about esports popularity in a vacuum, so first let’s look at esports up to 2019.
The key demographic audience when it comes to esports is males, who make up 75% of the overall audience, with women taking up the remaining 15% – with a significant amount of the viewers being between the ages of 18-34 years old.
In general, that’s who is watching esports from a demographic perspective, with the total number of this audience estimated at being around 458.8 million people in 2019. Realistically, esports are popular worldwide, with a large portion of the worldwide audience coming from China, the USA, and Japan respectively.
A lot of this audience would be interested in attending a live esports event too. How popular are these events you ask? Let’s look at one major event as an example. The League of Legends World Championship could be seen as the Superbowl of the League of Legends tournaments, so let’s compare those. The last Superbowl drew in 98 million viewers worldwide. The League of Legends World Championship drew in 100 million. So, you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that esports is more popular than some of the biggest regular sports in the world on a global scale.
This however, is the pre coronavirus world. Even so, esports have had dedicated stadiums built out to accommodate their massive crowd sizes, held tournaments within already famous and sizable sports stadiums – and even been included in established events such as the Asian Games, cementing the popularity and validity of esports on a global scale. What though, has Coronavirus’ effect been on the state of esports itself?
How Has COVID-19 Affected Esports?
Well, In the current state of things esports are in a very lucky state, as they don’t depend entirely on getting groups of people together in order to play and host the events.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that esports has swerved the entirety of the negative effects associated with Coronavirus. There have in fact been a bunch of cancellations when it comes to esports, like the League of Legends Championship, who suspended their current proceedings indefinitely, or the Dota 2’s Epicentre that got canceled entirely, or the Overwatch League that was forced to move to an online-only model in order to keep the contest going despite the lockdown – a measure that a number of different esports tournament’s have taken to keep their players active and people watching.
However, this spree of cancellation and moving events to an online hemisphere has had a cumulative effect on the esports industry – namely that the projected industry growth that esports was expected to achieve is no longer going to be feasible.
That doesn’t mean esports are any less popular. Rather that the lack of live events and that particular income means that the total income will not reach what was estimated for this year – but that doesn’t have to be entirely negative.
It could mean for example that more people tune into an esports event at home than they would in person, as more events are becoming reliant on an online-only service rather than an in-person, heavily ticketed event. In fact, that boost in viewers could mean that come 2021 (or whenever the lockdown is fully removed), that the projected total industry income for esports reaches a much higher peak than it could of before, thanks to the exposure that esports has received during the lockdown.
What kind of exposure have they had though? The kind that can only come from being the single source of competitive sports in the world at a time when live entertainment is all but non-existent.
Let’s look at basketball as an example. The world of basketball has come to a grinding halt over the past few months, and as a result, NBA fans have had to go without their usual fix. But you know what isn’t on lockdown? 2k Entertainments NBA 2020. That’s right, the most recent version of the NBA’s official video game has become the newest way for fans of basketball to enjoy the sport with their favorite players.
That’s right, the NBA stars themselves have started to get in on esports, taking to the internet to play NBA 2K 2020 with other NBA stars when they can’t get to the court. Players like Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Andre Drummond and Devin Booker (as well as many others) have taken to an online tournament to raise money for Coronavirus relief.
So, you have professional athletes playing together online not just for entertainment, but for a good cause too, meaning that a lot of sports fans are probably going to be tuning in to the tournament to see their fave players – even if they are playing in a completely different way than usual.
Looking to the world of Soccer, EA and Fifa teamed up on Fifa 20 to make the ‘Stay And Play Cup’, a championship that saw professional footballers coming together online to play each other in the name of raising money for Coronavirus. Consider the popularity of soccer all over the world, in South America, Europe, and Africa, and think about the kind of exposure that an online tournament would get just because it had professional athletes playing rather than the regular esports players.
This kind of exposure that esports is getting now should have a few knock-on effects for the future as far as the esports industry is concerned – but are they going to be positive or negative in the long term?
The very first question that you have to ask when it comes to the rising popularity of esports as a result of Coronavirus is; how is the popularity going to rise?
