The Rise of Esports and Impact of Technology
With over 380 million global fans & $1b in revenues, esports is no fad. It’s a serious business that will only get bigger.
Today’s legacy TV sports networks and professional leagues are seeing dramatic shifts in their viewing numbers. Almost every major sport and event has seen a decline in viewership. The Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games , which usually has high viewership numbers, experienced an 11% decline from the one just four years before, while the NFL lost nearly 10% of their audience in the 2017-2018 season. The NBA and MLB posted slight gains compared to the previous years, but their numbers are down overall as well.
It’s not that they’re losing their audiences entirely, their audiences are simply changing how they watch and for how long they watch. People are streaming content instead of watching cable. They’re watching compressed versions of a three-hour baseball or hockey game in only 30 minutes during their commute to work. Gamers are watching video game replays on-demand, whenever they want, on whatever device they want.
The rise of esports
Meanwhile, the esports industry is exploding. Both viewership and spending on esports has grown dramatically in the last few years, creating a nearly $360 billion electronic sports (esports) industry that captures nearly 400 million viewers worldwide.
Technology consulting firm Activate projects that esports will grow global viewership to 520M and global revenues to ~$4B by 2022, with more than $1.2B of that growth in North America.
What is esports?
Electronic sports, or esports, are defined as “a form of sports where the primary aspects of the sport are facilitated by electronic systems; the input of players and teams, as well as the output of the esports system, are mediated by human-computer interfaces.” More simply, esports is where competitors play video games while being watched by a live audience (in-person and/or online).
These players are professional gamers who receive a salary for their play, who train several hours a day like traditional elite athletes, and who specialize games and areas of gameplay.
The esports market size
In a word, esports is huge. In 2018 alone, the total esports audience grew to 380 million. Over half of that audience is considered an occasional viewer of esports, which Newzoo defines as “people who watch professional esports content less than once a month.” In comparison, only 103.4 million watched the last Super Bowl, a new nine-year low.
This is why traditional sports broadcasters like ESPN are entering the esports market. Their three-night broadcast of the Overwatch League finals in 2018 had a peak viewership of 358,800 Nielsen TV households, and they’re putting esports stars on the cover of their in-house magazine, ESPN The Magazine.
They’re also getting into esports sponsorship and are creating new partnerships with esports to increase engagement with their traditional fan bases. For example:
- Electronic Arts, the NFL, and ESPN launched the Madden NFL 19 Championship Series (MCS) to “provide NFL fans an innovative way to root for, support and connect with their teams in ways only available through competitive Madden” play.
- The NBA has created the 2K League, where a group of 17 digital franchises are affiliated with their real-life counterparts and will play in a series of different tournaments for prize money (a season-long tournament, playoffs, and individual tournaments like the Tip-Off tournament).
People are not only watching esports, but they’re also spending on it. Last year, revenues were just under $1 billion, while this year, esports revenues will grow another 26.7 percent to $1.1 billion. The biggest jump is in media rights, as more broadcasters get in on the esports, but there are also significant increases in publisher revenues, merchandise, and more.
Image credit: Newzoo 2019 esports report
The 5G experience
As media and computing technology evolved to be more complex and capable of handling higher bandwidth and frame rates, game studios leverage it to create more complex and realistic gameplay. Gamers started using online communication technology to collaborate because the games were more challenging to play, which lead to recording and streaming of play. These streams helped players become more successful at the games, which lead to the development of competitions and leagues.
This circle of technology evolution continues to drive the tech evolution as gamers demand better game resolution. The complex games they play and stream online lead to higher bandwidth demand and game resolution. High latency and response times cause gamers to, well, lose at their games. In gaming, longer response times (or high latency) cause gameplay to slow down, leading to losses against players that have lower latency rates simply because their controller commands are executed that much faster. In today’s games, fractions of seconds count.
The impact of 5G can be significant for gamers, mainly because 5G processing is significantly faster than current data transmission speeds. Introducing edge computing into the 5G mix will make the experience even faster for gamers, as the processing needed for complex games will be handled by processors closer to the gamers, thereby reducing latency even further. Cloud game system will be a better blend of cloud and edge computing, offering gamers the best of both worlds at 5G speeds.
Another benefit gamers will enjoy from the 5G experience will be in positioning and bandwidth (or connectivity). In terms of positioning, 5G allows for more precise geolocation because it has a smaller coverage area. With more cellular towers available in any given area, the network can pinpoint your location more precisely; a good thing for location-based gaming.
5G will also allow esports tournament and online event organizers to provide a more consistent gaming experience to players and attendees. The sheer amount of 5G infrastructure required for regular use will be able to handle the increased bandwidth for events and esports tournaments as more people gather and connect during that time period.
How technology is shaping the fan experience
Whenever fans gather for a live event or esports competition, they’re going to connect to a social network. Many hop on social media while in the stadium, others use the event’s app to connect with the community, while those not on-site will watch online (either live or later).
Organizations like Intel Extreme Masters, League of Legends, and Major League Gaming hold events around the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of fans in-stadium and millions more online. They sell tickets to the live events just like a regular sports event, including packages of tickets, prepaid food vouchers, and ticket packs to a series of events.
Not every game enthusiast can make it to a live event, so they watch at home. Event organizers realize this, so they stream events live and make the recordings available later. Other sites like Dream Hack offer subscription-based memberships for live streaming so fans can watch a variety of events from a single site.
New technology can engage these remote fans even more, by taking advantage of the immersive experience of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR).
Spectating in VR
Fox Sports has been experimenting with a VR experience that lets fans watch sporting events in VR from a VIP stadium suite or various on-field camera positions. They partnered with NextVR to create Fox Sports VR, a way for fans can experience sporting events, such as the FIFA World Cup games, the Super Bowl, and college football and basketball as if they were in the stadium. Fans can use a dedicated VR headset to watch the games or even a cardboard VR viewer, so it’s accessible to everyone.
VR can also create a new way for fans to gather and cheer on their favorite teams. These shared spaces offer esports fans a place to watch events such as Lucky’s Lounge in Las Vegas, while 1Life2Play in Ohio is a gaming and esports lunge where people can also watch or game in VR.
Spectating in AR
AR technology could impact the esports viewing experience by creating a more fully immersive experience. For example, competitions could project scores, player stats, and other data for viewers, creating a sort of gamer’s “heads up display” for fans. Viewers could also stay updated on the games in progress or other sessions going on during the tournament as they navigate around the AR event space.
The League of Legends World Championship Finals Opening Ceremony had a performance by a Korean Pop group via augmented reality, creating hype and excitement with fans. It was an evolution from the previous world championships, where an AR dragon appeared on stage at the opening ceremonies. It’s clear that The Future Group (TFG) and other world leaders in interactive mixed reality integration are pushing the envelope for AR and VR for their fans, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the future.
What’s next for esports
Online gaming streams and events are becoming more popular than anyone could have imagined, drawing millions of viewers every time. Companies like Amazon and Microsoft are buying up streaming platforms (Twitch and Mixer, respectively) and are creating technology that’s pushing the boundaries of the game experience for both gamers and viewers alike.
It seems like esports is poised to be the entertainment juggernaut of the next few decades. Given how common this technology and experience is becoming, don’t be surprised if one day more people tune in to watch a Madden NFL esports final championship than the Super Bowl.