9 min read

The E-Sports Ceiling and How to Break It

I discuss the state of e-sports and my opinions on the ceiling that is limiting its growth. I suggest ways to make e-sports grow and become more approachable from non hardcore gamers.

E-sports today have become a fairly regular past-time for me, my friends, and probably a few million other gamers around the world. Over the past decade e-sports has grown rather quickly around real time strategy games, first person shooters, and fighters. However, it can easily be seen and argued that e-sports currently has a ceiling, and growth has become stagnant. There have been a few opportunities that the e-sport community has taken advantage of such as barcrafting, creating and attending live e-sports events, and online streaming. A few governments around the world have even begun recognizing e-sports players as ‘athletes’. However, e-sports growth does not look like it will ever reach the pinnacle of recognition that non e-sports have.

Why? What are the limiting factors that prevent it from becoming a high budget, high fanbase, sport? Gamers are no longer hiding in their parent’s basement while playing games all day and showering twice a week. In fact gaming is quickly becoming a global past-time. Everybody plays games…on their phone, tablet, console, PC, and their favorite social networking site. Is it the stigma that games rot your brain? No, nobody really believes that anymore. Is it the stigma that people shouldn’t be allowed to earn money while sitting in front of a computer playing games all day? No, that’s been happening since Facebook opened up to the general public. So, what is it?

The most watched sports in the world are:

  1. 3.4 Billion fans – Football (soccer)
  2. 2.5 Billion fans – Cricket
  3. 2.1 Billion fans – Field Hockey
  4. 1 Billion fans – Tennis
  5. 900 Million fans – Volleyball
  6. 900 Million fans – Table Tennis
  7. 500 Million fans – Baseball
  8. 400 Million fans – Golf
  9. 400 Million fans – American Football
  10. 400 Million fans – Basketball

Realistically, I could guess that e-sports will never be as big as football (soccer, or American). I do not expect e-sports to even rise up to be in the top 10. However, I would expect e-sports to be recognizable enough that you could ask a random person on the street to name two e-sports teams or players and they could probably do it. So, how do we get there?

Probably the biggest difficulty that e-sports has is that the games change. Every 2-5 years the currently watched FPS, RTS, or Fighter game changes. This is a very large hurdle to get over. The solution is games that enter the e-sports arena must be games that will have staying power. Developers must be focused on making games that are e-sport compatible, with changes focusing on game balance and small expansions. Currently two of the largest watched e-sports are League of Legends, and Starcraft 2. Both of which are perfect examples of developers focusing on making their title e-sports compatible, maintaining game balance, and releasing small expansions.

While League of Legends is relatively new to the e-sports arena, Starcraft 2 is the sequel to a very popular e-sports title. Starcraft: Brood War, maintained its place as a very competitive e-sports title for 12 years up until the release of Starcraft 2 in 2010. This sets precedence for titles that want to stick around and develop a very strong following. Games that can last 8-12 years and are followed up with a very solid sequel are perfect games that will help e-sports grow.

Another big problem with e-sports is that their presence is purely online. While this is the basis for an e-sport, it does not have to be a crutch. The top 10 sports have large fanbases because they have local teams and players (mostly). If you follow any sport, your home team is likely your favorite. This creates an immediate connection to them. This is a quick change that many e-sports teams could take advantage of. For example, change Team Liquid to NYC Liquid. Teams should create a natural fanbase that includes the local people and gives them a sense of ownership. “This is my team!” I would even guess that a small amount of advertising in NYC with the NYC Liquid logo could add thousands of fans to Team Liquid by making it known that they are the home town team to watch. I recently moved to Orlando, and I see the local Orlando soccer team posters all over downtown…and I want to go see a game, I don’t even watch soccer that much. I just like being a part of something. And rooting for the home team is fun! Having local teams will also create opportunities for groups of fans to come together to watch e-sports more often. Fans of NYC Liquid are more likely to come together to watch the games than if they were just fans of the e-sport, which would also increase the viewer base.

Many e-sports games lack the team component, which could also contribute to the ceiling that e-sports have run into. Many of the largest e-sports are 1-on-1 matches. While 1-on-1 matches can be interesting, the team component tends to create more dynamic team-play because players have strong points and weak points. The team atmosphere also diminishes those players who are powerhouses and creates situations where fans can interact at the screen. “No, don’t put Raspb in! He sucks against Zerg, everybody knows that!” E-sports games need to create modes that support team-play, or potentially refocus to games that rely on team-play. Along with this, games that do focus on team play, such as League of Legends, need to emphasize making it easy to understand who is winning, and why. Games that are intimidating (and I am not saying LoL is), really have to make it so that first time viewers can quickly grasp what is happening. Casters are a major part of this, and emphasis on very high quality casters (not just current or former pro-players) who know everything about the game and can speak clearly and accurately are must haves for the e-sports following to grow.

Production value of e-sports tends to be hit or miss. Occasionally you get a beautiful stream with very highly polished HUD elements that show off exactly the information that is needed. And then you get the very poor connection or the stream without any useful game information on the screen. This is the next focal point that e-sports must get straightened out. Along with the production elements, the content must be top quality as well. This means high value commercials that don’t repeat at every break, casters that have strict schedules, talking points, and know a lot about what is happening in the e-sports world, a top quality stream, and perfect tournament management. A strong e-sports stream, that goes 24 hours a day, like a television station is needed and would set a standard for the e-sports world to follow. As the stream grows more financially stable, getting it put on cable networks would be another step in the right direction for e-sports exposure.

The production value, as well as getting e-sports put on cable networks is one of the reasons why Starcraft is so large in Korea. It is televised and people can watch it from their couch. In Korea, watching Starcraft is as popular as watching poker in the United States. While poker isn’t exactly ESPN material, it is often on ESPN 2. This kind of exposure would quickly increase the viewership of e-sports in the rest of the world.

Money. Getting top quality endorsements, commercials and advertising mid-stream, pay for players, casters, and officials, etc. This is a major problem. We cannot expect respect from the rest of the sporting world, as well as people worldwide if we continue working for nothing. E-sports is currently a work of passion. The people who participate do it because they love it. That is fantastic! And I hope that continues. But now is the time to pay people for their hard work. Tournaments and events should not be working on small budgets. They have to go and find passionate people who are incredibly talented at getting money, and get them to go and find it. E-sports needs to grow financially. Part of this is simply treating e-sports like any other sport. Merchandising needs to blow up. Advertising for teams and events needs to more than triple in budget. Rivalries need to be created so people get passionate about their local teams. The marketing train has to get going out of the station so e-sports events are publicized. ESPN, ABC, FOX, CBS, CNN, everybody needs to be talking about the major events, so they get in the habit of talking about e-sports in general. This will probably stem from a few people working for free at the beginning. And then, once the money starts to flow, these people will get paid! And be able to do more.

As I see it, there are many problems that e-sports are facing that limit its growth. E-sports has to refocus on team based game modes, create local communities of fans that stem from local e-sports teams, increase production value that focuses on consistency, start a global 24 hour e-sports stream, and find a way to get the money flowing. With the right people working in the background that are making the right decisions e-sports could grow to be a large enterprise that could be embraced by the people of the world as a true sport. Who knows, in a hundred years we could have the Electronic Olympics every four years!

I welcome your insights, opinions, questions, and comments about the state of e-sports as a global sport and my opinions. Obviously, these are only my opinions, and I welcome anybody to challenge and critique them.

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