When you think of sports, you will probably think of some highly physical game such as soccer or football (which to some is soccer). You may watch these games through ESPN or another TV channel that’s dedicated to sports. There are plenty of places to catch the game: sports bar, in the stadium, at a friends house. There are plenty of pseudo-holidays built up around sports. Many people have Super Bowl parties and the game itself was watched by nearly 112 million people.
However, there’s been a growing shift in this sort of live entertainment. The industry of eSports, electronic sports or competitive video game playing, has captured a large audience. Over 188M people watched eSport streams last year, and that number is expected to grow. With this in mind, it’s important to discuss the effect that eSports will have on the sport entertainment industry in the coming years.
What are eSports?
While someone can make a couple of popular videos playing Mario, eSports have far higher stakes. Many competitive players enter tournaments where the prizes can be over a million dollars for the winning team. Unlike casual gamers, these players practice this craft and become highly adept at playing.
There aren’t a large number of games that are played. Many lack the competitive precision. Often you’ll see players use expensive mice and keyboards that can shave milliseconds off completing particular actions. Also, the games have to have a certain level of balance. If one particular game configuration is definitively better than others, it makes the game more focused on mashing buttons faster and less about the overall strategy.
These games often pit users together either one-on-one or teams-versus-teams. This competition drives the entertainment of the games, where there’s more excitement than a player versus a computer or just playing through a game.
One popular eSport is League of Legends, where teams of players work together to capture the opponent’s base through a combat system containing magic. Each match lasts 20-60 minutes and there’s far more game mechanics than I can explain. It’s a game that has become well suited for eSports: players are on teams, teams compete against each other, and the developers continually provide patches to the game to keep it balanced.
How do we consume eSports?
As the games have changed because of the Internet, so have the means of consuming. ESports are streamed through services like Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, or YouTube, which recently launched a site specifically for game streams.
This has greatly democratized sports streaming. For this year’s upcoming Olympics, NBC has been awarded the exclusive rights to broadcast it. Now individuals can play and stream games as much as they want. Now a handful of channels like ESPN don’t compete for bids with sport leagues for the exclusive streaming rights.
ESPN is a channel. There are a few other channels: EPSN2, ESPN Classic, that broadcast other content. However, there are only three streams at a time. This means the network has to pick which games they want to stream, and many will be ignored. NBC will be airing content other than the Olympics. There will be news, talk shows, morning shows, and these will prevent us from watching what we want. Additionally, with the variety of events taking place at the same time, it gives us very little choice.
What will the future of sports streaming look like? Some streaming video service will be able to show you the game live on any number of services, through any number of devices, and you’ll be able to directly access it or any other game you want to watch. This is much different from sports today. eSports are not tied to a channel. There’s virtually no limit to the number of concurrent streams.
Also, there aren’t exclusive contracts in the same way that networks have. While some games may only stream on one service, the web allows videos to be freely embedded and viewed regardless of cable provider.
eSports and Live Channels
When discussing this in terms of Live Channels, one of the apps on Android TV, it’s interesting to note this distinction. The app was developed in the context of a small number of pre-defined channels. But if particular channels aren’t streaming live, the viewer won’t see anything. Additionally, with the virtually limitless number of streams at a time, how will the user logically navigate through them all?
This is one area that is not easy to merge together. If I was given the question, I’d probably solve it like this:
Users can subscribe to particular player they enjoy watching or specific future events. The app would allow the user to “favorite” these things and those bookmarks would make it easy to access in the app as well as give the app clear indications of what channels the user wants. Periodically the app would check that each player is streaming. If they are, then it’s easy to add that channel. The same goes for the events. If a big competition is today, then the app can also expose that channel and play it live.
The inverse would be different. If the competition is in the future or already happened, then we remove it. The user will no longer see it in Live Channels, although the app would still expose the bookmark and provide full coverage and highlighted clips from the event.
If a player is not streaming right now, the app can pick from one of their many archived, past videos and play that. A watermark in the bottom left or right corner would indicate that the content is being replayed. Since the user is authenticated, the app know what videos they like and what they’ve watched before. Only unwatched content can be played, giving the user a sense that the content is new.
There is room for overlap. ESPN has been covering eSports and has aired competitions on their channels in the past. However, if the eSport industry wants to expand, these streaming services are the way to grow quickly and create as much content as possible.
How will these competitors and streaming services make money? Just like regular channels it can be done through ad revenue. Competitors may enter events to win huge prizes, but they may often stream independently. Services like Twitch place ads on videos and share revenue with these creators, and many also use supplementary services such as Patreon or simple donations.