Well, first off, you might see an increase in the number of players. Let’s argue that a large portion of younger football fans watch FIFA’s stay and play cup, and become interested in hosting their own online tournament. They turn to Facebook Gaming Tournaments, or something similar to make their own amateur league, and from that their interest and skills grow. Suddenly, you have a whole new number of players entering into competitive esports (albeit at an amateur level), who may not have been interested before.
Then let’s argue that some of these players have never before considered playing video games, let alone competing in them. After watching the Stay and Play cup, they decide to start playing FIFA, become invested in competing in local tournaments as well as watching esports on a wider scale, and now the esports industry has one more follower who never before could have been considered a part of the video game world.
This point leads me into my next on how esports could grow thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown, and that’s thanks to marketing departments discovering a way to cross-promote their products.
Think it through. Imagine that you work in the marketing department for Addidas. Right now your products aren’t receiving the exposure that they usually do thanks to sports being postponed or canceled at the moment. With that in mind, you want to make sure that the sports stars you pay and provide products to still promote your products in front of a sizable audience comparable to that of regular sports.
Then imagine that those same sports stars suddenly find a way to engage with their audience that isn’t hampered by the Coronavirus; Esports.
Suddenly, those very same sports stars you were worried about being a dead source of profit are now viable again. Esports is now the answer to the sponsor’s audience and not only that, but the esports audience itself compromises a demographic that (at least in part) may not have been properly exposed to your brand in the first place.
In short, some of the audience watching an athlete play an esport won’t be familiar with their work on the pitch – and that means certain products pushed during traditional sports might not be known to that particular consumer. This means that products now have a brand new demographic to get cross-promoted into.
How can this be helpful once coronavirus has died down? Well, those very same sponsors might realize that it isn’t just traditional sports that are worth investing in, but esports too. Sponsors may want to reach a growing, worldwide audience that represents interests outside of traditional sports, and channel money into esports as a brand new way of generating profit.
And, just like that, esports now have a brand new form of funding, one that traditionally has represented a significant part of athletic and sports income. With that, professional esports players will receive a bigger paycheque – making it more appealing for newer players. It will be easier for certain developers, tournament hosts and organizations to receive money for their own stadiums and equipment for future tournaments.
And so on, and so forth – bigger tournaments mean more promotion and bigger audiences, a larger income for esports as a whole leading to bigger projections for the esports industry as a whole.
In short, outside sponsorship and investment means quicker, and more long term growth for the esports industry.
There is one other way that esports could gain further momentum following from coronavirus – through the acceptance of esports as a valid medium by different sports (and other) brands.
I’ve already talked about how sports professionals have been dipping into esports at the moment to not only raise money but keep their fans engaged and entertained. These athletes, their managers, and their teams are most likely going to notice an upsurge in interest regarding their collective brand, as the more personable approach of an esports game or live stream, is much more engaging and appealing to a fan than an interview could potentially be.
Break it down as a team might. Say that an NBA team decides to sign a new player. There is initial kickback from the community saying that the newly drafted player isn’t going to work well with the established team. To dampen these fears, the new player could take to an esports environment (alongside traditional interviews) to play with his new teammates, showcasing their ability to communicate and get along outside of the court – giving nothing away to other teams regarding basketball practice, but showcasing a clear ability to work together and putting confidence back into their fanbase – stimulating ticket, merch and other forms of sales.
This type of thinking could carry these teams along with the esports industry itself higher in terms of overall audience and money generated. Think about how many sports teams make their money; with ticket and merchandise sales. Many teams are constantly looking to reach a brand new market, and the esports audience could be that market.
A pro football player logging into CS:GO or Fortnite, and then playing in a tournament with other notable personalities whilst live streaming on twitch is going to bring in more views both nationally and internationally from a varied audience than any TV interview.
It’s the same logic behind having pro athletes guest star in television shows or on the radio, except its much cheaper and easier to arrange, and you are opening up your brand to an international level of viewability.
To sum up, the fact that esports is on the rise in popularity at the moment should be no surprise to anybody. The same should be said of the forecasted growth of the esports industry – coronavirus has disrupted every aspect of life, with live and populated events being completely hamstrung by the virus.
But, following the end of the Coronavirus (and when its safe to gather again), esports could enjoy a newfound popularity thanks to its position as the major way to enjoy competitive sport at the moment, and how different brands are going to both notice, and explore that opportunity.