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The Rising Popularity and Future of Esports

Graph Esports

Esports has done nothing but grow year after year. By just about every metric you can think of, esports popularity is expanding at a pace that should make even the most prestigious traditional sports leagues jealous.

And this has been going on for about a decade now, meaning that it’s not a novelty or a flash in the pan. To the contrary, industry analysts see nothing but even more massive growth for esports over the next few years.

What’s causing esports popularity to surge at a time when heavyweight leagues like the NFL and MLB are developing concerns about losing viewers? And what can you expect to see in the future? We’ll cover all of that in this in-depth article. Read on to learn more about how the esports industry got so big in such a short time, and the new developments you can expect in the near future.

The Unprecedented Growth of Esports

Esports popularity has grown steadily since it formally became a thing in the mid-late 1990s. For a more thorough review of its history going all the way back to the first games, check out our feature article on esports history. The most explosive period of growth has been in the 2010s, however. This is the period in which esports went from being a niche interest to having enough of a following to penetrate mainstream culture.

A good frame of reference for the growth of esports is its largest international events (in terms of viewing numbers and prize pool). The heaviest hitters in this area by far are the League of Legends World Championships and The International.

League of Legends Growth

In recent years, the League of Legends World Championships (Worlds) has been the biggest event in esports in terms of spectators, drawing in about 40 to 50 million global viewers in total. That’s about halfway to the usual Super Bowl viewer count and in the neighborhood of many NBA Finals games, and a nice jump from the estimated eight million or so that watched the very first Worlds just a few years prior.

LoL Worlds has the spectator count, but if you want to see stunning prize money numbers, The International is the place to look.

Dota 2 Growth

The International is the annual world championships for Dota 2. When it was founded in 2011, it was huge news that the prize pool would be over one million USD – a record amount for esports at the time. Little did anyone know then how quickly the prize pools would grow in the highest-paid esports games. Annual increases raised The International’s total prize fund to over 20 million in 2018. The prize pool is now bigger than those of the U.S. Open, Daytona 500, and the Tour de France.

That’s impressive growth in its own right, but it’s even more impressive when you consider how The International is funded. Much of the pool comes from the purchase of digital items that are created to promote the event, with 25% of those sales going to prize pool money. The continuing increase in prize money thus not only demonstrates that Dota 2 is maintaining consistent interest nearly a decade in, but that fan interest and financial engagement is actually continuing to grow by significant margins.

Viewership numbers are also an important metric for this event, though they aren’t quite as high as the numbers for LoL Worlds. The International 2018 peaked at just short of 15 million simultaneous viewers during the grand final and had just short of six million tuned in for the first day’s events. Average global viewership was estimated at just over four million people at any given time – and this was in a year that was projected to see a dip in viewership due to a number of very popular players not being present.

While the average viewer count was down slightly from 2017, the peak viewership surged by a little over four million people from the previous year. Put that up to next to the peak of about one million viewers in 2011 and 2012, which was considered a staggeringly huge step forward for esports popularity at the time!

Apples to Oranges?

You can also compare the viewership of major esports events like The International to the finals of other major professional sports, though one has to be careful here, as it is not a fair apples-to-apples comparison. The markets are quite different; for example, if you subtract viewers in China from any given International or LoL World Championship viewership numbers, you’re losing anywhere from about 50 to 80 percent of the total count. This also illustrates one of the greatest strengths of esports, however: natural international integration and a worldwide pool of interest right from the beginning.

The numbers are still beneath those of the “big three” North American professional sports finals, but at this point, The International’s viewership numbers are roughly on par with those of the Stanley Cup Final. At its peak moments, LoL Worlds has about as many people tuning in as the Super Bowl usually has.

Esports Industry Revenue Growth

LoL and Dota 2 offer the most eye-popping numbers for individual esports, but it also helps to take a look at industry revenue at the macro level to get a better sense of how fast things are growing.

The esports industry as a whole was valued at about half a billion USD in 2017 – compare that to a meager five million dollars in 2010. In other words, revenue grew by about 100x in just seven years, a rate just about any other industry out there would kill for. Not only that, but industry experts are predicting esports revenue will go well over a billion dollars in 2019 and crack the two-billion-dollar mark by 2022.

Corporate sponsorships are a central revenue stream, and the big names jumping on the esports bandwagon are an indicator of how fast the market is growing. Name any company that has an interest in the younger male demographic, and it’s very likely they’ve been a paid sponsor of an event, team, player, or stream at some point. The biggest names throwing millions of dollars into the game include Coca-Cola, T-Mobile, Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Audi, Comcast, Mercedes-Benz, and Gillette. That’s just a partial list of the companies that have seen big potential (and made big investments) in esports advertising and partnerships. Corporate sponsorships are key to growing revenue, and the challenge going forward for esports is to build its audience beyond its core of men under the age of 30 so that a wider range of sponsors gets excited about getting on board.

In addition to the corporate sponsorships, you’re also seeing a lot of interest by traditional sports franchises in expanding into esports. A smattering of NBA teams, including the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers, have invested in League of Legends teams. German football club FC Schalke has high-profile LoL and World of Warcraft teams that use its own brand. Teams from other sports have also invested in Overwatch league teams – the NFL’s Rams and Patriots, the NHL’s Flyers, and MLB’s New York Mets, among others.

The Dual Rise of Esports and Streaming

A big part of this explosion in esports popularity can be tied directly to the technological developments in internet video streaming. Streaming allowed esports to quickly find their audiences all over the world.

The creation of Justin.tv in 2007, along with its ensuing development as a service for streaming games and the conversion to Twitch in 2011, is just as big a factor in the rapid gains in esports popularity as any particular games, teams, or players. Not only did these services enable esports broadcasts to sidestep the traditional media gatekeepers, but they helped to foster the unique culture of esports in which spectators expect to be able to talk about matches as they happen without having to leave their viewing platform.

