Words by Oliver Andrews
Sport has certainly changed throughout the years and technology has played a huge role in its progress. However, not many would have backed a completely technology-focused sport to propel itself into the mainstream with the likes of football, tennis and athletics.
Yet here we are in 2016 and competitive video gaming is as popular and lucrative as its long-established sporting counterparts. Professional gamers are even being likened to modern day athletes.
The competitive gaming scene, known as eSports, has and continues to grow at an impressive rate. According to industry intelligence firm, SuperData, the sport is already worth £529 million and is expecting to rise to £1.34 billion within the next two years. This growth would put eSports in the same sphere as Canadian Hockey (£1.38 billion) and worth nearly half the annual worldwide revenue of the Barclays Premier League (£3.3 billion).
These figures are staggering when you consider the humble beginnings of eSports. The first known eSports tournament took place at Stanford University in 1972. Competitors pit themselves against each other in a primitive video game called ‘Spacewar!’ to win a grand prize of a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Fast-forward 45 years and a magazine subscription doesn't really compare with the enormous £12.6 million prize pool that was on offer at last year’s Dota 2 Championship.
eSports rapid rise to prominence over the past decade is mainly due to huge spike in the number of competitors and tournaments. For example, at the turn of the millennium there were just 10 worldwide tournaments, by 2010 this number has risen to 260.
The potential of eSports has also caught the attention of brands. £408 million was generated in sponsorships by the end of last year, that’s just 25% less than the sponsorship total of the NBA in 2015. Broadcasters even think it’s a big deal. Amazon acquired video game streaming platform Twitch.tv for £585 million in 2014 and the likes of ESPN and Sky have begun their own coverage of tournaments as well as gambling options with their betting outlets.
The appeal and the rapid rise of eSports can be attributed to increasing popularity in gaming and the sheer amount of gaming platforms available and the ease of access to these items. Furthermore anyone can become a professional gamer, and some would argue that this theory can be applied to traditional sports but in this case mental prowess takes precedent over physical attributes. Finally it is a matter of practice. Gamers invest a huge amount of time into gaming with many believing they are on par with those at the elite level of physical sport.
The accessibility of gaming then opens up a huge market of players who are also spectators. They are all drawn to the fact that eSports are not constrained to limited possibilities found in other sports. Games can be whatever you want; you could watch small scale battles in a fantasy setting in the likes of Dota 2 or get involved in a realistic simulation based sports game like the FIFA franchise. There are unlimited prospects to be found in eSports and whether you are watching or playing, the combination of escapism, tension and drama makes it a constant thrill-ride.
The video game industry now makes over double the revenue of the film industry, and has over a billion players. The eSports business has only managed to get a fraction of this audience in the short time it has been around, but with more publicity and investment the market could be colossal.
2016 will be a big year for eSports. Canada, Russia and Sweden have all invested over £130 million in eSports over the past year and partnerships in the UK have seen the opening of the first eSports arena. Despite not matching up others in the industry for many years, competitive gaming is rapidly catching up. The industry could easily surpass long-established sports in terms of popularity and revenue in years to come. It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny eSports centre stage now, regardless of the controversy surrounding its labelling as a ‘sport’ and its competitors as ‘athletes’.