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Global Home Court Advantage: Yes, eSports is a global phenomenon, and no, it’s not going away

Ian Sharpe, CEO of Azubu, will discuss factors that have ignited the passion for eSports beyond major tournaments and occasional ESPN coverage, and where eSports has the greatest opportunities to grow in the near future.

The bright lights of eSports' biggest tournaments capture the imaginations of 120 million fans around the world. It's not difficult to understand why--the excitement of these massive events is as contagious as the enthusiasm generated by a Super Bowl or World Cup, and communities of fans and players have sprung up all around the world alongside traditional sports fandom. Instead of why eSports have become such a compelling spectacle, it is much more important to understand how. How has the industry driven this global interest, and how will it be sustained in the long run?

How have eSports exploded?

Recent events like Heroes of the Dorm on ESPN2 and the eSports issue of the ESPN Magazine have thrust eSports into the public eye, but the competitive gaming scene has been growing rapidly since the birth of the professionalStarCraft scene in South Korea in the early 2000s. The story of StarCraft in Korea is a fascinating story of technical, economical, and cultural factors combining at just the right time (and one worth reading in its own right), but it took a global improvement in technical infrastructure and the creation of digital forums for fans to congregate on equal terms to really nurture eSports outside of this crucible.

Stable internet connections and lightweight, yet feature-rich, streaming platforms are the core pillars on which eSports has built its global fan base. Platforms like Azubu and Twitch have opened the doors to competitive gaming for anyone connected to the internet, particularly in countries like Brazil where technical infrastructure is finally available to connect millions of people to the web for the first time or China, which is emulating the Korean model with an almost ideological zeal. Reliable streaming platforms have become the new digital forums--the destination to connect and share their fandom.

An enormous amount of credit for the ongoing interest in eSports also lies with the casters, analysts, and content creators who, over the course of many years of broadly thankless work, have helped contextualize the digital action and create on-ramps for new fans to get involved. That content has hit a critical mass, heavily aided by the growth of community-focused sites like Reddit and the ease of accessing such content via streams, and it’s now easier than ever to learn everything there is to know about the eSport of your choice. When eSports fans from Belgium to Brazil and Bangkok can watch the same match and talk about it on a shared forum at the same time, the game becomes an international shared experience, especially when that experience is localized into their own language.

How will eSports survive?

There is a cloud of doubt that lingers over the long-term staying power of competitive gaming. Games, like fashion, are prone to going out of style, and it is hard to predict (and more importantly invest in) the continued growth of eSports when it is carried by a handful of titles.

In practice, while the games themselves are undoubtedly important to the eSports scene, the experience of being an eSports fan is unique enough to be durable in the long run. A key ingredient is the accessibility of its top players. Watching the best League of Legends player in the world do his thing is no more than a click away, and streaming platforms are designed to bring communities of fans together. Imagine if Lebron James’ practice sessions were broadcast live on ESPN and he interacted with fans around the world between dunks. That kind of accessibility is a dream for NBA fans, but a reality for eSports enthusiasts.

Another big factor will be the games publishers themselves, who are now committing significant marketing dollars to global tournaments and building features into their game roadmaps that will drive eSports for product cycles to come.

The real staying power of eSports, however, rests in the hands of streaming platforms and forums that can facilitate the rapid growth of a community hungry for tighter bonds with the sport they love. Outside of providing the raw technical infrastructure for fans to watch eSports from anywhere on earth, these central hubs provide an opportunity for the first "SportsCenter of eSports" analog to appear.

eSports all over the world

The eSports fan community continues to expand as the internet becomes more accessible around the world. Beyond creating new games to become permanent fixtures in the competitive circuit, the survival of eSports around the world starts with making eSports content--from professional players, to shoutcasters, to broadcasters, and influencers in the space--as easy to obtain as possible. It becomes more than building good technology for fans to watch eSports and for influencers to reach their fans. As the footprint of eSports grows around the world, keeping an eye on its international health will be the strongest outward sign of competitive gaming’s success.

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