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.

Latest comments (22)

James Ingrams Writer 5 years ago
A million? That makes it one of the smallest niches out there!! Many indie games that hardly anyone hav heard of have sold a million copies!
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Leo Wakelin Community & Social Media Manager, Fatshark5 years ago
I am genuinely excited for the future of eSports - really. I've been to a few "BarCrafts" as they're quaintly known - a really good gas even for someone who doesn't understand the technical elements in SC2 yet understands the principle.
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Mark Richardson Independent developer 5 years ago
I hope e-sports come to be as respected as other sports but I fear that this won't happen till games as a whole are seen as an entertainment medium by the general public like sports and movies are, rather than as a fun waste of time or a 'kids' thing. It's not just the older generation though, even some gamers dismiss the legitimacy of e-sports which is sad.

I would love nothing more than being able to watch e-sports on TV just like I can with everything else but that might be a few years away!
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Show all comments (22)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
The big sports, whose athletes can claim to have a career paying their bills for longer than an Olympic summer, share the fact that those sports change very little over the DECADES. Compare that to games.

Those big sports also share the fact of teams organizing into larger structures (FA -> UEFA -> FIFA) which then hold tournaments. You do not need the inventor of football or tennis to run a tournament of either. The players control the game 100%. Sports are bottom up in that way, while video games are controlled top down from the developer.

Esports are little more than over-sized marketing campaigns claiming to be something they are not. And if the new game is out, the tournament will feature that game, not the one from last year.

So yes, there is big marketing money being tossed around. Yes there is some money to be made reporting on it. But no, that does not constitute a sport, it is just an event, with people playing dress up. Darts is more of a sport, because it at least has honest drunks as an audience, not delusional watchbots who are fed advertisements from an aspirational angle.

Do I sound angry?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 16th August 2013 8:46pm

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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd5 years ago
I think it's all about the characters involved. So long as people care to know how their favourite contestant won and feel some sort of emotional connection with them there will be a market for spectators (I think).

For example I've spent a great deal more time watching people play CoD and BF than playing it. In fact I remember a time where people would take turns playing and the only thing everyone else could do was watch.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
About two months ago, I stood outside a GameStop and asked 100 people entering or leaving if they knew what DOTA 2 was. Two did and one of those got it half right by saying "it's a game... but I don't know anything about it".

For me, eSports is dead in the water as all you'll see should it attempt to go mainstream are matches that will bore or alienate new viewers not used to this sort of thing, constantly yelling announcers, ads for sodas, games and other target demographic-friendly ads along with the token appearance of all-female or mixed teams just to show it's not a sexist thing with the guns and the teabaggin' (which will probably be banned as well if it's a current part of the sport - don't want to offend anyone, right?). I bet we see "clean" games on TV as well (no gibs and gore, please - little Johnny is getting some FPS tips!).

DOTA is even more confusing to get into for new people who will want to know more about the game and not the personalities playing or how many cats they have or whatever else the shows will try to fill up time with between matches. Once it's seen to be busywork and not really as thrilling as it sounded, you'll see viewers drop off and go back to doing something else while all the hired tweeters and other social posters hyping this up online will end up talking to themselves at some point.

I'd lay a dollar out and say on the record that the only thing that will come of this will be a great deal of money spent to make it seem bigger than it is, followed by actual proof that it isn't. Five years from now (or less), it'll be reported as a money-losing failure as a "sport" and go back to the more successful niche it needed to stay in before this latest "expansion" into the mainstream.

That and if it does take off, certain news outlets and politicians in the US will have freaking field day using this as more ammo in the "games cause violence!" claptrap parade they love to get into every few months.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 5 years ago
I still miss CGS and watching the Halo 2/Halo 3 MLG finals back in the day. Those kind of games(fighters, shooters) are the only eSports games I really care about, outside of a very few small niche titles. But stuff like rts or sports games have virtually zero interest to me.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 17th August 2013 1:40am

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Spike Laurie International Digital Games Coordinator, Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment5 years ago
@Klaus. DOTA is already a decade old, and eSports certainly predates that by another 5 years. I'd suggest you do a little more research before weighing in on this one stud. Your FIFA analogy is also pretty weak and doesn't hold any water. Please feel free to google WCG, MLG, ESL. Just to name a few heavyweights.

The facts of the matter are that a) people are playing games competitively. Houses run by managers where players practise round the clock, all paid for by either contract wages, prize money splits or sponsorship. And b) millions more people want to watch them compete and are willing to pay and travel to do so.

