The first modern esports competition took place in May 1997 when E3, the annual gaming expo, hosted a Quake tournament with John Carmack’s 1987 Ferrari as the prize. There were others before it: Nintendo had hosted its own World Championship events in the early ’90s, where it handed out televisions, $10,000 savings bonds, and small cars worth about the same.
Fast-forward to 2015. The biggest esports tournament of the year hands out more than $18 million in cash prizes to its competitors. Each member of the winning team, playing a game called Dota 2, becomes an overnight millionaire. Over 4 million viewers tuned in to watch the final. And that number pales in comparison to the more than 32 million who followed the race for the Summoner’s Cup in another esport, League of Legends.
These aren’t a few local gaming phenoms who’ve spent too many hours with an NES controller in hand. These competitors train day in, day out, like any other athletes. They’re backed by rich organizations and sponsored by billion-dollar companies. Their exploits play out not in dusty ballrooms but in major stadiums and arenas. The game has changed, and there’s no going back.
It’s already passé to turn your nose up at social media or smartphones, and the same will soon be true for esports. Digital culture has changed how live around the world: how we communicate, how we manage and entertain ourselves. Now, the digital revolution is changing sports.
Driving chariots around the Coliseum might seem a far cry from the frenzied late-night button-mashing in your den. It’s not.
From the first Olympics in ancient Greece to Rome’s gladiatorial arenas to a game of Ōllamaliztli in Mesoamerica, we’ve always loved watching other people compete. Driving chariots around the Coliseum might seem a far cry from the frenzied late-night button-mashing in your den. It’s not.
Sure, comparing sports like football and basketball to popular video games like Counter-Strike or League of Legends might seem silly. But they’re not so different. Ultimately, they’re all made-up games based on an arbitrary set of rules that are dictated within a particular venue for competition. The point isn’t the presence or lack of physicality. It’s in allowing us to challenge one another.
Nowadays, it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about business. No commodity is hotter in the modern media landscape than sports. In an era of DVR and DVDs, where commercials can be skipped with the click of a button, live content is king. And no media product is better suited for live consumption than sports. Fans want to be part of moments as they unfold, not a few days later. That adds immense value to live sports programming in the eyes of media broadcasters. The NFL will cumulatively collect $27 billion by the end of the 2022 season with its current network broadcasting contracts with media companies including CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox, and NBC Universal.
This isn’t limited to football. Across the world, sporting leagues are making bank with pricey contracts. It’s something that esports stands to benefit from as much as any other competitive avenue.
By the end of 2014, Twitch users were consuming more than 16 billion minutes of live and original content on a monthly basis.
In fact, esports may well be on the cutting edge of the future of sports broadcasts. With a few exceptions, competitive gaming has always lived exclusively on the Internet. Esports broadcasting has evolved alongside online streaming platforms. The biggest of these, Twitch, launched as a direct result of game streaming’s sudden popularity.
Once a mere spinoff of the groundbreaking streaming platform Justin.tv, Twitch soon found its niche among gamers interested in sharing their favorite hobby with other like-minded users. Twitch surpassed Justin.tv in popularity after only two years. The company has since grown into an online powerhouse, notably being gobbled up by Amazon for $970 million. The ever-growing streaming platform serves more than 100 million unique viewers per month. By the end of 2014, those users were consuming more than 16 billion minutes of live and original content on a monthly basis. And the foundation of that success is esports.
For all of its money, the NFL is struggling to acclimate itself to the dawning era of online streaming. Streaming content is the unquestioned future, and while many of the biggest players in traditionally televised sports struggle to understand it, the esports industry has already mastered it.
In fact, esports and Twitch’s successes have come completely independent of the traditional media landscape. That’s led some in esports to actively campaign against the industry expanding to traditional channels. Sure, some longtime proponents of competitive gaming might crave vindication from the mainstream, like when ESPN broadcast a collegiate Heroes of the Storm tournament earlier this month. But what’s the long-term benefit? Esports are at the cutting edge of the future of broadcasting. So why step backward just to be seen in the same light as other sports?
Esports and Twitch’s success have come completely independent of the traditional media landscape.
It’s a difficult question. Esports have proven they don’t need the backing of companies like ESPN to grow and to succeed. Those companies might offer a temporary boost in public profile, but the issue of legitimacy is one that time is already taking care of.
Twenty years ago, playing Super Mario Bros. was part of a niche culture. If you were a gamer then, society saw you as either a pitiable, nerdy kid or a hopelessly immature adult. Today, Mario is the equivalent of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, or Kermit the Frog—a cultural icon whose image and presence translates across all demographics. And gaming and geek culture have steadily creeped into the mainstream.
Competitive gaming is traveling down the same road, only it has the benefit of speedily moving over the highways Mario and the rest of the gaming industry laid down. The teenagers who were buying up copies of Halo and God of War a decade ago are now young adults spending their weekends taking in League of Legends matches and their nights watching games of Counter-Strike. It’s a cycle that will continue until esports are understood by far more people than are confused by them.
There is great potential at the intersection of digital and sporting cultures. Every day, the esports industry grows larger, more mature, and more profitable.For competitive gaming, it’s always been a matter of time. That time is now.
Illustration by J. Longo