Move over sports fans: the gamer is in town. The phenomenon of eSports, or professional video gaming, has taken the mainstream by storm. It came from the humble beginnings of the living room and quietly spread through Europe, picked up speed as it became popular in Asia and skyrocketed to the United States.
The media follows eSports tournaments and championships not unlike the Superbowl or World Series at all. Advertisers view eSports as a goldmine and everyone is rushing to purchase or form an eSports franchise. Everything from adventure role-playing games to online poker to war games and even video card games is turning what used to be a hobby or pastime into a career.
The Superbowl vs League of Legends
Just to give you an idea of how ridiculously fast and successful the sport of online gaming has grown, let’s make a little comparison. The very first Superbowl took place in 1967. Only 61,000 or the 94,000 seats were sold, and the ticket price was a mere $12. The game aired on two networks for 51 million viewers, and advertising cost $42,000 for a 30-second spot.
Fifty years later, the 2016 Superbowl sold out 71,088 seats for an average of $4,840 per ticket. There were 167 million viewers watching the game on one network, and the cost of a 30 second commercial was $5 million.
Esports global tournaments began in the early 2000s, and began sporadic televising in Europe and the UK around 2005 and the U.S. in 2007. Statistics and viewership really became more prominent in 2012, in the same year when there was an average of 58 million viewers worldwide watching eSports tournaments and championships.
By 2015, just 3 years later, average tournament viewership increased to 148 million. The League of Legends tournament garnered 334 million viewers over 5 weeks and the championship finale had 34 million viewers. 13,000 fans were in attendance and paid $45-$65 a ticket to watch live video gaming. Advertising is mostly through sponsorship and Coke is one of the leading sponsors. Imagine where this will be with video game developments in 10 years.
Big Brands Take On eSport Franchises
Corporations, individuals and brands from every walk of life are investing in eSports franchises, hoping to gains the most exposure and sponsorship. China’s richest man, Russia’s richest man, the U.S.’s 4th richest man and a slew of American multimillionaires have all invested in esports teams. Corporations involved in franchises include Alibaba, PokerStars, Coca-Cola and TBS. Even a former Lakers star and a current Ram’s lineman have teams.
Most franchises have teams with a variety of disciplines. The Echo Fox franchise, owned by former NBA player Rick Fox, sponsors teams that play Dota 2, Call of Duty and Heroes of the Storm. Fox was turned onto gaming by playing for years with his now 21-year old son. With his acquisition of the franchise, he hired a director of scouting and hopes to add teams of every discipline in the near future.
Some brands are adding exposure to their own online brand by sponsoring an esports franchise.
Recently, one of the world’s largest online poker websites, PokerStars, announced that it was sponsoring Team Liquid, one of the world’s largest esports franchises. The two teamed up to bridge poker and video games, and several of Hearthstone, Starcraft II and League of Legends champions have taken the leap to play and discuss poker on their Twitch channels. Many of them already were poker players, so fusing the two worlds together is expected to be seamless. Daniel Negreanu, the world’s highest earning pro poker player, will also add to the partnership by playing on Team Liquids live streams.
Other corporate sponsorships include Brisk Mate’s (Pepsi/Unilever) sponsorship of OpTic Gaming franchise, HTC’s Cloud9 franchise, and Evil Geniuses whose many sponsors include Monster Energy, Kingston Technology and Sandisk.
Mainstream Media Coverage
In the beginning of the eSports rage, the only way to hear news or see coverage of a tournament or championship was online. A few specialized online news organizations, like Esports Heaven and Esports Nation, provided coverage of the games with commentators giving play-by-play information similar to other sporting events.
With the improvement of bandwidths, internet live streaming technologies and the rise of competitive gaming came the introduction of eSports streaming services. Twitch is currently the leader in eSports streaming, and competitors Hitbox and GamingLive not far behind. YouTube has even revamped their live streaming platform for live eSports games. For the 2015 League of Legends championship game, Twitch had over 1 million viewers tuned in. Twitch reaches over 9.5 million people monthly and 81% of those are American.
In 2014, esports finally reached television when ESPN2 broadcast a half hour special profiling the Dota 2 championship tournament. ESPN went on to broadcast the Heroes of the Storm collegiate tournament in 2015. While it barely reached 0.1 on the Neilsen ratings, ESPN is not giving up yet. There is also a dedicated page on the massively popular ESPN website following esports.
In May of 2016, TBS premiered ELeague, their inaugural eSports competition. The 10-week championship series will be televised and streamed live from Turner Studios in Atlanta. Both networks seem to be ahead of the eSports phenomenon while other broadcasters are watching and waiting.
2016 also saw the announcement of the first 24/7 esport TV channels, both in the U.S. and the UK. UK’s Sky added “Ginx eSports TV” to its lineup that will air live tournaments including Turner’s ELeague. ESL also launched “eSports TV” this May.
From the Living Room to the Arena
After years of eSports championships sharing venues with other sports and other entertainment events, the self-proclaimed first eSports Arena opened in Santa Ana, California in October of 2015. The 15,000 square foot gamer’s paradise can hold 120 PCs on the ground floor and 64 Xboxes on the mezzanine. There will be cameras directed at players and screens for both attendees to watch as well as to stream for home viewers.
Arenas worldwide are reconstructing their floor plans in order to host a gaming championship. eSports have become almost as popular as football or a Miley Cyrus concert. The Royal Opera House in London hosted the 2015 Call of Duty European Regional Championships. The 2015 League of Legends tournament finale was held at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, Germany. The Yongsan ESports Arena in Seoul, Madison Square Garden in New York and the O2 London are just a few that have hosted tournaments.
With the total global market valued at $748 million in 2015 and estimated to reach $1.9 billion by 2018, esports are here to stay. Prize pools are reaching the millions and gamers are beginning to earn a better living from their couch than from their day job. Pro players and teams are reaching celebrity status. Even real athletes are getting involved, possibly for fear of being left behind. Esports are no longer the wave of the future; they are here today. So, go ahead… sit on that couch and start playing.