It is time that we recognize eSports as a legitimate sporting competition that is impacting the world on a global scale. Stigmas continue to exist, primarily from older generations, that disregard eSports as a legitimate form of sports and entertainment. More famously were the remarks made by Jimmy Kimmel as he attacked the gaming industry, stating that is ridiculous to watch others play video games. Yet over the last decade, eSports have risen into the limelight to capture the hearts of millions around the globe. In fact, this past year League of Legends, owned by Riot Games, reported over 100 million active players worldwide. This ultimately led to extreme backlash as this massive community laid into Jimmy Kimmel, prompting a response on his next show. This piece will look at 4 main reasons why eSports, in particular League of Legends, is trending towards outgrowing traditional sports.
More than just a video game
It is first important to distinguish that not all video games can be considered an eSports. ESport games like League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter Stirke: Global Offensive consist of unique structure that differentiate them simple video game playing. The key distinction between video game and eSports is that:
“The actual game, it being a competitive team vs. team video game, whose aim is to beat the opponent, settled in discrete matches (i.e. defined time and play sets) and played either online or in LAN competitions; is one of the necessary conditions for considering a video game an eSport. The second necessary condition is that the players engage in a practice requiring a lot of skill and ability to master the attacks or the weapons; they need a lot of precision and concentration, body control, endurance, fast movements and team strategy. Nevertheless, both conditions together can be necessary conditions for the existence of an eSport, but not yet sufficient to be a sport.” (Llorens, 2017, p. 467)
ESports is unique in the fact that, like traditional sports, it combines both competitiveness in a head-to-head setting and individual skill. Whereas video gaming playing is seen as more recreational activity done for fun instead of competition. In addition, eSports, like traditional sports, operates in a “…specific spatial-temporal contexts… within that limited space and time can be experienced and monitored in very different contexts” (Rowe & Hutchins, 2014, p. 9). That is eSports attracts an audience who watch the events of the match unfold “live” right before their eyes.
With this in mind, lets jump into 4 reasons why eSports should be considered more sports than leisure.
1. Worldwide Audience
There are two types of audience that are relevant to the world of eSports, number of monthly active users playing the game and number of viewers watching the professional sports. Currently, League of Legends is considered the market leader in number of monthly active users beating out next closest being, Call of Duty, by more than 70 million. Just this past fall, League of Legends’ published the viewership numbers from the League of Legends World Championships which were held in Beijing, China and captivated the eyes of more than 80 million unique viewers worldwide for a single best-of-5 game. Just the year before, the same tournament had a record of 43 million unique viewers in a single game according to a report released by League of Legends. Year-over-year that a growth of 186%, a number that far surpasses traditional sports viewership. Comparatively, according to a report from Variety, this past Super Bowl LII saw 7% less viewers than the year before, making it the least watched Super Bowl since 2009. The viewership seems to be trending up for League of Legends, while traditional sports, like American football, seem to have matured in their market. League of Legends has done something that American football is yet to do; has utilized global media networks, primarily YouTube and Twitch, to reach a globalized audience. League of Legends, and eSports, truly represents, as Rowe (2014) described, a networked media sport that allows participation through virtual channels (p. 9). Such community involvement is evident in the use of things like, Twitter, YouTube chat and Twitch chat, which allows viewers to interact with eSports commentators and other viewers during the events. Like traditional sports, fandom is critical to success and growth of the industry. ESports captures and retains its fans by replicating models that are used by the traditional sporting industries. ESports “…provide a two-part ideological service to the capitalist power structure – as distracting spectacles and as socializing agents” (Corrigan, 2014, p. 45). The spectacle that is created in eSports distracts its viewers from the hardships of everyday life while the socializing aspect of viewership encourages consumptive behaviour as League of Legends has become flooded with advertising and sponsorship (Corrigan, 2014, p. 45). The influence over consumptive behaviour leads into the next aspect of eSports being more of a sport than a leisure activity through its revenue generation models.
2. Revenue Generation
The use of these digital communication technologies, such as YouTube and Twitch, allows for the production of a mega-sporting spectacle as outlined by Compton (2015). Through the “…elimination of space through the acceleration of time… [new] tools [are] used to integrate world markets and accelerate the flow of commodities and financial capital” (Compton, 2015, p. 50). Without access to a global market, League of Legends sporting events would only be accessible to the few hundred of thousand who can attend the events live. By having a worldwide audience and customer base, League of Legends is able to bring in revenues from hundreds of different markets through methods much like that of traditional sports. To be profitable on a global scale “…online games must attend to local cultural practices, tastes, and social structures” (Jin, 2010a). That is why League of Legends has 5 major professional localized-regions and several international qualifier regions that compete for a spot at the World Championship Finals each year. By using a global-localized business model, League of Legends can generate profits across vast cultural differences around the world (Jin, 2010b). As far as actually generating revenue goes, League of Legends has a multifaceted approach that mirrors that of the sports industry. Firstly, revenue is generated through its fans in forms of in-game purchases, ticket sales to pro games, merchandise sales at these events and online.
