Esports, the Dark Horse of Professional Sports

Sports has an ever-evolving landscape. Traditional games such as 3as football, tennis or basketball, you name it, there is a multitude of them. But today, there is a form of sports taking the world by storm: Esports. Though not usually recognized as a “sport” given how it does not require any form of physical exercise and how players simply sit in the comfort of a chair whilst competing through online games, the esports scene represents quite a force today. For example, just in 2019 alone, there was an estimated total of 443 million viewers worldwide tuning in to watch their favourite professional players and teams versing each other in competitions as grand and stylish as they are profitable. In the same year, it was estimated that the esports industry was worth US$950 million. Altogether, the viewership and money it receives overshadow many mainstream popular sports.

But, let’s take a step back and understand how this under-appreciated form of a sport grew and how much of a lucrative and popular industry it is today.

The Rise of Esports

You might be wondering where this phenomenon came from and how its popularity has appeared seemingly out of nowhere. A brief history will show that esports had undergone a similar journey as mainstream sports. Starting with ambitious players wishing to beat others and prove their superiority (and also their ability to achieve a high score) in a particular game, local contests came about. These quickly grew into state tournaments then into nation-wide competitions which were prevalent during the early days of the 70s into the late 80s. Space Invaders, an arcade game centred on amassing a high score by eliminating endless waves of alien invasions, was the game which hosted one of the largest gaming competitions at the time. Televisions soon picked these up and broadcasted them across their networks, albeit to a lesser extent than they are today.

However, the advent of the Internet and multiplayer capabilities integrated into newly released games such as the console game Street Fighter and PC-based Doom game sparked the interest in the seamless interactivity and competition a player can have in the games they played – which prior to the time, was mainly limited to single-player capacities. The 90s was a wonderland of gaming opportunities and truly sparked the timebomb that would result in the explosion of global tournaments at the beginning of the 2000s. Competitive online gaming was now a trend, a highly addictive kick that gradually attracted companies such as Nintendo and Blockbuster to sponsor gaming tournaments with its commercial potential.

The Formation of the Esports Landscape

The early 2000s and the ensuing decade saw the increasing shift of games focusing from recreational to competitive use. Global competitions like the World Cyber Sports and the infamous Major League Gaming (MLG). Games like DOTA introduced the “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena”, otherwise known as MOBA skyrocketed in popularity. Console multiplayer gaming would further soar in engagement. Services such as Xbox Live amongst others birthed widely known games such as the Halo and Call of Duty series. Later years saw games like Counter-Strike and StarCraft drawing in a similar contention.

These competitions were suddenly noticed by more companies as they noted the unsurprising popularity of the competitive gaming scene. And in an almost instant nature, these companies started sponsoring events. Money was injected into these competitions and prize pools grew dramatically. Thus birthed the formation of Esports teams,  Team Liquid, Fnatic and Cloud9 are just a few of the hundreds of professional teams out there.

Gaming Scene Steals the Spotlight

Almost every game today has multiplayer capabilities. These of which, manifesting in multiple and significantly different game forms. The aforementioned MOBA genre, Battle Royale, Deathmatches etc. all connect players from various parts of the world to compete with one another. This further supplies oxygen to the raging fire of having tournaments in each and every novel game. Online streaming services such as Twitch and YouTube Live makes online gaming competitions easier to start and stream. Collectively, these platforms open yet another avenue for audiences to be reached and admittedly makes these competitions more accessible since viewing is generally free of charge.

All this success occurring while combating the naysayer narrative of its legitimacy as an actual “sport”. However, esports has established itself as a close mirror to its traditional sports counterparts. Though not as physically straining, gaming makes up for it such as endurance, agility, teamwork and discipline. This, coupled with the rigorous training regimen, leagues and ranking positions found in many esports teams are akin to the hallmark values of what makes a traditional sports team tick. If the lines are not blurry enough, traditional sports teams are beginning to create a gaming division under the same name to participate in gaming competitions. Therefore, by most conceivable metrics, esports are comparably similar and have what it takes to be recognized as a true sport. 

The 2018 League of Legends World Championship Final drew more viewers than the American football super sporting event Super Bowl held in the same year. The top 5 most successful Esports teams have raked in a total of over US$30 million in prize money. Online gaming, having its ambitions of entering as an official sport in the Olympic Games, is taking a crucial step to this end as it has secured a spot at the 2022 Asian Games wherein participants will be awarded medals for the first time in the industry’s history.

Game Over?

No way. The Esports scene has shown that it is vibrant, active and ever-growing. Capable of dwarfing other sports by size, viewership and even grandeur, it is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. Its popularity will only grow as its ubiquitous nature would attract more players and in turn, the eyes of sponsors and game developers to create tournaments which feed this hunger to determine who truly is the best of all in a particular game.

Written by

Sofiyan Ivan Shahran