In the mean time, please feel free to discuss how clash of clans and candy crush saga are the future of gaming and leave this area of the industry to the rest of us.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago

The ESL is product of a GmbH, which is the German version of the Llc., the cooperate form the MLG has and google knows what type of cooperation the WCG is. To that end, the companies you mention as heavweights are little more than the flimsiest types of companies with products. Such as Sony is a company and PSN is their product, only Sony is a stock market company. The existence of both company and product depends on marketability and profit of their product.

This is a fundamental difference to a sport, which is not the result of a company providing a service, but the result of various levels of association between the people competing in a sport. The existence of a sport depends on the willingness of the associations to exist and players to compete.

Regarding the longevity of something, there is a huge difference between being fueled by cash-flow and being fueled by a cultural movement. People will find a way to compete and eventually something might become a sport. But due to the path of lowest resistance, video game competition is funneled into product which are in nature less sport and more marketing campaign. You might say, you also see a lot of ads in football, but those are usually not targeted at getting you to play football. That is the difference to "The International", which, even though it has players competing, is little more than an advert to turn viewers into new customers; or strengthen the bond between product and existing players. Same goes for most other "e-sport" games and their tournaments.

There is also a huge difference between an association controlling every tiny rules aspect of a sport and gamers getting together based on the rules a developer creates and maintains. If an association of competing participants of a sport cannot exert control over their sport, they are but hand-puppets of the people controlling the rules. Every board game tournament is in better condition than computer games when it comes to that.

From your Hulkster icon I can tell you know at least one type of entertainment that isn't a real sport either, while fitting all the criteria you claim to be proof of a sport. Sure, it is a big spectacle and a lot of money is involved, but that does not make it a sport. Even if the wrestlers themselves are very "athletic", they are handpuppets of a company with a product. The contract with a company, such as WWE, does not make them "pro-athletes", it makes them employees. Ones who put on a fine show, complete with stunts and plotlines.

As for kids living in a house training to perform at a company's product, that is not sport, that is the Jersey Shore gone horribly wrong. If they played even just regional football, the first thing their team would provide was a real job, so they could play on the side for the local team while having a real life. That social responsibility between organizers and people competing is THE most important aspect of a sport.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd5 years ago
@Klauss: Here's an interesting article on whether chess is a sport --- Is Chess A Sport?
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
The premise of the article hinges on deciding which binary state applies. This is a flawed assumption.

When it comes to fitness products, such as Nike Fuel, or Zombie Run, we have accepted that fact of a target demographic being extended by introducing game elements, creating a "gameified" version of something in the process. The question is not whether or not the resulting product is to be considered a game, it is simply a matter of making the attribute stick enough so the consumer base can be extended.

The idea of sport can be used in the same way. You take a product and apply characteristics and tropes of a sport to make the product more appealing to a crowd which understands sport, or for whom adding sport to something makes it more appealing. This is what for me defines the nature of the so called e-sports.

This is a difference to a sport which has nothing but itself to go on. A sport which is done for the sake of itself, instead of being a layer of appeasement to polish another product. In my opinion, the human activities that can constitute a sport are not limited to physical exertion, meaning mental competition can be a sport as well.

To that end, Chess can be done as a sport and current gaming leagues are still promotion vehicles which are "sportified". But not a sport in the same way female beach volleyball was sexed up without be perceived as a titty magazine.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
When Valve created The International there was no doubt of it being a marketing event before anything else. It has offered a great spectacle and Valve has put considerable resources into dressing the event up in any way imaginable. And there is nothing wrong with enjoying it for what it was.

But we should remain critical before making games into something they are not and perceive the event without looking at the agenda. Otherwise we would be lying to ourselves.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd5 years ago
The premise of the article hinges on deciding which binary state applies. This is a flawed assumption.
What exactly is the flaw?

/s/ is a Sport if /s/ satisfies conditions /xyz/

Surely the discussion of whether something is a sport, or satisfies any classification requires a definition of the class. Or are you suggesting that an activity itself is too much of a generalised scope? If so then that would be more of a discussion of the factor of context.

Though ultimately the question then is its relevance to e-sports? I would imagine the relevance is that being a sport makes it a more respectable activity that the justifies it as a spectator sport since the opposing case is that it is a meaningless activity that is an absolute waste of a rational and mature person's time to indulge in.
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Spike Laurie International Digital Games Coordinator, Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment5 years ago
I feel we are now arguing the semantics of what defines a 'sport'....
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
Imagine two colors, blue and red. You can mix those colors in many ways, get many shades of purple out of it. You can add a third color to produce even more shades. If one color outweighs the others, you might even ignore the shading and say a mixture of three colors was the same thing than one of the base colors.

