For a handful of years, eSports were considered nothing more than a blip on the radar. They were popular among diehards, and there were a handful of countries that placed stock in them, but they never really caught on in the United States.
Until they did.
Competitive gaming has emerged as a serious player in the sports industry. What was once a novel, relatively small operation has now become a global draw, including in the US. Where it used to be just a handful of games that captured attention, there are now dozens that are the basis for entire leagues, replete with tournaments that reel in millions of viewers and swathes of sports bettors.
Among the most popular eSports games is League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Hearthstone, Fortnite, and Overwatch. And that’s just to start. Other games and leagues are gaining traction, some of which are modeled after actual sports.
FIFA and NBA 2K are already staples of the industry. Many of the NBA 2K League teams, in fact, are subsidiaries of actual NBA squads. Seventeen NBA franchises put together an eSports team for the league’s inaugural season in 2017. That current number has since increased to 23.
The coronavirus pandemic only figures to increase the number of live sports leagues that follow the NBA’s lead. In the absence of live sporting events, online sportsbooks have turned to simulate games for the NHL, NFL, and MLB, in addition to the NBA.
There’s a good chance these other leagues will decide to open up their own eSports shops in the near future, if only because they are alternative revenue streams and pandemic-proof. In other words: They don’t need to be played in front of a crowd. They can be; that’s the preference. The NBA 2K League has bounced around holding a live-action draft. But when push comes to shove, teammates don’t even need to be in the same vicinity. Games and tournaments can be held remotely and streamed to the masses.
None of this suggests that eSports will ever wage a totally successful assault on the live sports industry. Those remain, king because they’re so profitable. In addition to TV deals, major professional sports teams generate a ton of money from ticket and concession sales, apparel sales, and arena sponsorships.
Indeed, eSports teams can rival a lot of those revenue streams. TV deals aren’t a thing yet, but they technically could be. Apparel sales—eSports teams and players have their own jerseys—are already a thing. Ditto for sponsorships.
At the same time, eSports doesn’t demand as much of a physical presence. Each team doesn’t require its own arena. Tournaments that aren’t held remotely often take place at central locations, with teams all meet up in one place. It won’t be possible for eSports to beat live sports profit margins unless they start filling arenas by the city and adopt a travel schedule not dissimilar to those of traditional sports franchises.
That all sounds like a lot—not to mention improbable. But it would be foolish to write it off entirely. The growing popularity of eSports speaks for itself.
Look no further than the salaries for some of the top players. Many of them have already grossed in the millions of tournament earnings, and salaries for members of a team can get into the high six figures.
Those numbers only figure to mushroom as eSports gain popularity. And believe us, they will continue to gain popularity. The gaming industry is expected to be a $180-billion-dollar-per-year enterprise by 2021. Unless the demand slows way down, the upward trend shouldn’t stop there.
And let’s be honest: It probably isn’t going to slow down. We live in an all-technology-everything society. People are constantly on their mobile devices and laptops, which means that video games—and by extension, eSports—are always just one click away.
That accessibility should play a huge role in the future of eSports, and it is something live sports cannot tout. Sure, we can access games and highlights on our phones. But professional athletes are still viewed as miraculous physical specimens. Not everyone can dunk, or hit a 400-plus-foot home run, or throw a football 40-plus yards. It’s a lot easier for kids to aspire to be a top-shelf eSports player than, say, LeBron James or Cristiano Rinaldo, in large part because you’re not indentured to your physical limitations.
On top of that, eSports has the potential to become a viable alternative to certain live-action sports. Take the NFL. They’re the most popular league in North America. But the younger generation that’s just starting to have children knows about the link between CTE/brain damage and football. Many will end up steering their kids away from football entirely. And though that might just result in more basketball or baseball players, it could also yield more eSports players.
All of that said, eSports is still a ways away from overtaking live sports, if it ends up doing so at all. But the fact that the revenue from certain eSports is even competing with profits from live sports is incredible—and no doubt a sign of its potential. Some have even gone as far as predicting that eSports will overtake mainstream sports in a matter of a few years.
Make no mistake, that’s an ambitious projection. On the flip side, live sports have to figure out a lot—such as how to remain relevant in a cord-cutting era, and how to seem as accessible to the common fan. So even if eSports doesn’t eventually overtake traditional live-action, it will at the very least have an impact on how those live sports are consumed.