The Slow and Subtle Spread of eSports

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There was a time, many years ago, when sports were sports and that was that. It was a time when ESPN had just started believing that maybe there were people out there who wanted a focus on less-common sports when the idea for a second major channel to show more and varied content was just starting to gain traction. It was a time when gaming was in its anxious, rebellious youth. The PlayStation one, the SEGA Dreamcast, and Microsoft’s first Xbox console were all relatively far into the future; the world hadn’t even begun to dream of an online network successfully connecting millions and millions of players together–much less dreaming of an extremely large base of video gamers to support such a medium. Times have changed.

Thousands and thousands of small building blocks, stacked neatly and sometimes not-so-neatly over the years, have paved a grand field of video games in every sector, of every kind, and for every audience. Games have gone from a niche activity for reviled nerds to… well, everywhere. They’re in your home, for both kids and adults; they’re on your phone, drawing players from the young and hip to housewives and Baby Boomers alike; and they’re on your television, in your streams, and in the news. The dramatic rise of multiplayer games on the heels of the massive early success of Halo and the eventual, sequential explosions of games like Call of Duty, League of Legends, and now Fortnite, had finally brought the niche pastime of geeks and sundry to the big leagues, to the former realm of jocks and jocks alone. That being sports, of course.

The idea is simple; you take a bunch of people skilled at a competitive activity and showcase it, raking in massive profits with tickets and merchandise while turning the casual, day-to-day activity therein into a highly regimented display of skill, presented for the world to see. Great games have been entertainment for the masses since before The Great Game, even, dating back to well before even the creation of gladiators. And while many fought hard over the years to exclude video games–including ESPN itself–it’s impossible to scoff at eSports today and be taken seriously. The scene has become an industry, and that industry is worth bank, raking in an estimated $1.5 billion across the globe in just 2017, possibly the best year on record–especially considering how just one year ago almost to the day of this printing the International Olympic Committee finally acknowledged eSports as a candidate for legitimate integration into the greatest sporting event throughout history. It’ll be a process, to be sure, but the groundwork is laid.

The reason for the growth is simple. People enjoy watching skilled players, be the game football or Defense of the Ancients 2, Valve’s classic MOBA. Over the years, the roots of small-time venue shows for Halo and Call of Duty tourneys have grown and spread thanks, in part, to the largest supporter of eSports ever, that being the internet. Just as moving to television helped traditional sports grow to the juggernaut business they are today, the rise of the internet and the tools presented by services like Twitch have led to a games-friendly atmosphere where you can get on Overwatch and play with your friends, then turn to your PC or phone and watch some of the best players in the world on your same heroes, in your same maps, doing… well, probably considerably better than you. But it keeps the dream alive, that oh-so 90’s dream every gamer kid had of growing up and being paid to play games. And the fun doesn’t stop there, because professional gamers don’t just end their season, go home, and practice in the downtime. They turn on their own streams and webcams and play from home, giving millions and millions of communal fans even more time to watch them play, or even join in. This connection has just helped foster what may be the largest growing industry in the world, as more and more games and more and more players jump in for a slice.

And as you’d expect, eSports is quickly becoming its own, newer version of the more normally accepted sports. Players train and practice, often for ten or more hours a day. Organizations make teams and logos, find sponsors, trade and sell players, and get international Visas on the athletic basis to take their players around the world. They sell merch, they sell seats and tickets, and they sell in-game skins at the same time. Hell, Overwatch has even developed a city and state-based rivalry across America that’s beginning to mirror the heated rivalry they’ve shared for classic sports like baseball and football for decades.

Every day more and bigger business ventures are taking an interest in eSports, and more importantly, taking investments, paying out big money to get their slice of the pie as it bakes. Only time will tell what kind of monster the industry grows into, but one thing’s for sure–it’s not going away any time soon.

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