Not just colors can behave that way, but also things such as sports, entertainment and business. They blend very well and we are accustomed to seeing many blended mixtures. Trying to chase a pure base form is absolutely hopeless. But you can still look close enough to make out a difference between a green tinted blue from a blue tinted green.

As passive consumers, our view is determined by our role as observer. We want to be entertained and we like sports. Then there is no shortage from sports-colored entertainment (WWE, American Gladiator) to entertainment-tinted sports (Superbowl, Olympics). To that end we also accept the wild mixture of entertainment, games and advertisement produced in the shape of a sports broadcast. It can all be blended.

There is no shortage of companies and associations stirring up mixtures of all these elements with video games tossed in for good measure. They come from different directions, with different goals and different means. So far, this is all very entertaining for the observer and all seems well in the e-sports kingdom. However, I cannot stress enough that the activities we mainly perceive as sports (although other elements are blended in, but the sports core outweighs the other elements) do not focus on the product and its viewers, but are instead by the players for the players and try to be responsible to the players every single step of the way. This is where most e-sports I have seen so far explode into nothingness. This is a competitive edge of sports over e-sports, because parents will not have a problem with sending their 12 year old kids to the private school of a football club, tennis association, etc. It is a competitive edge of sports supported by special military units to help athletes perform their sport at a later age (ok, Korea does have one Starcraft program, but that is the anomaly not the norm).

A sport focused mixture tries not to offer you money to quit your job. It tries to fuse your willingness to compete and the sport you compete in into a working career right from the start. That in turn creates an environment of players competing purely based on skill, which then gives rise to structures carrying fully paid athletes with no other job. That is what I meant with bottom up structure of sports. While there are video gaming leagues who appear to be professional in every aspect, it is important to not overlook the obligation to responsibility towards each and every player that makes up a good sport. Because I do get the feeling we are willing to do that for the sake of being finally able to call esports real.
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Rogier Voet IT Consultant 5 years ago
e-Sport has died and risen so many times. It's very easy to explain why e-Sports fail to make it really big.
it should be exiting to watch for the general public, and right know it's really not.
Starcraft, League of Legends. I'm not denying those people have skill, but watching a match is about as exiting as watching paint dry.

So unless a really popular game comes out which is super exciting to see and understand as a non-gamer e-Sports will always remain a niche.
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David Serrano Freelancer 5 years ago
I think the growth of e-sports as a profit center has caused many in the industry and media to have a George Bush standing in front of a mission accomplished banner moment. Not to rain on the parade but in the immortal words of the Wolf in Pulp Fiction: "let's not start sucking each other's dicks quite yet."

Is there money to be made off e-sports? Yup. Does this mean there is any level of broad, cross generational interest in viewing or participating in e-sports? No, and there realistically won't be until at least one generation of players have grown up viewing and participating in the activity. So e-sports will most likely follow the same trajectory as skateboarding and snowboarding. Meaning, it may not be "for real" in terms of broad, cross generational mass market appeal until the current generation of teen and twenty-something players and fans are in their late 30's or 40's and have kids of their own. This doesn't mean the industry won't make boat loads of money between now and then. But it does mean e-sports will exclusively appeal to a demographically niche audience for many years to come. Which isn't a bad thing as long as those involved keep this in perspective.
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Rogier Voet IT Consultant 5 years ago
Some other people are very excited and enjoy to see how those games are played.
I love playing games and have seen plenty of game footage which I enjoy. The games which are now actively playing in e-Sports (LOL and Starcraft II) are only interesting if you play those games competitively. To compare it to sports, people may find soccer, tennis or baseball boring, but they understand what they see. Same goes for a good iRacing Grand Prix.

How many gamers (who do not play) will understand the footage shown from a StarCraft II-mtach and be excited by it? Now replace the average gamer with an average adult? I think that if you would show the Tetris World Championships they would attract more viewers that any League of Legends match, because people understand that game and can see how people compete.
But we understood you don't believe in E-sport and don't enjoy that yourself. From to your opinion to a general rule, there is a huge gap the reasonable man would not attempt to cross (because as a reasonable man he knows he would fall down).
I played some games (Quake 3, Unreal Tournament fanaticly both online and on LAN-events. So to say that I don't enjoy e-Sports is not correct). While I don't play at that level anymore, it does not mean I don't admire them.

