The landscape of sports is changing. As viewership of traditional sports leagues and the Olympics continues to decline, the new frontier of esports continues to grow in popularity and revenue.
New sports are continuously being added to the Olympics and last August, the Paris 2024 bid team expressed interest in including esports as a medaling event. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) acknowledged the rapid growth of competitive gaming and released a statement that said, “competitive esports could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.”
American sports leagues have also taken notice and are eager to cash in. The National Hockey League’s first esports tournament is set to begin on March 24 across the US, Europe, and Canada. The National Basketball Association is forming an entire competitive league around the “NBA 2K” video game with 17 teams, including the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors set to participate.
Competitive gaming, or esports, is not new. The competitive activity is as old as video games themselves, although for most of its history gaming competitions were not professionally organized.
But professional leagues and tournaments for games like “Counterstrike,” Starcraft,” and “League of Legends” only arose after the year 2000, however viewership is strong and continues to grow. Blizzard’s new Overwatch League (OWL) draws in 100,000 to 180,000 viewers worldwide for its weekly matches and the “League of Legends” World Championship draws over 70 million viewers worldwide. The “Future-Proofing the Video Game Industry in California” report by the Milken Institute claims that professional esports brought in roughly $660 million dollars in 2017 and projected that number to grow to over $1 billion by 2019. Currently, 17 colleges including UC Irvine, University of Utah, and Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom offer athletic scholarships for competitive gamers.
“There’s a movement that’s been going on for a long time but is only now being recognized,” said Jack Etienne, founder of the Cloud9 esports organization and owner of OWL’s London Spitfire team. “It took things like Riot Games throwing world tournaments at the Staples Center and selling out in under an hour. Twice they’ve done that, and we’ve filled the Bird’s Nest in China. It took people watching these events where traditional venues that most people associate with sports are being completely filled up by a specific demographic of folks: young millennials all buying these tickets that aren’t generally interested in traditional sports events but love esports.”
Given this growth, linear television networks and sports team owners have taken notice of esports’ potential. ESPN, TBS, SyFy, and Telemundo have partnered with competitive gaming platform FACEIT to broadcast esports events. Sports figures such as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Sacramento Kings owner Andy Miller, Shaquille O’Neal, and Alex Rodriguez all have ownership stakes in esports teams. Etienne’s Cloud9 teams recently gained $25 million from investors including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Tesla board members Antonio Gracias and Kimbal Musk, Golden State Warriors co-owner Chamath Palihapitiya, Creative Artist Agency co-founder Michael Ovitz, and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
TBS’s ELEAGUE showcases both esports tournaments and narrative driven shows about the teams and players on Friday nights. Since its foundation in 2016, ELEAGUE has generated over 6 billion minutes of video consumption across digital and linear platforms and doubled its viewership in 2017, reaching over 60 million viewers through broadcast alone. According to ELEAGUE’s packaged linear shows have delivered the seven of the top 10 most–viewed esports shows in 2017 across all of television.
Craig Barry, executive vice president and chief content officer of Turner Sports (Turner is the parent company of TBS) said that while professional esports is still in its infancy, its growing pains mirror those of the NBA and NFL.
“We’re really committed to esports, which is like any other league when it started out and first played to some kind of broadcast medium,” Barry said. “TBS is a portal, right? Esports will always be a native digital property and TBS has become a portal for a casual fan, for someone who knows about, or is interested in, esports but may be intimidated or not used to going to Twitch or engaging with it online.”
While the NHL’s single tournament circuit foray into esports is being approached as a test vehicle, the NBA is fully devoted to it’s esports league. Over 72,000 people participated in tryouts that began in January, which was whittled down to a pool of 250 finalists.That number will be further reduced in April when each of the 17 teams will draft 6 players each. These 102 players will enjoy salaries between $32-$35,000 on a six-month contract with the option to sign endorsement deals on top of paid medical insurance, housing, relocation costs and a retirement plan. The prize pool for the league’s first season is $1 million spread across multiple tournaments.
