eSports: This time, it's for real
The pro-gaming movement has cried wolf many times - but all the signs say that this revival is a sustainable one
Earlier this month, a million people around the world tuned in to watch a live DOTA 2 tournament broadcast. At least a million, in fact - there were a million streams of the event, but many of those were probably watched by more than one person, including a large number which were watched at crowded bar events in 40 different countries. This is a landmark figure for DOTA 2's professional events, but these viewing numbers are not an aberration. In recent years, eSports has undergone a revolution. Soaring audience and engagement figures have become the norm, and nobody knows where this growth will start to slow.
"A handful of P.T. Barnum types emerged time and again as ringmasters of this dubious spectacle, which did little more in the long run than rip off sponsors"
This is not the first time that eSports has seemed to be on the verge of seriously taking off. In fact, this sector has been the boy who cried wolf for the best part of two decades. Every few years, eSports would suddenly generate a flurry of attention, as the multiplayer game of the moment was heralded as The Sport of the Future, sponsors piled on to create large prize pots for winning "cyber-athletes" and the media was swept up, briefly, in a PR campaign that focused on the money on offer while carefully avoiding any mention of just how small the audiences were. A handful of soi-disant P.T. Barnum types emerged time and again as ringmasters of this dubious spectacle, which did little more in the long run than rip off sponsors (and often players as well) and establish eSports as the territory of shysters, con-men and self-aggrandising fantasists.
I'm going to claim, of course, that this time is different. I know that it's different for one simple reason - because I found out about it, not through a hyperbole-laden press release, but through friends messaging me to ask if I'd seen the latest tournament, or casually mentioning that they'd been to a pub event to watch an eSports final while drinking a beer. I'm not saying that these friends are representative of the general public - they are quite core gamers, although by no means ultra-hardcore and certainly not players at an eSports league standard in their own right. However, my point is that I found out that eSports was undergoing a genuine revival not because a PR person told me, but because there's an actual audience, with actual people I know watching actual matches and enjoying them.
In short, this is something eSports has never had before - a grassroots audience, with organic growth driving its uptake. It helps vastly that the games being used are different this time around. I am absolutely terrible at Starcraft 2 and haven't played LOL or DOTA for more than 10 minutes apiece, but the nature of these games means that you can sit down to watch a match with only the most minimal of game experience under your belt and still fully enjoy watching the events unfold. The core FPS games which were promoted as the eSports platforms of yesteryear were vastly less viewer-friendly - completely impenetrable to the non-player, with most of the game-winning tactics and skills being so subtle as to be nigh-on invisible even to most experienced players.
"Spectator gaming doesn't need to have an audience that rivals traditional sports in order to be a big deal. All it needs is an audience that justifies the spend of sponsors and advertisers"
It also helps a great deal that the only nation where eSports really took off in the past, South Korea, is an active and enthusiastic participant in the internationalisation of eSports. Almost ten years ago, I was astonished by the atmosphere and professionalism on display when I attended a pro Starcraft match in a TV studio in downtown Seoul, filled with enthusiastic fans and being broadcast around the nation to many thousands more. Now, South Korean eSports players engage at the highest levels in leagues around the world, which has helped to ensure that that kind of event can be seen regularly in cities far from Seoul across Asia, North America and Europe. Local cultures elsewhere have also created regional variations on eSports culture - I'm not sure where exactly the "Barcraft" phenomenon, a perfectly logical combination of fiendish strategy game contests with lashings of alcohol, was born, but I raise my glass to its originators.
All the same, it's easy to dismiss this latest rise of eSports out of hand, and many within the industry do exactly that - not least because there aren't too many companies in the industry that haven't been burned previously in one of the many, many instances of eSports event organisers crying wolf about the success of the sector. Beyond that reputation, however, there are other reasons for the ready dismissal the notion of pro-gaming or gaming as spectator event. To some extent, the unfortunate "eSports" moniker itself is to blame. It invites comparisons that are simply daft - Premier League football, the Superbowl, Formula 1 racing, the Olympics. Stacked up against the hundreds of millions or even billions who watch such events, a million or two watching DOTA 2 is small beer - yet that comparison is neither fair nor useful.
Spectator gaming doesn't need to have an audience that rivals traditional sports in order to be a big deal. All it needs is an audience that justifies the spend of sponsors and advertisers, and the business model is absolutely sound - and in that regard, the somewhat narrow focus of eSports' existing and rapidly growing audience is actually a positive, since it allows for high-value targeted advertising. There are lots of minority sports all over the world which operate on exactly the same model - the problem with eSports up until now is that it hasn't even had the same kind of grassroots audience that a minority sport enjoyed. That's no longer the case; eSports is comfortably in the same league, in terms of spectator popularity, as a wide variety of perfectly respectable and successful regional minority sports.
It's worth noting that one of the big changes which has brought us to this stage in affairs is the declining importance of broadcast television. For over a decade, the holy grail of eSports promoters (and indeed of many people in the games media) has been to get onto broadcast television - but the present rise of eSports is happening largely without any support from broadcast TV networks, simply because such networks have been largely bypassed. eSports broadcasts are far more at home on Twitch or even on YouTube than they ever would have been on the restrictive and demanding broadcast TV networks; moreover, eSports has its very origins in international rather than national events, so the borderless nature of Internet broadcasting fits it far better than the infuriating region restrictions of TV networks.
"The present rise of eSports is happening largely without any support from broadcast TV networks, simply because such networks have been largely bypassed"
In a sense, it has always been inevitable that video games would eventually find an outlet as a spectator medium as well as an interactive medium. The two notions are not conflicting; a great many of the people who watch Premier League football also kick around on a Sunday afternoon, and vice versa. In fact, watching a game or sport being played at a high level while dabbling in playing it yourself at a level you're comfortable with is pretty much the most natural way to enjoy any such activity. Thanks to internet broadcasting, video games are finally turning into something similar on a large scale. Let's Play video culture is part of that; Twitch-style broadcasting is part of that - and eSports, too, is a rapidly growing movement that directly feeds into that approach to enjoying games.
Of course, there will still be those who dismiss eSports simply because they do not and will never have the reach of a top-grossing casual game or a chart-busting console release - but one of the running themes of the games industry in recent years has been the development of increasing complexity, of more and more different facets to the industry. eSports, this time out, isn't a flash in the pan or the pipe-dream of a conniving showman. It's a new and sustainable facet of our wonderfully complex industry, and it's here to stay.