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From Pixel to Podium: Unveiling the Phenomenon of Esports

Within the sports industry, change is inevitable. Though these changes are standard for the industry, in recent years, the eSports realm has caused a seismic shift. Esports, short for electronic sports, has become a dominating force in the sports industry, armed with athletes with lightning-fast reflexes, strategic acumen and unwavering determination. Since its inception as a competitive sport in the 1990’s, eSports has been revolutionizing not only the sports industry, but the way that we perceive competition and entertainment. This rapidly growing phenomenon has transcended the traditional boundaries of sports, captivating millions of passionate fans, rivaling viewership of traditional sports and attracting colossal investments from global brands. Today, we will be going over what eSports is, how it’s changing the industry and what this means for the sports industry.

Courtesy of Florian Olivio

To start, let’s discuss what eSports are and where they came from. As mentioned earlier, eSports is an abbreviated way of saying electronic sports. In its most basic sense, eSports are video games that are played at a highly competitive and organized level. The games that are played in eSports vary widely, but types of games that are commonly played include first person shooter games, team-oriented multiplayer online battle arenas and even virtual adaptations of physical sports.


Though eSports have been a concept for a while, in recent years the success surrounding eSports has grown exponentially. From collegiate level eSports to highly organized arena gaming, the leagues, opportunities and pathways with eSports are endless. The rise in popularity can be credited to the young adult demographic growing up and having a much heavier influence on the sports industry. Studies currently show that viewership for traditional sports and leagues like NFL, NBA and so on are dwindling while viewership for eSports is climbing.


The history behind eSports is quite fascinating when you begin looking into it. The history begins in the 2000’s in South Korea. At the time, South Korea was entering a severe financial crisis. In an attempt to minimize the effects of the financial crisis and preserve the economy, their government began focusing on developing the country's internet and telecommunications infrastructure. Soon after the government switched focus, a new type of social space started becoming all the rage: PC Bangs. PC Bangs aren’t wildly popular anymore, but at the time they were as ubiquitous as basketball courts and soccer fields. You might be wondering what PC Bangs are. PC Bangs are restaurants, bars and similar spaces that would function as gaming clubs. They were a great space for gamers to get together and show off their skills while simultaneously bonding over a shared love of video games. Soon after their conception, they began holding formal competitions.


After realizing the market for eSports, the Koreans decided to get involved and create the Korean Esport Association (KeSPA). The KeSPA was the first government body that was dedicated to video game and eSports regulation in the world.


The first two games that emerged at actual eSports were Starcraft (1998)/Starcraft (2010) and Defense of the Ancients 2 (2013). In the Korean circuit, the Starcrafts remained more popular, which ended up creating the first developer of organized and sponsored gaming leagues. However, DOTA 2 remained popular and the international championship still holds the largest prize pool of any eSports event (US $13.5 million) out of a total prize pool of US $30.8 million (as of 2020).

Courtesy of Sean Do

Unlike traditional sports, eSports have a few important elements that differentiate them from traditional sports.

  • The role of the game publishers and developers

  • The threat of becoming obsolete

  • Distribution and access to the game

For esport developers, there are two different types. There are what is known as “hands off” developers such as Microsoft and Nintendo who chose to not be involved in the organizing of eSports events and their respective titles, and instead allow the community to organize competitions and tournaments as long as they seek the developers approval. Then there are also '”hands-on”’ developers such as Riot Games, Activision Blizzard and Valve Corporation, who are all responsible for actively planning and organizing professional events/tournaments/championships for their respective games. Between “hands off” and “hands on”developers, “hands on” developers are growing much more rapidly. Basically what this means is that the private corporation that holds the intellectual property rights to the game is also responsible for organizing its professional competition; ultimately they have control over how the game is played.


An important note about eSports is that unlike physical sports, where anyone can pick up a hockey stick and play a game of hockey at any time, eSports are contingent on the choices of the developer. If a developer decides to shutter a game, they are able to. Since developers hold sole intellectual property rights to their game, they get to decide who has access to games and when they have access to the game.


A platform that largely changed the eSports landscape was the creation of Twitch. Twitch was founded in 2011 and is currently owned by Amazon. Though Twitch wasn’t the first streaming platform, it has grown to be the largest. Developers and Twitch interact in a unique way. Despite other companies attempting to make alternatives to Twitch, developers get to decide which platforms they use for their official broadcasts and almost all of them choose Twitch. Platforms that are paid-to-watch are unlikely to be chosen compared to free platforms as it decreases the authenticity of eSports, one of their appeal points.

Courtesy of Ella Don

Fundamentally, eSports are a different ballpark to traditional sports, however, there are significant similarities. Professional level leagues are increasingly franchised, whereas eSports teams are building sizable, and in many cases, nearly cult-like followings. In some cases, eSports teams play scheduled games which end in playoffs and major-scale events. It is common nowadays for eSports players to begin to have contracts and they are being invested in through facilities and training.


Now that you have an understanding of the background of eSports, we can delve into how eSports have changed traditional sports. Many people have noted the largest change that eSports has caused for traditional sports is the effects they have had on how people consume sports. Younger people tend to like watching eSports nowadays compared to traditional games that are broadcasted; this has led to a decrease in viewership of sports like basketball and football.


Similarly, eSports has had a significant effect on virtual sports (video games that simulate real sports). These are becoming more and more popular and they are allowing sports organizations to reach a younger audience that may not have an interest in physical sports.


Lastly, the rise of eSports have had a tremendous effect on sports betting. Now, many sportsbooks offer eSports betting which has become extremely popular for people to bet on. This has increased revenue for sportsbooks and allowed them to expand their offerings.


Now that we know where we are, do we know where we are going? With eSports having over 810 million enthusiasts, the eSports world is gradually becoming larger. It is expected that by the end of 2023, the esport industry revenue will be over $1.3 billion USD. In the following years, changes like an increase in professionalism, the adoption of AI into eSports, changing accessibility and players unions are all expected to come about. To learn more about the future of eSports, check out this article!

Courtesy of Alex Haney

Looking to the future, eSports shows no signs of slowing down. The evolution of eSports holds immense potential, shaping the sports industry and redefining the boundaries of competition and entertainment. As we embark on this exciting journey, it is crucial to stay informed and keep a close eye on the future of eSports as it continues to reshape the sports industry and captivate audiences worldwide.


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Edited by: Kaya Crawford

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