There’s arguably no faster-growing professional sport than esports. Though competitive gaming has been long-established, esports has never been as ubiquitous as it is today. Traditional sports clubs the world over signing esports teams and performers to represent their organisation in international competition. There are more and more esports tournaments finding a television audience, and that audience is growing at an unprecedented rate. Yet, there’s two elements at play here – esports as an industry, and esports as, well, sport. When discussing the former, there’s no question that esports is growing, but as a true sport, there are still a lot of taboos surrounding the sector.
Among traditional sport fans, there remains an undeniable stigma around esports – one no doubt borne primarily out of a lack of familiarity and understanding, due to outdated perceptions that have yet to be seriously challenged by mainstream sports media. Still, it’s precisely because esports has those two separate elements within it – that of an industry, and that of a sport – that esports has the opportunity to transcend those outdated perceptions that still hang around its neck, and the first annual eSports Industry Awards could very well mark the first sign of that.
The awards themselves were an impressive affair, from a star-studded “who’s who” on the guest list, to the top-quality production values at the show. Hosted by former rugby player Martin Bayfield, the Gadget Show’s Jason Bradbury and Radio 1’s Julia Hardy, the show lived up to all expectations – namely, that it would give esports an event to be proud of, one that could compare to any traditional sport’s awards evenings (perhaps with a smaller audience), which is an important step in taking esports to the next level. It’s that ‘next level’ that is so key at this point in time. The money in the esports industry is climbing and climbing, and shows no sign of abating. Yet, to be sustainable in the long-term, esports needs to succeed in areas beyond simply the bottom line – namely, at some point that will likely come sooner than some realise, the ‘sports’ element of esports will need to acceptance from mainstream sports fans, and it will need the ‘industry’ side’s help to achieve it.
Learning from the past
To understand how the industry can help the sport blossom and grow, it’s useful to turn to another example where a newer sport supplanted a more traditional sport, and to me, there’s perhaps no clearer case where one sport so thoroughly replaced a previously dominant sport than in America, where the “America’s pastime”, baseball, was uprooted by American football. In a very brief nutshell: one of the chief reasons the NFL, these days by far the most dominant sports league in America when it comes to both viewership and brand capital, was able to overtake baseball was because they understood the power of the then-emerging home television market better than anyone. Even before the widespread airing of full games, shorter nationally-televised highlight shows captivated a nation, building up to a watershed moment – the 1958 NFL Championship Game, known as “the greatest game ever played”. That game, with a significant national audience, broke open the floodgates and made the sport more popular than ever before, setting up the juggernaut that the NFL would become.
And so, fast forward to today. Whereas the NFL utilized the power of the home-television market before its competitors fully got to grips with the format, no sport has yet really taken to the post-Web 2.0 expansion of the internet in the same way. Of course, other sports are engaging in the power of the internet, but it’s arguable whether they truly understand the power of the internet market, treating it rather as an extension of the traditional subscription model that dominates television – from MLB.tv to NFL Gamepass to the WWE Network. Simply transferring the old models to a new medium is no guarantee of success – the increased number of ‘cord cutters’ is testament to the rejection of these old models of television. As one generation moves from that coveted 18-34 age bracket to that of 35+, a new generation enters that age bracket that is so sought-after by advertisers. This generation is not accustomed to using the internet as merely another avenue to pay for a service, but rather to be entertained without needing to pay for it.
Where other sports are actively trying to stem the tide – the NFL, for example, once the embracers of new technology, were widely mocked for not allowing its sports teams to create their own GIFs of their games in an effort to limit the spread of free highlights from games – esports actively embraces this new world. The biggest example of this, of course, is Twitch, who were named the “Best Streaming Platform” at the eSports Industry Awards. By allowing eSports competitors to stream their performances for free, Twitch has been arguably the biggest bridge between esports and the audience. That level of free access has doubtless created many more esports fans than there might have been otherwise, and there’s no bigger mark of that than the knock-on effect of Twitch’s success – that two of the biggest companies in the world, Microsoft and Google, are looking to set up direct competition to Twitch through Beam and YouTube Gaming. Together with Twitch – which, of course, is owned by Amazon – there are three free-to-air platforms for esports that actively embrace the internet’s mass-market appeal.
Growing a sport
Yet, for all the investment and innovation occurring on the ‘industry’ side of esports, the ‘sport’ of esports is still in its relative infancy. It resembles many of the traditional sports in its early days – namely, that, for a majority of esports, competition takes the form of independently-owned, independently-operated tournaments. The most notable exception, of course, is League of Legends, where competition is still administered by Riot Games. With one singular competition, League of Legends is arguably the easiest of all esports for an outsider to follow, with easy access to schedules and rankings on LoL’s website, and so it’s not surprising that LoL was arguably the most influential game when it came to establishing esports. Similarly, the largest single prize payout for a tournament – $20.8 million – came at the Dota2 International earlier this year, administered directly by Valve.
But there’s one very notable absence in this trend – CS:GO. CS:GO was named “eSports Game of the Year” at the Industry Awards, it’s the largest esport by viewers on Twitch, and, arguably, as the largest potential mass-market appeal, due to the more straightforward mechanics compared to MOBA games. Yet, Valve did not host their own majors for CS:GO. It’s also notable that the four largest single-tournament prize pots for CS:GO cames from four tournaments organised by three different organisations – ELEAGUE, ESL One and MLG. This, more than any other, is where the ‘industry’ can help the ‘sport’. I truly believe that when there is one single administrating body of CS:GO – whether that’s following LoL’s regular season + playoff format, or by recognising a series of tournaments in the style of, say, the ATP & WTA in tennis or the PGA/LGPA in golf – it could become the esport that finally breaks into the sporting mainstream.
Here, too, the ‘industry’ side has a role to play, and it’s a role that, consciously or unconsciously, was on show at the eSports Industry Awards. As already mentioned, the “eSports Game of the Year” was CS:GO. Valve, behind both CS:GO and Dota2, were named “eSports Publisher of the Year”. “eSports Broadcaster of the Year” went to Auguste ‘Semmler’ Massonnat, a CS:GO commentator. EnVyUs, a CS:GO team, was named “eSports Team of the Year” from across all eSports. If CS:GO’s following has positioned the top esport at the grass roots level, then the eSports Industry Awards cemented that, at the highest levels of the esport world, its supremacy has already been recognised.
And that, more than anything, indicates the role that these eSports Industry Awards can play. Yes, to have a high-level awards evening with superior production values, location, guests and audience – with up to 6000 people viewing the awards at any given time on Twitch – gives those who love esports something tangible to point to that their sport is as valid as football, rugby, or any other traditional sport, and there’s no denying the importance thereof. But, above that, the eSports Industry Awards has the chance to be thoughtleaders in shaping esports.
When CS:GO moves beyond this ‘Wild West’ landscape of uncoordinated tournaments, then all it takes is the right savvy commissioner and investors to bring it to fans of traditional sports, and I have no doubt that it will be able to stand toe to toe with any other sport, to usher in this new age of esports in the sporting mainstream. And if that happens, it will be because the eSports Industry Awards validated that which represents that best and brightest of the entire esporting world – both as an industry, and as a sport.
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