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E-Sports, Real Sports?

Discussing how E-Sports will likely be mainstream in the near future, based on previous E-Sports events numbers, the accessibility of competitive video games, and the unique position video games hold in terms of player/fan interaction.

          As video games are becoming more mainstream, the word "E-Sports", or competitive video gaming, is thrown around more and more often. Typically, the average American associates sports to an activity that has rules and requires athleticism and skill, video games being the last thing they might list as meeting that criteria. Recently, however, games like League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive and more have been growing ever popular thanks to their incredible competitive depth, and though lacking the athleticism aspect, people put as much time into practicing and refining their skills in these games as they might in any other sport. Though not everyone may accept "being good at a particular video game" as something valid to put on a résumé, it's hard to ignore the competitive video game industry when one hears about video game tournaments being held for millions of dollars with millions of viewers and young individuals making 6-figure salaries by simply broadcasting their gameplay online. The industry is only getting bigger and bigger as video gaming is becoming more and more mainstream, and it's getting increasingly harder to say that one is wasting their life playing video games when they could very well become a professional in E-Sports if they are good enough. Pretty soon, E-Sports will be accepted in mainstream culture because of the accessibility of competitive video games, the unique position video games have in terms of player/professional interaction, the sheer number of people who follow competitive video gaming, and the fact that video gaming is on its way to be valued as a legitimate entertainment medium in the near future.

            Competitive video gaming is particularly interesting in that it is easily accessible to virtually anyone. There is no physical requirement other than having an interest in a game and a system to play it on. Take League of Legends for example. League of Legends is competitive game where the players takes control of a single champion, or character, and works in a team of 5 to compete against another team of 5, strengthening their character throughout the game by killing periodically spawning monsters and members of the opposing team to ultimately try to bring down the other team's base and win the game. It is the most played video game in the world, with over 32 million active monthly players, 70 million registered accounts, and up to 5 million concurrent players at any given time .

League of Legends has logged more play hours than the next 3 most played games combined (Usher, 2012).

The main reason as to why League of Legends has seen so much success is it's free-to-play model. Anyone can download the game for free and play as much as they want, which means people have ample time to hone their skills and get good at the game. There's no need to go out and buy any equipment necessary like in a traditional sport, and a  matchmaking system sets players up in teams so always are able to find a match to play. This accessibility might be especially appealing to someone who doesn't play competitive video games or someone who just doesn't play video games at all. As people try the game, they find out that it's full of depth and complexity that requires a lot of practice and skill in order to fully get the most of the game, but as they do, they can get invested in the game and play competitively. League of Legends and other similar games are growing bigger and bigger each day because of their accessibility, and it only draws more people to understand that competitive video gaming can take an equal amount of skill and practice as any traditional sport.

            E-Sports is in a very interesting position in the world as it uses technology to host a competitive environment, which means that the people who are professionals in the E-Sports have a unique ability to interact with their fans much more closely than any physical sport. Players can livestream their gameplay on streaming platforms like Twitch TV to provide real-time gameplay and commentary to those who watch. A player can set up a channel on a streaming website and have it notify their followers whenever they start live streaming, and viewers can chat with other viewers or even the player himself/herself. Often times, the most popular players get upwards of 20,000 viewers every time they turn on their streams, broadcasting their practices or just casual play at any time and at any location. Not only does this allow professional players  to personally connect with their fans by answering questions in the chat and playing games with their fans, but it allows people to feel more connected to the E-Sports scene as a whole. One example in particular, was when two League of Legends players, Mike "Wickd" Petersen and Paul "sOAZ" Boyer were neck and neck in public voting as to who should play in the League Championship Series All-Star Game being held in May 2013 in Shanghai, China. To settle the tie, they announced that they would be playing a 1-on-1 duel and that people should vote to send the winner of that duel. Petersen broadcast the event on his personal livestream and a peak of 137,769 viewers tuned in to see the two battle it out .

The 1-on-1 duel that would decide who went the All-Star game. Petersen ended up losing the duel but won the hearts of many.

 Imagine a scenario where a basketball player invited 137,769 people to their backyard to watch them play a 1-on-1 match with someone else. Livestreaming this battle online allowed fans to really see how they affect the professional scene and sparked more interest in the All-Star Game held later that year.  The fact that competitive gaming is on technology allows some interesting avenues of player-fan interaction unique to E-Sports that can't be replicated by any physical sport, and helps spread E-Sports content outside of major productions.

