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ESports and fan engagement (Part 3 of 5)

Esports gamersIn part 3 of this blog post series about digital sport and fan engagement, we turn our attentions to the growing field of eSports. Playing video games competitively has been around since the first games were released.

The rise of competitive video gaming

In 1980, Atari held a Space Invaders competition which was entered by over 10,000 people. eSports is a newer term which covers the growing field of competitive video gaming for amateurs and increasingly, professionals. According to the UK eSports society, it is classed as a mind game rather than a sport. The growth of eSports has been nothing short of spectacular with tournaments featuring eye watering prize money and eSports set to be worth $1.5 billion by 2020. This figure does not include eSports related betting, which is also very substantial given the huge audiences tournaments attract both physically, recorded and live streamed through services such as YouTube and Twitch.TV. Prize pools continue to rise, with the International 2018 eSports tournament offering a prize pool of $25 million. Other competitions such as for the battle arena game Dota 2 have a £6.7 million prize pool. This compares to the FIFA soccer series (FIFA eWorld Cup) at £193,000 prize money, but this is growing.

“It’s not hard to see the appeal. Money and viewers have been steadily flowing into the e-sports space, turning it from a fringe hobby into a remarkably lucrative phenomenon. According to market analyst group Newzoo, the global market for e-sports is expected to top $922 million in 2018, with an estimated 221 million fans across the world” – Andrew Webster, The Verge 

In fact, a new report by Newzoo predicts that with the launch of more eSports genres, the audience will surpass that of the global audience of tennis in the US by three years. Their predictions have been quite accurate over the years, so when they say that the League of Legends World finals will attract more viewers than the most popular rugby tournament in the world (125 million viewers of the Six Nations), you can see why traditional sports clubs are taking notice. Professional eSports players have also been compared to professional sports people

“If you follow the daily routines of professional players, you will see that they engage in physical conditioning, psychological training, a diet designed for a certain goal, so it is quite similar to the regime of a real-life athlete.” – Thiago Diniz, 2008 world champion of Battle for Middle Earth

eSports and sports fans

You may be wondering what the connection is between sports clubs and fan engagement given we have seen that eSports is a mind game rather than a sport. In this blog post series on digital sport and fan engagement, we’ve discussed how sports clubs and players are using popular new technologies to reach a global audience including a fanbase of young, hyperdigitalized fans. Because eSports has grown to impact on the lives of so many young people through playing, competing and watching tournaments, it has come to the attention of sports clubs as a way to build their brands. The FIFA Soccer series has so far been an important way for football clubs and organisations to engage with the eSports world. This short video trailer below for the forthcoming FIFA 2019 game received 10 million views on YouTube. With each release, the graphics and gameplay become ever closer to the real thing. Choosing to play as Liverpool in the new game, you will hear the crowd singing their famous song “You’ll never walk alone” and see Champions League graphics just like on TV.

As usual in the UK, Manchester City are leading the way in experimenting and embracing this technology by signing two professional eSports professional players to represent them. West Ham also employ a professional player. La Liga and MLS have their own eSports leagues so there is speculation that other clubs and eventually, the English Premier League will have their own league in the near future. This article in the Times speculates that the EPL are missing a trick by biding their time with eSports, although GFinity are currently working with them to create an eSports competition.

Whilst the English and other European football clubs are entering eSports through the FIFA route, other clubs  are taking a more holistic view of eSports. Santos FC in Brazil for example have taken the unique step of carefully learning about the eSports industry through working with a partner and then creating tournaments in some of the top eSports games including League of Legends, Counter Strike and Pro Evolution Soccer.

The future of eSports and fan engagement

As eSports grows in popularity, this will attract more clubs, sponsors and players to participate. Games such as League of Legends has already reached a stellar level of this and other games must follow in this path, creating their own global leagues. Sports clubs and brands are just starting to see the value of games and as the young eSports players and spectators of today become the executives of tomorrow, greater understanding and linkage will occur. The prejudices and misunderstandings about gaming and eSports will therefore cease to be a barrier.

Depression and anxiety in eSportsThere are a number of other issues to address with the continued growth of eSports, including mental health problems of professional players including anxiety, panic attacks and depression. In eSports, players can literally go from being a teenager playing video games for fun with friends, to be thrust in to the scrutiny of the public eye and social media with a great deal of pressure on them. Mental health in millennials is already a growing issue as documented in the excellent book ‘Life of Y‘. Putting young people into these high pressure positions where they are spending 95% of their time repeatedly practising video games – this leaves little time for a healthy life style and spending less time with friends and family. This is another dilemma to address for the future of eSports.

Graphics, sound, gameplay and tactics within video games will continue to improve, further blurring the boundaries between the game and reality.

“ESports already is a significant part of video game culture, and has the potential to reach a much wider audience ,and may challenge the hegemony of sports such as football as the worlds favourite game” – Muriel & Crawford in Video Games as Culture (2018)

What do you think about eSports? What kind of opportunities are there? Will the divisions between sport and eSport become more blurred in the future?

Alex Fenton

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