You may not know it yet, but eSports are rapidly becoming one of the highest-paying and newest things for people to want to watch and participate in. Back in 2015, the prize pool for The International Dota 2 Championship was $18 million. Interestingly, the first-known and recorded form of competitive gaming was on October 19th in 1972, where a group of students from the Stanford University in North America were competing in “intergalactic spacewar Olympics”, in order to win a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. So, how did we get from there, to having massively wealthy corporations vying to sponsor these international events with money to make any gamer drool?
eSports, despite being a more recent form of media entertainment, is not an inherently brand-new phenomenon. Both the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League) and the ESL (Electronic Sports League) were started in 1997, and have seen exponential growth since their inception. According to the ESL themselves and their figures, the number of registered gamers with them grew to one million in their first eight years, before expanding to four million by 2013. As a community, ESL was present in 46 different countries, with around 30,000 gamers joining every single month.
The first self-dubbed, “professional video-gamer” was Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, and he was the first to earn some serious cash for playing games as a part of the CPL and ESL communities. Earning $350,000 between 2000, and 2005, Wendel then went on to win the biggest cash prize then available in gaming, a paltry $500,000 at the CPL World Tour Finals, which were sponsored by the likes of Intel, Samsung, and Tylenol.
The weekend of the 3rd – 4th November 2017 played host to the Overwatch World Cup, in which Team UK made it to the final eight teams out of the 32 that started the qualifiers, before losing to Sweden in the quarter finals. Hosted at BlizzCon 2017 in Anaheim, California, the arena was flooded with fans who were not just expectant for the game and it’s competitive playing, but also new trailers for the developer’s other projects, such as the ongoing massively multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. With the Overwatch World Cup however, in stark contrast to tournaments such as The Dota 2 International and the Rocket League Championships, doesn’t have a prize fund for the winning team to compete for. Teams that make it to the finals will have their trip to BlizzCon paid for, and receive loot bags for participating. Obviously, the winning team takes all the plaudits from fans, game analysts and critics, and will forever have their names engraved in history as Overwatch World Cup winners.
It’s not just conventions or games themselves that are broadcasting eSports and giving it a platform though. Back in August of this year, television channel SyFy chose to air the grand finals of the Rocket League Championships. Admittedly, the showing was broadcast very late into the night, verging on the early hours of the following morning, but to have made the jump to television is surely a sign of things to come for eSports. This was most likely in part due to the time difference between the UK and America, where the championships are often broadcast from. To have seen a game I play personally on the television screen spoke to me as a fan – I was now a part of something bigger than myself, supporting the broadcasting and playing of a video game on national television is huge for the industry.
Another place that has broadcast gaming championships are sports channels, such as BT and Eurosport. Fifa has become such an international sport that clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain have made media events of signing Fifa players to contracts, and the eSports Fifa World Cup has been broadcast on television channels during the hours of the day, where people could more easily view it.
So, what are the forces behind this growth? Well, it could be that there a plethora of factors which have contributed to this rise in interest in eSports, including the increase of platforms on which to watch eSports, and the surge in “Geek Pride”. The central reason though, is undoubtedly the development of streaming platforms, such as Twitch, where audiences can tune in to see their favourite players, or Youtubers, play the games they love. The most common form of games streamed or play competitively on streaming services like Twitch, are intense skirmishes featuring small teams of 5 or 6, like Counter-Strike or Overwatch, as previously mentioned. One of the most appealing aspects of Twitch is that the audience is able to send real-time messages and questions to the players, interacting with them in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Amazon actually acquired the streaming service Twitch for $970 million, which will have undoubtedly ploughed more money into the service, in the hope that it will make it more accessible for fans, and those wanting to learn more about the eSports industry. In a survey taken by Newzoo Global eSports Audience Model, about 40% of viewers on Twitch don’t play the games that they’re watching, but simply use Twitch as a viewing platform to watch the players and the competitive nature of those involved. According to a 2014 report by Twitch, there were 16 billion minutes viewed by 100 million unique viewers, with 1.5 million unique streamers every month.
In short, the gaming and eSports industry is growing, and will continue to grow as new games are released which offer gamers chances to get into the competitive scene. As eSports continue to grow, and attempt to make the transition to national television, will the competitive nature be enough to attract new viewing figures to keep it there? Or is the current phenomenon of eSports just that?