            Speaking of major productions, the sheer numbers that large E-Sports tournaments bring only reenforce the fact that competitive video gaming is on the rise in the coming future. Tournaments are held all the time with sold-out stadiums and online viewerships in the millions. In 2011, the Season 1 World Championships for League of Legends was held in Sweden with a small crowd consisting of mainly the players playing and Riot Games staff.  The total prize pool was $100,000, $50,000 of which going to the 1st place winner. Next year, the Season 2 World Championship was held in USC's Galen Center, boasting a $2 million prize pool, with $1 million going to the winner. Over 8,000 people were in attendance. The following year, the Season 3 World Championship was held in LA's Staples Center, with tickets selling out in an hour. Over 13,000 people were in attendance and a record-breaking 32 million unique viewers tuned in to watch the world finals at the Staples Center, with a peak of 8.5 million viewers watching at the same time. The Season 4 World Champions held in 2014 was at the Sangam Stadium in South Korea, selling out over 40,000 seats and having 27 million people tune in to watch the world finals.

Sangam Stadium, where over 40,000 people came together to watch the League of Legends Season 4 World Championship.

To put that in perspective, more people watched the Season 4 World Champions final than the 2014 NBA Finals held that year. It's clear that viewerships for competitive E-Sports are rivaling those of professional sports, and prize pools for these events are no joke as well. Another game, Dota 2, similarly holds its world finals every year, and while not bringing as many viewers as League of Legends, boasts a prize pools that are quite hard to ignore just for playing video games. In 2011 and 2012, the first two Internationals, or Dota 2 world finals, boasted 1st place prize pools of $1 million to the winners of those events. In 2013, the 1st place prize pool was bumped up to $1.4 million. In 2014, the 1st place prize pool was again bumped up to $5 million dollars to the winner of the event thanks to a total prize pool of over $10 million dollars that was mostly crowdfunded by followers of the game.

A screenshot of the Dota 2 International 4 prize pool counter, just before it reached the $5 million dollar for 1st place mark. $2.50 dollars go to the prize pool for each $10 "Compendium" purchased, an in game item that allowed you to track stats of the professional players that would be playing in the finals.

Split among 5 people, Newbee Gaming, the winners of The International 4, became instant millionaires, just by simply "playing a video game." Hearing something like that is simply too hard to ignore, and with this year's Dota 2 Internationals already reporting a $5 million dollar total prize pool in just 6 days of crowdfunding, it's evident that these types of competitive video games are going to only to continue to have prize pools and viewerships that rival and surpass traditional sports.

            Taking a step back from statistics, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman make an interesting note in their book, The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. They state that games can be viewed as "[reflecting] the values of the society in which they are played because they are part of the fabric of that society". When it comes down to it, how things like E-Sports and competitive gaming are perceived might just come down to an issue of time and what people value as entertainment mediums. Video games are still relatively new when compared to other forms of entertainment. Movies and books are generally seen as mediums worthy of artistic exploration, but video games always seem to be written off as wastes of time, often from older generations who didn't grow up with video games. Originally, things like movies and television were also seen as wastes of times when people could be going out and interacting with people in the real world instead of sitting in front of a screen all day, but now, they are clearly respected mediums of artistic expression. Not to say that real-life interaction shouldn't be valued anymore, but as the previous generation is dying out,  the newer generation is accepting video games into their lives as a legitimate entertainment medium. More and more people these days growing up with video games: In a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, they found that 97% of young people between the ages of 12-17 play some type of video games. Video games of all type are becoming a part of people's everyday lives much like movies and television did back when they came out. People might only see a different aspect of video games like competitive video gaming as legitimate when video games themselves are valued in society. It will take time to see when and if video gaming, and by extension, E-Sports, is considered to  have merit, but with gaming becoming more mainstream, there definitely is an upwards trend that points to seeing E-Sports as accepted in the near future.

            In this current day and age, it's getting harder and harder to write off video games merely a waste of time anymore. Almost everyone is playing video games nowadays, and competitive games are getting increasingly easier to access and play. Combined with the fact that E-Sports tournaments are being held for millions of dollars and drawing viewerships in the tens of millions, and the fact that the players in the these tournaments can directly interact with their fans through streaming, something no other sport has, the appeal of competitive video games is only growing with each passing day. Though video games may not be socially accepted at this moment, given some time, we should see video games and competitive E-Sports solidified as a legitimate entertainment medium soon. I'll still be rooting for my favorite gaming teams in the future now and I'm sure many others will be as well.

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