Going Virtual: The rise of esports

Written by
May 13, 2024

The first recorded esports event was in 1972 - The Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics - hosted by the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University. Since then, esports has turned into a billion-dollar industry, attracting an enormous global audience expected to reach 495 million in 2020

But what makes esports so successful? 

The competitive aspect of esports might seem like the main attraction, but our love of a good competition is nothing new. 

Competitiveness is a biological trait, a trait that was essential for our evolution and survival - it's the reason we love to win and hate to lose. As a viewer, it's why we find competitions so entertaining, with our history of competitions dating back to the Greek Olympic Games in 776 BC. If the competitive element of esports is nothing new, perhaps the similarities esports share with the sporting industry could explain its success?

The parallels between esports and traditional sports have often been perceived as a namesake, but the industries have a lot more in common than you might think. 

Newzoo noted that esports audiences are far more likely to be active in a team sport than the average online population. The discipline learned through sports can play a crucial role when it comes to preparing for esports tournaments, with most esports players reporting that they clock in 50 hours of gameplay each week, while some professionals admit to practising for up to 12 hours a day! 

Once the practice is in, it's over to the arena to compete in front of the crowds. The online audience reached 60 million at the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational 2018, so it comes as no surprise that esports professionals face the same level of psychological pressure as pro-athletes. This pressure is only heightened by their celebrity status, with the majority of players hosting daily streams to their global audiences across social channels and streaming platforms. 

Similar to the sporting world, personality plays a significant role in the success of esports professionals, with advertising and branding deals a core part of their income. But the real pay-out comes from the tournament prize money, with individuals taking home up to $6.8 million - exceeding the prize money awarded at global sporting events including Wimbledon, the Masters and the U.S Open.

COVID-19 hit the sports industry hard - social distancing and PPE are not particularly useful when it comes to contact sport, and so the sporting world paused. Gyms closed, arenas shut their doors, and the games were cancelled. The sporting world came to a halt, while esports continued to thrive.

The ESL Pro League ran between 16 March and 12 April, recording its most successful season in the competition's history, with close to half a million concurrent viewers, proving that until esports championships around the world are able to open their doors again, esports audiences will remain where they always have been - online.

Accessing esports has always had less friction compared to other forms of sports or entertainment. For one, you can engage with esports your way, with multiple free streaming platforms available across an array of devices. Secondly, there's a tournament for everyone, from Fortnite to FIFA and everything in between. But the real reason esports is so successful is gaming, and gaming’s ability to be omnipresent in our lives. 

When the stream ends, and the arena closes its doors, this audience continues to play, watch, read, discuss, socialise and spend. Gaming can be lazy or professional, at home or on the go, it can calm us or energise us, and it can be social or private. Esports is the theatrical younger sibling of gaming. To understand esports, you have to get to know gaming, and it's well worthwhile - the world's 2.7 billion gamers are expected to spend $159.3 billion on games in 2020.

Gamers spend hours streaming, gaming and researching, leaving little time for them to consume 'traditional' forms of media such as TV. Gaming and esports environments offer a unique opportunity for brands to reach these gamers - and reaching them doesn't always mean sponsoring a live esports event. 

If you were looking to reach a football fan, you wouldn’t expect your only option to be sponsoring the World Cup. You’d be looking into sports news sites, fantasy football, FIFA and more. So when it comes to esports, take the same approach. Consider targeting streaming platforms, gaming blogs, gaming news sites or reach the audience in-game on popular esports titles. Looking up how much storage you need to install a game update is just as important to this audience as tuning in to the latest esports stream.  

Esports is new, exciting, and vast - but when you strip it back to gaming, everything becomes a lot clearer. For brands looking to engage with esports audiences, start by understanding the gamer.

As featured in the IAB UK Guide to Digital Innovation 2020.