If you’re old enough to remember a time called the 1990s then you might also recall the Channel4 TV series GamesMaster. Presented originally by reformed stand-up Dominic Diamond, this celebration of video games and gaming technology was responsible for adding a new string to the bow of Patrick Moore, the revered astronomer who, as the titular GM, appeared each week as a vast disembodied head.
Fun if ultimately frivolous, GamesMaster also played host to such celebrity guests as British pro wrestling icon Kendo Nagasaki and Olympic legend Linford Christie. And then, every once in a while, very remarkable people indeed would feature – men, usually of Japanese origin, who played video games for a living.
Fast forward 20+ years and every young boy’s fantasy is now a reality. eSports – a name seemingly designed to anger sub-editors the world over – is not only set to fuel a betting market worth $23 billion but has become so respectable that various nation’s Olympic committees are petitioning to have the pastime added to the Summer Games programme.
So why such rapid evolution? According to business journalist Warren Hadley it stems from a generation realising that what they’d always wanted was well within their grasp.
“The seeds for rapid growth were sown the first moment money and eSports collided,” Hadley explains. “That moment itself is hard to pinpoint but it the 1990 Nintendo World Championship is a handy landmark. Just think – all those people who were too shy, too socially awkward, too unathletic to excel in other fields suddenly had the chance to be recognised for being uniquely skilled. So what if they resembled the World of Warcraft guy in South Park – which is how I’m convinced most non-gaming folk see gaming people – a combination of memory, reflex and intelligence meant you could become a world champion without even leaving your armchair.
“And now, with online, it’s even easier. You don’t have to head down to the NEC or wherever to show you’ve got the chops; you can just logon. What’s more, if you’re really good, not only can you win big money but guys like Unikrn will sponsor you to represent them in tournaments. Thanks to the FIFA boom, you’ve even got Premier League sides splashing out six-figures sums on people to rep for the team in online competition. How cool must that be if you were the guy who was always picked last for football at school!?”
As this infographic from LBS illustrates the money sloshing around eSports isn’t restricted winnings, sponsorship and signing bonuses. For around the same time Patrick Moore was pitting the members of East 17 against one another, a bunch of ne’er-do-wells in Antigua were brewing up a practice that would revolutionise countless corners of the online world.
A niche business at first, online betting now supports a market worth in the region of $56 billion. And as it’s shaken up sports betting per se so it’s also dramatically impacted upon eSports.
This development hasn’t been welcomed by all – there will always be people who considered gambling to be a corrupting force. In terms of making eSports more socially acceptable, Warren Hadley’s convinced that the eSports-online betting confluence has been hugely important.
“While online betting means that the person who would never set foot in a bookies is now free to gamble so the fact that it’s been embraced by the eSports industry means that the person who would be mortified if anyone discovered they were betting on, say, League Of Legends need no longer feel so guilty about their guilty pleasure.
“Removing the guilt from guilty pleasures actually touches every aspect of eSports. That kid who wouldn’t admit to his friends that he liked GamesMaster for fear of being labelled a ‘nerd’ can now enjoy the wealth and prestige that was once only the province of ‘bona fide’ sports stars and celebs. And their elder brother – the guy who bullied them mercilessly about being a nerd – he’s laying bets on a Counter-Strike tournament in South Korea.”
Yes, the ne’er-do-wells have done very well for themselves. What Patrick Moore would make of it all is anyone’s guess, although you can be certain his permanently-raised eyebrow would have been that little bit higher than usual.