Given the partnership history between the NBA and Turner Sports, who runs NBA.com and NBA TV and broadcasts NBA games through its TNT channel, it would be natural to expect to see content from the NBA 2K League broadcast through a Turner Sports property. According to Barry, while nothing is certain the conversation between Turner and the NBA is ongoing.
Yet this sentiment of acceptance is not shared by all sports figures and fans. “Physical sports belong in the Olympics. I don’t think esports belong in the Olympics,”said two-time Olympic gold medal Alpine skier Ted Ligety in an interview with Reuters.
While competitive gamers agree that acceptance by fans of traditional sports would be beneficial to their sport, there opinions are divided as to whether that approval is necessary. The London Spitfire’s Jae-Hui “Gesture” Hong remarked that professional esports is just as competitive as any other sport and that through their actions and efforts, they can convince doubters rather than trying to force their opinions to change. Others, like Ohanian, attribute the dissent to generational differences and don’t feel the need to try to convince people. According to Barry, the median age of viewership during an ELEAGUE broadcast is four years younger than any other program in the same 10 p.m. ET time slot across TBS.
Among the prominent existing members in esports, a cult of celebrity similar to that of traditional athletes is already beginning to form, which Ohanian partially attributes to the continuous access fans have to their favorite players provided by social media, where some players have amassed followings of tens or hundreds of thousands of fans across the world.
“As a sports fan, I followed players from my favorite teams but I never really knew them because their world was really only limited to when they were on the field,” Ohanian said. “A powerful, underrated part of esports is that fans have a relationship with the players that is almost 24/7. They can follow them on Twitter or watch them practice on Twitch. Can you imagine if fans bad been this connected to Michael Jordan?”
FACEIT co-founder Michele Attisani said that one of the biggest tools that esports has is its community. As young fans grow up and have children of their own, they will instill that same love in their children resulting in a generational shift of attitudes towards acceptance. While no framework is currently in place to foster young talent or provide defined path to a career in professional esports, Etienne suggested that an “AYSO of esports” could provide that structure.
Groundwork has already been laid for the birth of Olympic esports. Two days before the opening ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the Intel Extreme Masters Pyeongchang “Starcraft II” tournament was held in Korea with the support of the IOC, who broadcasted the event on the Olympic Channel. The Olympic Council of Asia has recognized esports as an official event and will be added for the 2018 Asian Games and incorporated as a full medal sport in 2022. The Asian Games are the second largest multi-sport event outside of the Olympics.
Despite this progress, the IOC is not welcoming competitive gaming with open arms. The IOC would require the creation of an internal governing board for eSports that would set and enforce rules and regulations that ensure compliance with Olympic values. Furthermore, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview that Olympic eSports games would not include “violence, explosions and killing.”
This kind of stipulation would severely limit the sport’s potential and audience, immediately disqualifying some of the most popular games like first-person shooters (FPS) “Counterstrike” and “Overwatch.” Kent Wakeford, co-founder of KSV esports and chief operating officer of OWL’s Seoul Dynasty team, said that while he understands the concern, he does not believe that all FPS games should be lumped together and that the IOC should be mindful of global tastes when determining which games to include. Etienne commented that such statements by the IOC feel “disingenuous” when some Olympic sports “involve real rifles and boxing, which causes actual, physical damage to a person.”
The consensus among both players and officials in competitive gaming is that while it would be a great boon for esports to be accepted on a stage as grand as the Olympics, it’s not essential for the growth and survival of the sport. Viewership of the Olympics has declined over the years, with average viewership down 6% since the Sochi games in 2014.
“The Olympics brings the highest level of competition for sports that maybe don’t have a unifying league, but the way I see it is the Olympics needs eSports more than eSports need the Olympics,” said Houston Outlaws player Jake Lyon during a press conference at the OWL stage one finals. “We’re already building it out ourselves. Esports is so grassroots, so ground up. If the Olympics really wants it, this could happen.”
The Overwatch League currently streams matches weekly on Twitch from Wednesday to Saturday. The draft of the NBA 2K League is set to be televised on April 4 with further details to come as the date approaches.
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