eSports: Re-defining Sport for the next generation?

As a child of the 90s, I’m certainly no stranger to video games.  It all started with the original Nintendo, and as I grew in age, so did the sophistication of the games and the consoles hosting them.  The competition was fairly limited to neighborhood friends, but then the internet changed everything, allowing people to compete with other people from all around the world in a live environment.  I certainly saw the intrigue immediately, gamers could hone their skills against players of a multitude of levels, and as the complexity of the games increased, the level of skill required to master them did as well.  Needless to say, the competitive aspect of playing video games is certainly the core of its entertainment value.

About 4 years ago I noticed something peculiar, my then 5-year old nephew was watching a YouTube video of someone else playing Super Mario Bros.  I was confounded, I wasn’t sure why he was doing this, certainly watching someone else play video games couldn’t be more entertaining than playing them yourself, right?  This was my first introduction to a concept that I would later identify as eSports, the idea that electronic gaming competition can reach beyond the participants themselves become a spectator sport for the masses.  In fact, according to a recent Newzoo report, this is already a pretty big thing worldwide, as the global eSports audience is projected to reach an estimated 256M fans this year, made up of both enthusiasts and occasional viewers.

With enormous audiences packing 20,000+ seat arenas and millions watching live streams on sites like Amazon-owned Twitch.TV, publishers and marketers alike are now beginning to bet big on eSports.  While most of the initial audience has been in Asia, major American media outlets have started to catch on lately, with ESPN airing the finals of a recent Heroes of the Storm collegiate tournament live on ESPN2.  Turner Broadcasting is also jumping into the fray with its new E-League, featuring a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament filmed at Turner studios in Atlanta, airing on Friday nights on TBS starting this week.  Marketers are certainly enticed by the prospects of reaching what they perceive to be an elusive segment of young people, all in a similarly highly engaging live environment to that of ‘traditional’ sports.

So who is the e-Sports fan?  According to a recent PwC consumer intelligence series report on eSports from April 2016, the median age of the eSports consumer is only 28, with nearly three-quarters (69%) being 18-34.  The audience tends to be racially diverse, with Asian and Hispanic viewers watching most frequently.  It’s also not surprising that this audience tech savvy, more likely than the average consumer to spend time in front of screens, whether gaming or watching streaming video.

There is strong evidence that eSports viewership is on the rise, with 81% of eSports viewers reporting watching the same or more eSports content than the prior year.  1 in 5 watch every week, with eSports consumers averaging 19 days of viewing per year.  The most popular device type to watch on is desktop/laptop, about a third (32%) have watched on TV before, and 12% have actually attended a competition live.

Clearly there is a growing audience for this content, and as media publishers continue to learn how to best present it in an engaging way, advertiser investment will rise.  According to Newzoo, eSports global revenues are expected to surpass $1 billion by 2019, with North America representing a large portion of growth potential.

So is it a sport?  “Of course it is” says former NBA commissioner David Stern, “it fills arenas and stadia, has an OTT network built on it (Twitch), and there is a robust market in team purchases that seems to be developing.”  Undoubtedly a ringing endorsement from one of mainstream sports’ biggest icons.  Perhaps it may be difficult for some to fully grasp, but eSports is arriving and promises to be more than just another fad.


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