Secondly, the digital media of eSports generates revenue through advertising and sponsorship. More recently, League of Legends North America signed a massive sponsorship with StateFarm, whose logo can be seen multiple times throughout each broadcast. Ultimately, League of Legends is a business that is focused on generating revenue so its not surprising that they copied the models that are put forth in traditional sports industries. Given that eSports can adopt these practices and build-up similar business models to that of traditional sports, we can see that while the vast majority people may not yet believe that eSports can be considered a sport, businesses and advertisers are flooding the scene and treating it like such.
3. Pro Franchising, Ownership and Player Contracts
In the last few years, League of Legends, and other eSports games, have further followed in the steps of traditional sports by franchising out their professional teams. In January 2018, the North American League Championship Series launched it new partnership program and handed over ownership to private franchises. Interestingly enough, this article outlines how three of the new professional North American League of Legends teams, the 100 Thieves, the Golden Guardians and Clutch Gaming, were backed by existing pro NBA franchises the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets respectively. The article goes on to outline how the $13 million buy-in for new, and $10 million buy-in for existing, came with a requirement that revenues be distributed roughly one-third to players, one-third to teams and one-third to Riot Games. As for player contracts and salaries, they competition seems fair and sustainable. Each team is provided, by the ownership, a gaming house in which they practice and train throughout the week. Professional compensation, although not as high as other traditional sports, has been going up this year with rumors that one player scored a million-dollar contract, however the average is closer 100,000 per year in North America, according to an anonymous ESPN survey. The advent of franchises in eSports adds to the legitimacy of the industry as a sport and with businesses willing to back and invest in the league and in multiple cases, professional traditional sports teams see it as an opportunity to bring their already developed practices and distribution channels to the world of eSports and grow the industry. As the industry has matured, teams have found legitimate franchised-ownership and players salaries and treatment has improved, it is clear to see that organized aspects of eSports make it more sport and less past-time hobby.
4. Intercollegiate Programs and Path to Pro
In traditional sports, hierarchies are built up to create a path to pro sports. A common path to the NFL can be thought of through the schooling system; from junior high through high school, then college and finally to the NFL. Universities and colleges across North America actively recruit talent and offer full-ride scholarships to attract the best amateur sports players to their schools. In 2014, eSports would too go intercollegiate as “…Robert Morris University (RMU) in Chicago began offering athletic scholarships to gamers, the tag given to eSports athletes. RMU allocated $500 000 for their intercollegiate gaming team” (Keiper, Manning, Jenny, Olrich, & Croft, 2017, p. 144). It’s not surprising that post-secondary institutions have pushed for the inclusion of eSports in the intercollegiate programs as it would increase the schools diversity in their athletic departments, particularly in regards to Asian student-athletes (Jenny, Manning, Keiper, & Olrich, 2017).The inclusion of eSports in intercollegiate competition gives students the opportunity to put their skills to work and be rewarded with a higher education. It goes without a doubt, that creation of intercollegiate eSports competition gives credence to eSports as a sport (Jenny, Manning, Keiper, & Olrich, 2017). However, making a college team is not the only way an eSports athlete can make it the pro scene and make money playing. Below are two graphics that outline the difference between the path to pro for the NFL compared to Pro eSports.
The NFL path follows a hierarchical based path that is meant to cut out players at each level and send the best along. However, it is known that there are many politics and biases that are found within these methods of recruitment that make it hard to get through to the next level. ESports differs in the fact that while one can go through the collegiate system and be picked up by the pro teams, it is not the only way. In fact, more players that are currently playing at a professional level are who came from the system’s player ranking. League of Legends in-game system allows them to identify who the best players are by ranking them into 7 leagues: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master, and the highest being Challenger. The system allows players to improve and compete on their own level within the game, as well as give them the opportunity to be recognized and picked up for professional play. Some eSports have more clearly defined ways to reach the pro scene, such as Blizzard’s Overwatch who launched a promotional Path to Pro 2018 video on the process last year. Having defined ways in which players are recruited and can join the pro scene adds to the credibility of eSports managing itself as a sporting federation.
The above reasons have proven to show the eSports is proving itself to be more sport and less leisure activity. Worldwide viewership numbers are continuing to grow and at this rate are likely to surpass several traditional sports numbers. The engagement and fandom found in traditional sports carries through into eSports and produces a market that is proving to be very profitable. To be successful, the industry has begun adopting business models that pair to those of traditional sports, thus orienting themselves as a sport in a business sense. When considering that eSports further mimics sporting models in forms of organization and ownership by adopting a francisation model the alignment between the two is made even more clear. Amongst these backers even includes current traditional sports teams who are vested in the proliferation of the industries success. Likewise, the treatment and compensation of the players resembles that of traditional sports emphasizing the seriousness that is put into the industry. The creation of an intercollegiate and defined path to professional play further strength the organisational structure of the industry as a sporting one with how it builds upon itself by enabling new players with access to professional levels of play on differing levels. While many haters may still hold the belief that eSports is but a game and cannot be a sport because it required little-to-no physical activity, we should take a step back and look at other ‘games’ that already consider themselves sports. In “…referring to other sports, which are comparable in regard of their physical activity, such as darts or chess, and to the growing general acceptance of eSports in the sport business, eSports will likely be officially accepted as a sport and eventually even included to the Olympic programme” (Hallman & Giel, 2018, p. 17). It is clear that the opinions like that of Jimmy Fallon are outdated and that eSports has become a legitimate sporting enterprise.
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