The Coming-of-Age of E-sports

I ran across this article recently, comparing the culture and business of professional sports with competitive gaming, a la e-sports:

Why Competitive Gaming is Starting to Look a lot Like Professional Sports

It’s a pretty detailed look at how e-sports have evolved in these past couple of years, now definitely past the point of just being happy to be invited to the party1, to becoming a mainstream phenomenon that has no trouble crossing over—most recently, due to Fortnite’s crazy popularity—into celebrity and pop culture alike. For a community that has aspired to be held in the same regard as a major sport, it must be gratifying to see professional sports players themselves get excited about competitive multiplayer gaming.

Starcraft was released in 1998 and is my earliest memory of a competitive game that had broadcasts, commentary, and an active audience 2; according to this article, the first major e-sports event was actually a Quake 1 tournament in 1997. Regardless, it took about 20 years to go from those humble beginnings to what we have now, but I don’t think it was immediately given that e-sports would become mainstream. In fact, a couple of things need to come together:

People needed to get comfortable with video games. This explains why it took upwards of 20 years, as a generation grows up only knowing a world where video games exist, and competitive online multiplayer is always available.

Related, video games needed to become a cool activity. That is, in comparison to other types of recreation and entertainment that have remained niche—e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop miniatures like Warhammer 40k—video games needed to capture the general consciousness, and has largely done so with the popularity of both gaming consoles and mobile games.

There are games with low barriers to entry, but high skill ceilings. As developers have gotten more savvy about the potential of e-sports, they’ve in turn tried to design their games for an e-sports audience. This ends up failing more often than not, but there have been mainstay titles that have thrived in creating and maintaining that balance.

The games themselves needs to be watchable and have their strategies evolve over time. Beyond allowing for skill, games need to be both fun to play and to spectate, to have an ebb and flow throughout a tense match to keep an audience engaged. At the same time, the game needs enough depth that there are winning strategies3, which itself actually changes over time both due to better understanding of the game itself, and designed changes brought forth by the developers themselves. In this way, it’s like a professional sports league tweaking its rules to make its product—the sport itself—be more viewer-friendly.

Finally, there needs to be a critical mass of fans to support the scene. After all, e-sports-as-a-business requires investment in the tournaments, the players, coaches, marketing and branding, etc., and all that makes financial sense only if there’s demand for the product that can be realized in real dollars. The best actualization of this relationship I can think of is DotA 2’s annual The International tournament, which started the trend of crowd-funding its tournament prizes4.

And with all of that, e-sports starts looking like professional sports, with the same level of youth, practice and dedication, supporting roles, and even teams based on geography along with investors/owners and league structures. That’s not to say that transformation into a sports league is automatic. The fighting game scene, for instance, has resisted the pull of e-sports for a long time, despite satisfying many of these preconditions for e-sports success, because the community didn’t want to “sell out” to corporations and money5.

But, as long as there’s business to be had and money to be made, e-sports will likely continue to mimic the proven structure of professional sports leagues for some time. In fact, it’ll be fascinating to see whether the nature of video games—elements of video game design, the advancement of technology, the relatively high rate of turnover of competitive games themselves—forces rapid evolution of the business model and in turn influences professional sports in return.

  1. Remember how excited gamers were for the first ESPN e-sports broadcast, even as regular ESPN viewers were just confused?

  2. Though much of this was present only in South Korea.

  3. What competitive gamers refer to as the “meta“.

  4. There is an argument made, however, that this setup does the game a disservice by restricting the number of tournaments and thus amount of league talent.

  5. It was also notoriously insular and kid-unfriendly, though as the lure of e-sports creeps in, much of that is being cleaned up.

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