But the fact remains that while all games have depth and require skill they are not all interesting to watch. I love X-Com, CIV5 but watching that is really boring (same goes for StarCraft II and League of Legends).
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd5 years ago
Then the same questioning can be applied to watching football, poker, snooker, tennis, marathons and so on and so on
FYI that wasn't a dig at e-sports.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 19th August 2013 6:27pm

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Sarkhan Lyutfaliev EU Localization QA Lead, Riot Games Ltd5 years ago
Sometimes it just boggles my mind how short sighted some people are.

First of all, I agree with the point of the article: e-sports is by no means aiming at being the next big mainstream thing. It just wants to have its audience, build some base. Any comparison with an established main stream sport (invented in most cases hundreds of years ago) is outright meaningless.

We have to take things into perspective and see e-sport as an evolution of new generation of young gamers coupled with appearance of new generation media services (I'm referring to video streaming services of course). This content is D2C, no restrictions, no high production costs (compared to the traditional media), yet still quite respectable audiences that actually can be monetized effectively.

Last but not least, e-sports is NOT an artificial thing or as some suggested a product of marketing based purely on Valve's, Riot's or Blizzard's ability to push it through the media. This is just not the case. Yes, those companies support it in a big way, yes they invest a lot of money into it, but it actually pays off and most importantly the audience is there to back it up despite of what any naysayers may say. The numbers are there, the following is massive and most importantly it's been steadily growing through the past several years:

I believe the future is bright for e-sports.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sarkhan Lyutfaliev on 20th August 2013 6:17am

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Ben Studying Media and Cultural studies, University of Sussex5 years ago
I am currently writing my thesis on sport history (professional wrestling in England). I am a gamer (don't know what the position between casual and hardcore is?!) and enjoy reading the site and the comments but have not felt the need to comment before. I thought I might be able to add a few thoughts to the debate already taking place.

First, with regards to the semantic debate and discussion taking place above. You'd be surprised how often this debate comes up in sport studies (especially when you head back into the early modern period). My gut feeling, and Rob points this out, is that the moniker e-sports, while useful in some regards, is a bit distracting. If one wanted to push the argument one could (competition, hand eye coordination etc), but I don't know what favours it does for anyone.

I think there is a good argument to be made that the vast majority of sports fans have played that sport themselves at some point. The most popular and successful sports today were those that were *reasonably* accessible, exciting, and vivid. So if a sport is difficult to watch (water polo springs to mind) or overly subtle (Olympic wrestling) it will struggle to attract a large audience.

The discussion about sports being 'bottom up' rather than 'top down' is one that is harder to argue. Sports organisations have always been very protective of their sport and its competitions. Frankly, the idea that sporting competition is not about selling a product hasn't been true since about 1890. It doesn't take much digging to find a whole range of sporting competitions that exist solely to sell a product with the sporting competition as a bit of an afterthought. Crucially, since the 1950s, sport has existed to provide audiences for advertisers. I can't see how e-sports is much difference in this regard.
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Ian Lambert Software Engineer, Criterion Games5 years ago
Before this became a debate about the definition of sport, Klaus raised an interesting point. As I read it, the point made by this article isn't that eSports have become a real sport, it's that eSports have become sustainable - it's not about competing with the SuperBowl, it's about there being a large enough niche audience and low enough barriers to entry for this to continue for the foreseeable future. There are two key points Klaus made that are crucial:
1) "The big sports...change very little over the DECADES. Compare that to games."
2) "Sports are bottom up...while video games are controlled top down from the developer."
This current wave of eSports is interesting in that point 2 doesn't currently apply - as far as I know, twitch and the boom in gaming bars and the like isn't publisher/developer driven but, as Rob says, the product of a genuine grass roots following. However, I see the biggest threat to this as point 1; the very companies who's products are the foundation of the movement can change the games, stop supporting the games, and compete with the games, and unless they can engineer a situation where point 2 is true (i.e. they are in control, or at least getting a hefty cut), in may well be in their interests to do so. Football fans can create a FIFA; all you need is two jumpers and something round to play football. eSports will always be beholden the companies who's products they play, and unless that relationship is managed very sensitively, they can take your balls away whenever they like. So far it seems Valve and co have been supportive - it builds a huge fan base for their games - but that may not always be the case
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