Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

The Rapid Growth of eSports

Posted on 21 February 2019 by Edd Oliver

eSports, or competitive video games, have become part of mainstream TV sports coverage over the last few years, and eSports FIFA or Street Fighter competitions are now a common feature of Sky Sports’ schedules.

Indeed eSports has grown so quickly that the most successful players of the most popular eSports games can now earn more than professional athletes in some traditional sports, according to a report from JD Sports.

Although organised online and offline competitions have long been a part of video games, they have traditionally been, and in most cases still are, played principally between amateurs.

However in the late 2000s participation by professional gamers in eSports, and spectatorship of the events through live streaming, saw a surge in eSports’ popularity.  

In the last decade eSports have become a significant part of the videogame industry, with many game developers slanting their games towards multiplayer modes that qualify as eSports, rather than concentrating on the more traditional single player experience.

eSports in Kingston-upon-Thames

In 2019 it is estimated that 427 million people worldwide watch some form of eSports, with the increasing availability of online media streaming platforms such as YouTube and Twitch being central to the growth and promotion of eSports competitions. 

In terms of the audience demographics Major League Gaming reported that viewership is 85% male and 15% female, with a majority of viewers aged between 18 and 34.

Over the past two years the NBA (NBA 2K), NFL (Madden) and English Premier League (FIFA) have all set up their own eSports leagues, with players representing real-life NBA, NFL and Premier League teams while playing the respective videogames at tournaments.  

Worldwide however by far the most money is available for professional Dota 2 players.  Dota 2 is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game also known as an action real-time strategy (ARTS) game, in which a player controls a single character in a team who compete versus another team of players.

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The 2018 Dota 2 Finals drew huge crowds in Vancouver

The objective is to destroy the opposing team’s main structure with the assistance of computer controlled units that march forward along set paths.  The specialist knowledge required to understand games such as Dota 2 and its MOBA rival ‘League of Legends’ is perhaps the biggest hurdle the games have to overcome to gain further mainstream popularity in the west, but in the far east Dota 2 and other MOBAs are hugely popular.      

This is particularly the case in South Korea, where professional gamers are minor celebrities and games are broadcast over television channels specifically dedicated to gaming.  Most professional gamers practise for over eight hours a day and spend lunch and dinner times discussing strategy and reviewing videos of previous matches.  

The 2018 Dota 2 Championship offered a total prize pool of $25,532,200, with each player on the five man winning team earning $2,247,000.  The prize pool is inflated by fan crowdfunding through the purchase of in-game items, one such method being the use of ‘loot boxes’. 

Loot boxes have gained notoriety in recent months, with increasing numbers of politicians around the world now regarding them as a form of legalised gambling for children. 

In fact Belgium went so far as making them illegal in April 2018, and launched a criminal investigation last October into Electronic Arts, the publisher of FIFA, over its use of them. 

However for publishers loot boxes are a huge source of income: Activision Blizzard, the publishers of Call of Duty and Overwatch, made $4 billion from loot boxes and other microtransactions in 2017, and they have helped make eSports as successful as it is.   

Kuro Takhasomi, a 26-year-old German Dota 2 player and captain of ‘Team Liquid’ is the highest earning eSports player of all time, and has earned over $4 million in prize money and averages winnings of $45,000 per tournament. 

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Kuro Takhasomi in action during the 2018 Dota 2 Finals

First released in July 2013, Dota 2 is still holding off the challenge of the hugely popular game Fortnite, which came out in July 2017 and has since become something of a phenomenon amongst younger gamers.  Indeed the top 44 eSports earners of all time are all Dota 2 players.

One person who has benefited from the huge success of Fortnite is ‘Ninja’ (real name Richard Tyler Blevins), a 27-year-old from Detroit, who has over 21 million YouTube subscribers, over 13 million Twitch followers, and earns over $500,000 per month from playing Fortnite online, whilst his subscribers watch. 

In September 2018 he became the first professional eSports player to be featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, marking a breakthrough for an eSports player into mainstream sports fame.    

However despite Ninja’s phenomenal popularity amongst gamers, in terms of prize money Fortnite tournaments still lag behind Dota 2, and at the Fortnite Fall Skirmish Series last year the prize pool was a relatively measly $4,000,000 with $1,500,000 going to the winning team. 

The eSports industry has grown significantly over the last six years with substantial increases in earnings. According to JD Sports’ report this is mainly due to the top three games offering the most prize money in the history of eSports (Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends) all being released in either 2012 or 2013. 

The concurrent appearance and growth of streaming platforms such as Twitch and Youtube, perfectly suited as they are for eSports, has also made eSports more sustainable and the growth more significant .

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Ninja (bottom left) competing at a Fortnite tournament in Los Angeles in 2018

The number of eSports tournaments increased each year over 17 years from just nine in 1998 to 5,090 in 2015, but the average tournament prize pool stayed roughly the same from 1998’s $14,633 to 2015’s $13,096. 

However a steady reduction in tournaments since 2015 saw 3,404 tournaments take place in 2018, with an increase in the average prize pool to $44,427, making eSports a more sustainable career for professional gamers.

There are more professional eSports players now than there have ever been and with the emergence of Fortnite, JD Sports forecast that if the industry experiences a similar rate of growth in 2018-19 as it did in 2017-18 (a 31% increase), total yearly player earnings will surpass $195 million in 2019.

Not only is eSports leading the way in terms of growth, but it is now a potential career for any gamers with the dedication, skill, time and perhaps most importantly the willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to become an eSports champion.

In 2019, the impossible dream of many ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s kids of being paid to play videogames is now very much reality.

Featured image/Wikicommons

Thanks to JD Sports for many of the statistics regarding eSports earnings and prize money