Sponsorships are also big in this industry. Much like how soccer jerseys have company logos, companies may also choose to sponsor eSport teams. This may be to their advantage, as the winning team with X keyboards will definitely cause a spike in that keyboard brand soon after.
However, it’s clear that to the services themselves, this is a booming area. eSports was said to be a $3.8 billion dollar industry. Twitch earned roughly 43%, or $1.6 billion. YouTube earned 36% of that revenue, although this was before YouTube Gaming came out. It’s possible that these numbers have changed. These companies do need a lot of money to invest in their infrastructure, as video is very costly in terms of storage and bandwidth, but there don’t seem to be problems with making money.
What will the future look like?
The amount of money a streamer makes it really variable. It can be thousands per month just from ad revenue, or a couple dollars. It’s not easy to gain an audience. They may turn to social media to help build their brand, and this can include all the popular sites you’d expect.
Once you do gain an audience, you can easily attract more users. Suddenly you have become a small celebrity. Individuals like Markiplier have millions of subscribers and suddenly they’re easy to recognize. Fans may come up and talk to them. It’s a pretty interesting transition, and it is much like how athletes may suddenly become famous when they’re drafted into the NFL.
eSports have their share of followers and celebrity status. A 1-on-1 match in League of Legends between Doublelift and Reginald has over 300,000 views.
These celebrity gamers have currently been stuck in their domain, but it’s likely that they’ll break out in the future. Many athletes have transitioned into TV personalities and actors. Retired football player Michael Strahan has starred in a sitcom and is now a host on Good Morning America. Dwayne Johnson, also known as “The Rock”, was originally a wrestler before retiring and becoming an actor.
At this point there hasn’t been much time in eSports to discuss retirement. It may take a while as the area is continuing to grow rapidly and these games don’t put the same physical stress on a person as football or wrestling. Once we do start to see the first wave of eSport players, expect to see them continue to appear in the media.
eSports in Schools
If eSports become more popular, they may become another extracurricular activity that students do. Maybe schools will start recruiting the top players to play for them, selling tickets to weekly games and eventually trying to get those players drafted into major league teams. That’s the idea behind the great web series Video Game High School, where the top gamers go to learn playing video games professionally.
Aside from being entertaining, is it some sort of glimpse into the future? Will students be given gaming scholarships? Will any of these games become popular enough that schools begin recruiting players based on their performance? What kind of role will education play in eSports?
eSports in Olympics
When we think about the biggest sporting events, the Olympics may come to mind. It’s perhaps the largest sporting event in history. This year, in Rio de Janeiro, there will be over 200 countries represented with over 10,000 athletes. The Olympics are flexible, each one brings changes. In the 2016 games, golf is one of the new events being added. Will we one day see League of Legends as another event?
This is definitely a controversial question. Many people will say that eSports are completely different from regular sports and disagree with the premise.
The Olympics are about people around the world coming to one location to play sports. There are people who travel all the time for playing sports. In the US there is a P-1 Visa, which is for “internationally recognized athletes”. This allows the athlete to enter the country legally for a brief time to engage in a sports competition.
This visa has been used in the past for eSports in the case of League of Legends. A petition was signed on the offical We the People by over 117,000 people on the topic of William “Leffen” Hjelte who has been having visa troubles as a competitive Super Smash Brothers Melee player.
The official response did not provide any details on the individual case, but did plainly state
According to USCIS, the agency responsible for processing P-1 visa applications, there is no current policy categorically precluding an eSport from being recognized as a qualifying athletic competition. In fact, USCIS has approved P-1 visa petitions for athletes seeking to enter the United States to compete in eSport events.
Based on the current trajectory, eSports will become more popular than many real sports. There are many more places to consume, whether on-demand video or live streams from many online sources. It gives them an advantage over cable, which cannot simply create channels dynamically for upcoming events. As the industry continues to grow in users and money, it’ll start getting more attention.
These gamers will become celebrities and engaging more as media personalities on other TV shows. We will probably see eSports teams form in our schools with the top players and they’ll become as big a part of school spirit as football teams. Pretty soon it’ll likely be common for people to watch international competitions of these athletes.
Not everyone watches sports, and not everyone will watch eSports. A lot of this is conjecture, but I have tried to do a thoughtful analysis of where eSports are now and where they appear to be going based on precedents. What are your thoughts? What parts make sense and what don’t? Let me know in the comments below.