Video games have become an integral part of our lives, whether you identify as a gamer not. You’ve probably played a game or two, whether on your smartphone or some other platform. Beyond its entertainment value, however, it’s a job and a livelihood for some people; it’s no longer uncommon for players to carve out successful multi-million- dollar careers as professional gamers. With profitable gaming tournaments springing up all over the world, e-sports are fast becoming the norm not unlike your favourite professional football league. By definition, an e-sport is a multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, typically by professional gamers. It may seem frivolous, but e-sports is anything but.
The Economic Value of Gaming
According to Forbes, the gaming industry generated almost US$140 billion in revenue in 2018. This figure is projected to reach US$160 billion this year. By comparison, the sports industry is valued between US$480 billion to US$620 billion, with a compound annual growth rate of 5.9 per cent.
E-sports may be nascent in terms of its climbing economic value. Its history, though, goes back at least three decades in tandem with the rise of the personal computer. Physical sports such as football and cricket, have been around in their current forms for over a century. However, they only began to truly explode in popularity when television broadcasting took off in the late 1960s.
Therein lies e-sports’ potential too. Take China, for example. In 2018, an estimated 312 million people played computer games, generating US$15.21 billion in revenue, according to research firm Niko Partners. By 2023, the number of people engaging in e-sports is expected to rise to 354 million – more than the population of the United States – to generate US$16 billion in revenue. Few other industries can claim to have such potential. The numbers are even more staggering if mobile phone gamers are included. In three years’ time, China will have 767 million PC and mobile phone gamers that will account for a market value of US$41.5 billion.
Playing To The Audience
Revenues paint only part of the picture though. Like any successful spectator “sport” (more on this later), the development of the e-sports industry relies on more than just the investments of game developers, tournament hosts, and players. The final piece of the puzzle is the audience – viewers and fans who either turn up in person to watch tournaments “live”, or tune in remotely to watch the live streams of matches. Viewership has risen steadily since 2016, with an estimated 380 million viewers in 2018 that’s slated to increase to 557 million in 2021.
Predictably, e-sports’ viewership still pales in comparison to that of traditional sports. Football, the most-watched sport in the world alone, already has an estimated four billion fans globally, with the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cup tournaments attracting over three billion viewers on average. Assuming that only a quarter of football fans viewed “normal” matches outside of the major international tournaments, e-sports viewers will still fall short by 700 million.
But this could well change in a decade. The demographics of e-sports viewers skew towards younger age groups, which points to great potential for growth as the industry continues to accumulate fans over the years.
The lack of geographical boundaries here is also an important point to note – as developing economies become more affluent, countries like India will have increasing access to such entertainment, which will lead to a corresponding increase in viewership.
Is It A Sport, Though?
Detractors often argue that a traditional athlete trains and prepares for his sport at a different level compared to an e-sports athlete, since he must observe sophisticated training regimes, strict diets, and even recovery protocols. Meanwhile, an e-sports athlete only needs to sit at his computer to game for several hours a day. For this reason, people believe that calling e-sports participants “athletes” is an injustice to sportsmen and sportswomen who do much more to break their physical limits.
This argument isn’t entirely invalid, but it ignores the physical feats that e-sports athletes regularly perform. For fighting games, for instance, top players often have reaction times that are measured in milliseconds, which require both intense physical and mental conditioning. Imagine performing a combo that demands finesse and split-second timing while an audience of tens of thousands from around the world watches. It’s not quite like sinking a three-pointer from half court, but it’s no walk in the park either.
The tactical acumen required in both individual and team-based e-sports is another factor to consider. The sheer number of factors to consider at any point in an e-sports match could well be beyond even large team-based sports like football, since far more things are happening simultaneously in a game. Perhaps e-sports are better framed as a hybrid between traditional sports that demand skill and dexterity, and chess, which requires strategic depth.
The E-sports Athlete
Much like traditional athletes, professional gamers start their careers around their mid to late teens. However, retirement comes earlier for e-sports athletes. Although ages differ, it isn’t uncommon to see a pro call it quits at 25, although some do go on well into their late 20s. As age usually robs a player of their quick reflexes, they can be forced to call time on their professional career. Injuries to the wrists (from long hours of gaming) and other external factors can play a part too. Many professional gamers put their academic pursuits on hold to further their careers, and often risk having obsolete skills and no qualifications upon retirement.
There are options for remaining in the industry though. Mirroring traditional sports, the e-sports scene has its own pundits who provide their expert opinions on match-ups and favourites to win certain tournaments. Retired gamers have also been known to try their hand as commentators, or gone on to become coaches that train the new generation of gamers.
Perhaps one of the more lucrative options for a player post-retirement is to become a streamer, which involves playing a game and commenting on it in real-time. Platforms like Twitch and Mixer have made this a viable career, as these retired athletes often provide insights to the e-sport that an amateur may not have.
The Rise of E-Sports
1972: E-sports had humble beginnings. The first documented videogame tournament took place for the game Spacewar. Held at Stanford University, it saw 24 participants battling it out for a year-long subscription to the Rolling Stone magazine.
1980: Atari hosted the first Space Invaders Championship, which drew more than 10,000 participants. This was the first large- scale videogame tournament that had ever been held, and a watershed moment for competitive gaming.
1981: Twin Galaxies was founded. The organisation kept track of record high scores in videogame arcades and established this as a practice – Guinness World Records recognises it as an official supplier of verified world records. Organisations like Twin Galaxies further legitimised the gaming industry and videogames in general.
1997: The 1990s saw the proliferation of Internet access, which made online competitive gaming possible. In 1997, the Red Annihilation tournament for Quake was held, and hosted 2,000 participants. It’s widely considered to be the world’s first true e-sport event. The tournament’s winner took home Quake’s lead developer’s Ferrari.
2000: South Korea hosted the first World Cyber Games main event in Seoul, with 389,000 participants from 24 countries competing for a slice of the US$600,000 prize pool. Eventually, 430 participants reached the final rounds of their respective categories.
2005: The Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) held a year-long tournament with nine different international stops. This tournament was dubbed the 2005 CPL World Tour and was the first to be endowed with a million dollars in prize money.
2019: Dota 2’s annual competition, The Invitational, saw a prize pool of US$34 million, making it the single most valuable prize pool for any gaming tournament to date. With e-sports entering the mainstream, expect even larger prize pools.