A New Era of Sports

When the word “sports” is mentioned; activities such as baseball, basketball, or soccer may be among the first thoughts that initially come to mind. To many people, however, the next generation of sports is digital.

A rapidly developing movement known as “eSports,” short for electronic sports, is consuming the attention of Americans and people around the world, and in 2015 generated $325 million in revenue. With such a new, prosperous market quickly developing around the world, companies and colleges are looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve.

While tournaments for video games have been around since their genesis, the modernization of the term “eSports” can be traced to East Asia, gaining traction in the late 1990’s. The games encompassing eSports range from strategy games, card games, first person shooters, and ironically even traditional sports games.

The 2015 world championship for a game known as League of Legends received a viewership of 36 million for the tournament, more viewers than the NBA finals. Another game, Counter-Strike, was able to reach 27 million viewers.  In 2015 games such as Dota 2 paid out over $31 million in prize money to competing teams, League of Legends over $7.5 million, and Counter-Strike over $6 million. By 2019, global revenue for eSports is estimated to surpass $1 billion.

Since most eSports are not usually available through cable or possible to watch on a TV in your home, other than a few televised events on ESPN2, one website has become the premier platform for these tournaments to be televised through: Twitch.tv. In 2014 Amazon acquired this company for an astonishing $970 million, all for a very niche entertainment platform.

Throughout 2015, Twitch was capable of maintaining 550,000 concurrent viewers, with each viewer averaging 421.6 minutes watched per month, almost double that of YouTube. Because of Twitch’s domination in regards to the eSports market, they are almost the exclusive televisor of these professional gaming events. Twitch’s hold on this market has other companies such as YouTube scrambling to get a slice of the pie.

As with most markets capable of generating large sums of money, colleges and universities in the United States are adapting to the market. Institutions such as the University of California Irvine offer eSports teams and even scholarship money to players. Robert Morris University, located in Chicago, offers a specific League of Legends team. The University also offers multiple competitive gaming teams, and scholarships awarded to players cover 50 percent of tuition, room and board.

In 2015, Riot Games, the company behind one of the most recognizable games around the world, hosted a League of Legends tournament that divided the country into four regions: North, South, East, and West, and consisted of over 500 institutions. It was in that tournament that the University of British Columbia beat Robert Morris University in the “2016 Campus Series Finals.”

Most of these tournaments grant large amounts of scholarship money to the winning team, and a tournament earlier this year awarded $100,000 to the University of Washington League of Legends team. Just as in traditional sports, many of these college players become recruited by professional teams, and continue to compete in pro tournaments for large amounts of money.

However, the electronic sports market doesn’t come without critics. Many critics will recoil at the thought of considering these professional gamers “athletes.” One such person is former ESPN broadcaster Colin Cowherd. He’s quoted saying, “I have a belief in life that how you react to criticism defines how accurate it is, and the fact that all these eSports nerds are upset with me, I’m hitting a very, very sensitive spot . . . I am not a friend of eSports. It’s the same with professional wrestling—it’s for booger eaters.”

Though athletes of all sports are criticized at one point or another, it seems as though these eSports competitors will face sizable adversity. Even though most people may find labeling professional video gamers as athletes absurd, in 2013 the United States officially recognized professional eSports players as athletes.

Companies behind games played competitively worked with the U.S. government to grant these players visas in order to get them into the U.S. for tournaments. As a result, professional eSports players can now receive visas to travel and participate in events located in the United States.

Consider the effect that technology has on the societal norms we take for granted; the world around us is rapidly changing, and maybe one day the most popular sports will occur in front of a computer screen.