The growth of eSports has been difficult to ignore. With a global audience of 380 million people, accounting for more than $900 million of revenue, the numbers speak for themselves.
Yet, while the level of interest has long since warranted this being seen as a mainstream spectator sport we all know there are enough people out there who still don’t give them a fair hearing. There’s been a mountain of coverage making the case for why eSports should be taken seriously, but now it’s time to think more deeply about what the industry can actually do to win over the doubters.
Think of golf and you think of Tiger Woods. Think of basketball and it’s LeBron James and Steph Curry. For soccer read Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and tennis Roger Federer. And those are just the active stars. There are a great many more legends from the past who strike a chord and reach fans far beyond the faithful followers of their own pursuit. These people act as great ambassadors for their sport – appearing on talk shows and in magazine articles – and ensure greater reach for the teams they play for or the events that they attend. People react well to people and their stories and that’s why these sporting personalities carry such influence. The world of eSports has some big stars – Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok was an ESPN magazine cover star, for example – but we need more people to come to the fore and achieve wider appeal.
Having more breakout stars with a wider appeal will helped to gain even greater exposure for eSports, but this is something of a chicken and egg issue – how can eSports stars gain wider appeal if they don’t greater exposure in the first place. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the wider public might have a general knowledge about gaming – and some of the titles that were big in the era of plug and play offline consoles – but they’ve never heard of some of the games that are played competitively in eSports competitions. While television exposure on networks such as BT Sport in the UK will have helped, greater access to a wider audience on terrestrial television could break down the mystery that makes some people sceptical about the merits of eSports.
Play to its strengths
One of the exciting selling points for eSports is that it’s new and technologically advanced. That’s something it needs to play to – especially as new technology becomes widespread. If and when virtual reality, for example, becomes a more common fixture in homes then eSports will be well-placed to ‘cash in’ – both in terms of the gaming potential of this technology and the way in which this can naturally help people to watch sport in a more immersive fashion. If eSports play to their strength, then they’ll be able to naturally cash in on a world of VR, AR, AI and IoT. In fact, eSports already naturally fit into a smartphone-obsessed world of consumers that love streaming and or log on to play casino games without needing to set foot in a casino. The more prevalent the technology becomes, the more embedded gaming becomes in our culture and the better chance eSports has of reaching mainstream sporting recognition.
Finally, eSports are just going to have to be patient. Over time, as ‘Generation Z’ grows up and takes charge, this will just seem to be a natural spectator sport that people know and love. Advocates have to get used to the fact that, in the meantime, they will just have to patiently and passionately defend their pastime and gradually win hearts and minds. Tempting as it might be to slope off into a gaming bubble and shut the world away, this should be avoided if eSports want to get the respect and attention they deserve over time. Likewise, eSports players and fans shouldn’t try to rail against existing sports – that antagonism will only get people’s backs up and there’s no need for people to pick one or the other. Plenty of people love soccer and tennis, for example, so why not traditional sports and eSports?
People are always sceptical about something that’s new and that they don’t understand. With time, patient explanation, technological advances, wider exposure on mainstream platforms and the help of ambassadors, eSports can grow to be taken more seriously by the widest possible audience.