Esports is a sector of the games industry that has cried wolf so often over the past 20 years or so that I think quite a few people in the industry simply tune it out. You can almost see the eyes glazing over in meetings sometimes, and it's an understandable response in ways.
It's not that the concept of eSports is disliked, but many executives have watched this sector over-promise and under-deliver time and time and time again. What success has been achieved has for the most part not only been niche, but also short-lived. The grand promise of a venture that would create game broadcasts watched as much as sports -- with high-profile "cyber-athletes" to match -- has never really been fulfilled in any meaningful way.
Yet if esports is doomed to languish, as it has often seemed to in the past couple of decades, the competitors, attendees and spectators at the recent Fortnite World Cup in New York clearly did not get the memo. The prize pool -- a metric esports organisers have often focused on, though it's more a measure of sponsor interest than of actual popularity -- was impressive, with a total of $30 million being offered and top prizes of $3 million each for the singles and doubles winners (though the latter would, of course, have to split it in two).
"The Fortnite World Cup was arguably one of the most open and meritocratic sporting events of any type ever held"
The money, though, paled compared to the participation. Setting aside the jamboree atmosphere of the physical event itself, around two million people watched the final live. More importantly, some 40 million players around the world participated in qualifying rounds, which were finally whittled down to 200 (100 individuals and 50 pairs) for the finals.
This latter number is particularly important, and not just because it's such a big figure; it's important because it represents something that esports has promised all along but never quite managed to deliver on. Fortnite isn't just a high-level competitive game, it's also one of the most popular games in the world, period -- and it built its tournament around a structure that allowed every player to take a shot at winning that golden ticket.
The Fortnite World Cup was arguably one of the most open and meritocratic sporting events of any type ever held; every player of the game could enter and dream of winning. The eventual winner, Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf, is a 16 year-old from Pennsylvania, albeit one with a track record of previous success in tournaments who signed to esports team Sentinels earlier this year.
The structure of the tournament, which didn't privilege professional players in any way beyond their ability to spend more time training, is a big deal in attracting interest, but it's only one factor in the success of Fortnite as an esport. The game has, by accident or by design, hit upon a formula that combines three essential things: it has extraordinarily broad appeal as a casual hobby, it has the right ingredients for high-level competitive play, and it's exciting to watch as a spectator. Previous esports titles have often only managed to hit one of those bases; the best of them have hit two. (Smash Bros, which is also seeing a lot of esports interest recently, also pretty much ticks those boxes, but the scale of its popularity is an order of magnitude away from Fortnite's.)
"The true potential of all of this lies is in the creation of sporting stars for a whole new era of broadcasting and digital celebrity"
Fortnite manages the triumvirate: competitive balance, broad appeal, and exciting for spectators. It's a game a broad audience enjoys watching and playing, that's well enough constructed to make high-level play a possibility. It is run by a company, in Epic Games, that understands esports well enough to see the potential for turning tryouts for the World Cup into a big, meritocratic event for the entire community of the game. Yet even all of those factors combined, I think, wouldn't have been enough to give esports the kind of breakout in terms of media attention and downright celebrity-creating power that we saw around the Fortnite World Cup.
The lucky confluence here is that Fortnite has come into its own in the era of Twitch; that game streaming has gone from being a niche to being one of the most popular forms of entertainment for a whole generation, just as a game that's primed to take advantage of such a platform comes along. This is where the most important metric of all comes in; sure, the number of people who tried out for the World Cup is impressive and important, and the number who tuned in to watch Bugha win his $3 million prize is pretty solid, but the really important numbers are the subscriptions to the Twitch channels of the top players -- because where the true potential of all of this lies is in the creation of sporting stars for a whole new era of broadcasting and digital celebrity.
In this Twitch-driven era of esports, what we're seeing isn't teams of serious-looking young people in matching sponsored tracksuits and caps pitching up to what look for all the world like professional sporting events -- the platonic ideal best embodied by South Korea to which eSports elsewhere has strived for decades. Instead, Fortnite's top players -- not necessarily the best nor the tournament winners, but the ones with longevity, celebrity and earning potential -- are those who balance skill at the game with skill as a streamer.
"This isn't the esports that pioneers of the field envisioned, but it's the esports we're getting"
Personality and entertainment value are as important, if not more so, as tournament-winning gaming skill. Whether the young players who triumphed at last weekend's event will be able to turn that success into lasting status and earning power is likely to largely come down to their ability to cultivate a personal following.
This isn't the esports that pioneers of the field envisioned, but it's the esports that we're getting; something that owes as much to wrestling TV shows, with their focus on personality, flair and entertainment value, as it does to the austere, skill-focused world of Olympic sports and their ilk. This emerging world revolves around individual players and their ability to relate to a fanbase; it's as much if not more so about the capacity to play to a crowd as it is about the capacity to actually win the game.
The focus on the individual is not to say that there won't be plenty of room for sponsors and managers and teams of people in the background, but the task is going to be more like managing a high-profile celebrity than running a sports team. This is going to be a challenge for many existing esports organisations, whose slow response to controversies over players' bad behaviour or bigoted remarks in the past have shown how ill-equipped they are to respond in a world where they are truly managing celebrities in the public eye, not players whose task is merely to be good at a game.
No doubt some will complain that the purity of the esports vision has been lost. In truth, it stands to reason that a sport finally coming into its own in an era of influencers and digital celebrity should reflect the values of its age. Indeed, this trend towards an intense focus on personality and individual following has been happening more and more in existing sports -- much to the occasional annoyance and consternation of professional leagues and teams -- so nobody should be surprised that esports, a burgeoning new field that has found its voice and its stars on Twitch, should be in the vanguard of that movement.
At least this time, it seems to be a real movement after all. Perhaps the era of crying wolf is finally over.