The Esports Evolution

Trends can sometimes take time to pick up momentum. Most people may not realize this since a popular trend will just suddenly appear to engage us. But most often a trend may have been popular long before it reached a larger audience. One such element which has been germinating for years is esports. Built originally on the competitive play found in Counter-Strike and StarCraft, esports has slowly grown through the years. Now at the precipice of breaking through to its largest audience ever, esports is ready for what could be the next stage of evolution.

A SLOW RISE

To core video game players esports isn’t a new trend at all. While most players may not partake in esports, either casually or professionally, a portion of the audience is aware of it. Now with the continued popularity in competitive gaming mainstream business owners are beginning to take note of esports.

Despite its popularity, the immediate reach of gaming can sometimes be overestimated by players.  Yes, the games industry produces billions in yearly revenue yet there’s still a stigma at times attached to core gaming. If asked what Katamari Damacy is someone may think they’re being sworn at in a foreign language. But if you ask a casual Madden player what Counter-Strike or Overwatch is then they may know the basics of those properties.  It’s this audience and existing awareness that major companies are beginning to tap into a potential esports boom.

ESPORTS EXPANSION

Earlier this year several European football clubs ranging from West Ham United, Schalke, and Valencia acquired notable esports talent. The teams acquired by those pro clubs included League of Legends players and even a professional FIFA game player. Now the trend has arrived domestically as two NBA teams are going from the hardcourt to the world of polygons.

Kicking things off in the USA were the Philadelphia 76ers who acquired Apex Gaming and Team Dignitas, both of whom specialize in League of Legends. The always savvy businessman and NBA legend Magic Johnson also acquired Team Liquid as part of a deal with the Washington Wizards basketball team.  Joining the fray next was Stephen Kaplan, owner/vice chairman of the Memphis Grizzlies. Kaplan already had a stake in The Immortals, but recently upped his investment to join the company’s board.

This marks the first time that major American sports organizations have bought controlling stakes in esports teams and it certainly won’t be the last.

THE PATH TO SOMEPLACE

What’s interesting about this situation is where it will lead not just esports, but players as well.  Now after airing on cable networks, esports is receiving a higher level of interest from audiences and investors.

But where will all this newfound coverage and money lead esports? For years things seemed to move on well enough with major teams getting plenty of sponsorship deals to earn a living. Could we see bigger battles between esports teams and their controlling parties over landing a player on their team? Will multi-million dollar signing bonuses become a thing for esport players?  However, could this whole esports trend simply blow up at some point due to a general lack of interest both from players and folks who commonly watch Monday Night Football?

WINNING THE PEOPLE OVER

We’ve already seen a slight distaste for esports from folks in the mainstream demo such as Colin Cowherd. And to a degree, some players may even be wary of watching esports out of sheer jealousy over those netting huge pay days for playing games. Mainstream audiences won’t look at a tween Overwatch player the same way as an Olympic athlete if they don’t have a clue what’s going on.

EVO 2016 Stage

Cable networks are currently doing a duel task of satisfying the hunger for esports and creating new viewers. The TBS ELeague broadcast netted 271,000 viewers, while ESPN’s airing of EVO 2016 was watched by 201,000 viewers.  Clearly, there’s a small audience right now, but it’s note quite at the level to match ratings for non-pro sports. And with the pertinence and reach of services like Twitch and online channels, is there even a point for networks to heavily push esports on traditional platforms? After all, regular TV is becoming an antiquated commodity due to streaming services and chord cutting in younger demographics.

A sense of legitimacy may abound due to esports airing on ESPN, but there’s skepticism as well. Likely due to generational gaps, this could also be because of how ESPN reports on WWE news as well. Will people look at esports as a gimmick like wrestling or will they be able to differentiate between the two?  If player personalities shine and established games such as Mortal Kombat are played that could be pivotal in winning over larger audiences.  After all, who doesn’t like a bit of smack talk during an intense fight?

BILLIONAIRE MONEY

If not groomed with enough time the esports boom could be a mere fad. To someone who’s a multi-millionaire or billionaire, they may grow tired of something quickly if it the results aren’t good.  So far we haven’t seen such a thing happen, though it is a possibility down the road.

Entrepreneurs such as Mark Cuban, Shaquille O’Neal, and Peter Guber are some of the people going all-in on esports. Even former NBA player Rick Fox has become a huge proponent of esports during the past year. Under businessmen like those, there should be room for growth, but global expectations for success will be high.

With how esports is a growing business trend it’ll be interesting to see who enters the fray next. Nike, Adidas, Under Armour or even Michael Jordan would make sense given their scope and marketability. But again, what’s the immediate benefit for esports as a movement moving forward? Obviously, players will get nice pay bumps and events may be better conducted. But will that be it?  UFC fighters have asked if they will a portion of the $4 billion that was received as part of the UFC acquisition by WME/IMG.  Since esports players are in the position of athletes we could see the same situation surface if the money isn’t flowing towards them.

MAINSTREAM EDUCATING

Another element that will be interesting to see developed is the luster of esports. Will the industry be capable of surviving on several key games such as Overwatch, League of Legends, and Counter-Strike? Things seem to have gone well enough for the past few years, albeit on a less public stage. There’s the possibility newer games could freshen things since developers are now making titles with esports in mind.

Esports

But in the eyes of mainstream consumers will it be interesting to see League of Legends played non-stop?  Like any new sport, mainstream audiences new to be properly educated on the finer points of esports.  It’s through this education that some sort of emotional investment may be made and return viewership can be obtained.

It should be interesting to see how esports moves forward since it obviously won’t disappear anytime soon. Time will tell though if esports flourishes on a large scale and people begin looking up to game players as their new heroes.

Ian Fisher
A Chicago native, I'm a six year veteran of the game press industry with a deep passion for smaller indie games and all things Sony.

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