ESPORTS: IT'S IN THE GAME
The rapid growth in the popularity of eSports perfectly demonstrates how a more connected world has not only changed how we interact with one another but how we entertain ourselves.
For any child or gamer in the 90s, the preluding EA Sports “It’s in the Game” slogan was likely heard more times than “dinner’s ready”, “tidy your room” and “you’ll be late for school” combined. The no-nonsense tone of the voiceover reverberated around millions of bedrooms on both sides of the Atlantic, and quickly became synonymous with sports-based video games, in the same way that “Segaaaa…” did with Sonic the Hedgehog or the coin sound-effect meant Super Mario.
Way back in December 1993, the first ever FIFA game was published by EA Sports – FIFA International Soccer. More than 25 years later, the franchise – and the company – are still going strong.
Whilst both hardware and software have unsurprisingly improved beyond recognition in that time, the birth of a new subculture would have been altogether harder to predict.
Remove the “a” from the company name, and there you have it - eSports.
Whilst online and offline multi-player tournaments have long been an important component of video games culture, the advent of live streaming has taken electronic sports to exciting – and arguably unprecedented - new levels.
Worldwide audience numbers for eSports are predicted to hit an all-time high of 454 million this year, and are expected to grow to 644 million by 2022. Of these, 297 million are anticipated to be frequent viewers / enthusiasts.
In 2018, the global eSports market was valued at nearly US$865 million, and market revenue is projected to reach US$1.79 billion in 2022. Sponsorships and advertising are responsible for the majority of revenue, with the remainder achieved through merchandise, betting, prize pools, tournaments and ticket sales. The Asian market contributed to close to half of the global eSports market revenue in 2017 at US$406m, followed by North America (US$392m) and Europe (US$298m).
We’re talking big bucks, and the industry is only going to get bigger.
No longer is video gaming simply a popular pastime between friends. It has become a valid career choice whereby talented players ascend to the professional ranks, earning lucrative sponsorship deals and pulse-racing prize pots along the way. In fact, the top earning eSports player as of January 2019 – Kuro Takhasomi AKA KuroKy - has raked in over US$4.1m!
What intrigues me most, however, is the transition of audience members from active participant to passive viewer. Presumably, most of those who take an interest in eSports are gamers themselves. Gaming is a form of escapism; it provides entertainment, thrills, challenges, risk… Anyone who has faced Dr Robotnik even once will know that heart-in-mouth feeling of impending doom, and that same palpable tension is what keeps us coming back for more, time and time again.
In many ways, the attraction of passively watching eSports is akin to audiences watching films at the cinema or fans at a live football match. It is a shared, community-based activity, with twists and turns enough to keep you engaged throughout. No two games will ever be the same, and from that perspective it allows viewers to enjoy the spectacle without possessing the required talent to replicate the level of skill on show.
After all, you don’t need to play like Messi or Ronaldo to appreciate their artistry on the pitch. Nor do you have to be an expert driver (or a driver at all!) to relish watching Lewis Hamilton zip around the track at Silverstone.
And whilst I’m someone who has taken a back seat in gaming for many years now, I can’t help but sit up and notice when an advancement in technology changes the online landscape so drastically. In this instance, live streaming.
Twitch is a live streaming video platform that boasted 2.2 million monthly broadcasters in May last year, and 15 million daily active users. In August 2014, Amazon acquired Twitch for a whopping US$970 million - undoubtedly recognising the huge potential for growth in an emerging market as they have done time and time again.
Twitch describes themselves as:
…a global community of millions who come together each day to create their own entertainment: unique, live, unpredictable, never-to-be repeated experiences created by the magical interactions of the many. With chat built into every stream, you don’t just watch on Twitch, you’re a part of the show.
It seems Jeff Bezos made a good call when adding live gaming to his empire, and I sense this is only the beginning.
In March 2019, Google announced the launch of Stadia during their keynote address at the 2019 Game Developers Conference. Billed as a new gaming platform for playing AAA video games across all kinds of screens, their short, sharp website tagline reads:
The future of gaming is not a box.
The bigwigs at Apple clearly agree. No sooner had Stadia been introduced than Apple made an announcement that would shake the very core of the video games industry. Cue Apple Arcade.
Due to hit the App Store in Autumn 2019, Apple teases:
Apple has joined forces with some of the world’s most innovative game developers to push the boundaries of what’s possible. We’re working closely with these visionaries to help them realise the games of their dreams — and yours.
These multi-device, "all-you-can-play" subscription services represent a huge shift in the ever-changing world of video games, and will remove barriers to participation - such as expensive upfront console costs - in the process. And it's not hard to see why...
The disproportionate amount of time that the school-age children of today spend on iPads, computers and smartphones means they are not only primed to become the online audience of the future - they are already a substantial and incredibly valuable “part of the show”. The 2.4 BILLION views of Baby Shark Dance speak for themselves.
If we were living in a material world with Madonna in the 80s, we’re entering a virtual world now and one which may be impossible to ever escape from… Eggman or not.