Streaming continues to be the most common way to watch matches, and the esports culture has organized itself around internet-based viewing. Broadcasts of major matches on television networks like ESPN and TBS have definitely helped to grow esports, but these things only became possible after streaming numbers demonstrated how much interest was out there.

What Does the Future Hold for Esports?

Esports popularity is already red hot, but the industry still has room for improvement and also still has some stumbling blocks to overcome. Most analysts still characterize the industry as being in its adolescence; the following are the developments and debates you can expect to see addressed as esports moves into its young adulthood.

More Accessible Games

To date, the esports field has been dominated by games that could be described as being aimed at “hardcore” gamers. That’s certainly not a bad thing, as it’s precisely that development focus that gives games the depth and balance needed to become a viable esport.

We’re beginning to see more “casual” games crack the upper echelons of esports, however. By that we mean games that are relatively easy to learn and inviting to new players. That doesn’t mean that these games aren’t deep and complex at the highest levels of competition, of course. The “battle royale” genre, particularly pop culture sensation Fortnite, is a great example of this. Rocket League, Splatoon, and Super Smash Bros. are also good examples.

Esports Graph

An interesting trend among these more casual games that are managing to build esports popularity and a competitive scene is that they are all a mutation of an existing (and more hardcore) genre. The battle royale games (and Splatoon) are essentially first-person shooters but with new gameplay twists, Smash Bros. is a reimagining of the traditional fighting game, and Rocket League is a riff on more serious sports simulations.

The Rise of Mobile Esports

As the province of hardcore gaming, esports has traditionally been focused on the preferred hardware of hardcore gamers. That means PCs first and foremost, along with top-of-the-line modern gaming consoles.

Mobile esports, or those played on smartphones and tablets, are beginning to carve out some space for themselves. They still aren’t seen much in the West, but several competitive mobile titles have been taking Asian countries by storm as of late (particularly China). Some of the big mobile titles in the region include Clash Royale, Arena of Valor, and Battle of Balls.

Mobile games face significant technological barriers to the level of esports popularity that console and PC games enjoy. They have lower horsepower, smaller amounts of memory, and inherent control and interface difficulties. The titles that are catching on are built around those limitations, however. Clash Royale is basically a simplified RTS with card game elements, and Arena of Valor is a MOBA optimized for a mobile touchscreen interface. Games that are entirely about turn-based strategy are also a great fit for mobile limitations; much of Hearthstone’s user base plays on mobile devices, and at least one World Championship finalist has managed to get in by climbing the ladder while playing exclusively on their phone.

Virtual Reality and Esports

An interesting future direction for esports will be the expansion of it into virtual reality.

Actual viable competitive esports in VR are likely at least a few years away due to hardware and technology limitations. VR integration for audiences is already underway, however. Audiences can use VR to put themselves inside the arena from the comfort of their own home, or in some cases inside the game itself! Augmented reality features, such as heads-up displays with all sorts of granular game information and statistics, are also already present in esports in a number of ways.

The Blockchain and Esports

The blockchain has been one of the hottest topics throughout the business world as of late. Esports blockchain applications are only just beginning to be explored, but there are some very promising potential developments.

For example, the blockchain could provide a relatively simple “provably fair” platform upon which to center both in-game and external activities. Ad-hoc competitions in which all of the participants are at their own remote devices could be arranged easily, and the competitors could be paid out their winnings quickly by way of a cryptocurrency.

Those interested in esports betting can also no doubt see useful blockchain applications in the gambling arena, and platforms such as Unikrn have already started making moves in that direction.

Esports at the Olympics?

There has been a sustained call for esports to make an appearance at the Olympics. The first step was taken in 2018 when several games (such as Hearthstone and League of Legends) were showcased as demonstration sports at the Asian Games.

There are significant barriers to securing an Olympic berth, however. President Thomas Bach of the International Olympic Committee stated in 2018 that the human-on-human violence depicted in many esports was going to be a deal-breaker. There are also questions surrounding the need for the Olympics to license and promote specific games in order to showcase them, and whether the IOC would find the ever-shifting landscape of popular esports games to be acceptable when they may be asked to change up the featured titles in between each competition.

The “Not a Real Sport” Barrier

Though esports has found a significant audience, there is an equally significant body of people that believe it is not a “real sport” and should not be treated as such.

Some of this is a generational issue that will likely resolve itself naturally over time. The less exposure people have had to a broad range of video and computer games, the less likely they are to view them as a sport. Younger generations that have grown up surrounded by games are more familiar and comfortable with the idea. A 2018 Washington Post poll found that 75% of respondents aged 14-21 had either played or watched an esport in the previous year, while only 25% of adults over 30 had done so in their lifetime.

That’s not to say that all gamers are okay with esports being considered a sport, however. Even longtime gamers often fail to see the appeal of esports or find watching particular game types they are not familiar with to be perplexing. In a humorous satirical article, the traditionally gamer-friendly site Something Awful summarized the uninitiated perspective by lampooning the experience of watching The International: “6-10 heroes walked back and forth in very small circles near each other as the screen filled with water, dark holes, pentagrams, and exploding trees. I have no idea who did what or why any of it mattered.”

Hardcore fans might scoff at jokes like that, but they have to understand that that is actually what the game looks like to many casual observers – even those that are quite familiar and comfortable with games. While games of this nature like Dota 2 and League of Legends may have to make do with the audience they already have, new entrants in the esports field will likely be pitched to be more entertaining to a general audience.

The Bright Future of Esports

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the esports phenomenon is that it has experienced all of this growth with a market that is still relatively niche. There is a massive amount of room for expansion. That’s great news for fans, as it is for bettors excited by all the possibilities it brings.