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The days of watching two kids playing Street Fighter in the arcade have long gone. Today, we’re in the fast-growing, lucrative world of E-Sports.

What are E-sports?

Just like you might sit down to watch the best players in the world show off their skills at the football World Cup, for example – maybe with friends or even ‘live’ at the stadium – this is the same, but the players are on computers. What used to be about moving two lines up and down to make sure a dot didn’t breach your line in Pong, is now a multi-million dollar industry, that can fill massive stadiums, and create a spectacle to rival those of traditional sports. As an example, let’s take the League of Legends finals 2018: the tournament has become the most watched esports event in history, reaching a peak of over 200 million concurrent viewers during the finals. It surpasses the viewership of the 2017 League of Legends World Championship, as well as the peak viewership of numerous worldwide sporting events including Super Bowl.

But it wasn’t always this big – things started out as small friendly competitions – yet growth continues. And with it, comes large investment and even larger profits. It appears E-Sports has awoken a previously dormant market, where revenues increased by over 500% between 2012 and 2018. Growth is projected to continue for years to come.

This industry isn’t dominated by one specific geographic market. While Asia seems to be the biggest market currently, America isn’t too far behind and Europe is also pulling its weight.

But is it a real sport?

It’s a common question. Some argue E-sports require more dedication and training than traditional sports. Others argue it’s no more a sport than chess or poker, with one German sports official saying it might as well be knitting. A funny statement perhaps, but E-sports shouldn’t be dismissed quite so easily. The average viewer profile of an E-sports event is someone aged 25-34, and audiences often have plenty of disposable income.

So it’s a huge market?

It is. But it’s not always a grand spectacle where the world’s best talent competes in huge stadiums. The vast majority of E-sports viewing happens online, on a livestreaming website called Twitch. Here anyone – from a humble beginner to seasoned pro – can livestream themselves doing whatever they want. It could just talking to their audience, podcasting, or, most commonly, playing videogames because it’s all so easy to set up and start streaming.

Twitch also hosts almost all of the livestreamed official E-sports competitions. This includes the massive League of Legends Championship Series, the World Championships, DoTA2 Championships, the Overwatch League, and many more. Whatever your poison, Twitch can provide. In fact, since Amazon bought the service, what started as a small company now has massive funding behind it. This enabled Twitch to buy exclusive distribution rights for the Overwatch league for a cool $90million.

How do the smaller players compete with the big ones?

That’s just it, they don’t have to. The smaller players are the heart and soul of E-sports. Like traditional sports, these ‘athletes’ build their own fan base. The best and most loved gain huge followings and thanks to the nature of the platform, often interact with their fans in a way most other ‘sports celebrities’ can’t. In turn, fans return the love and admiration. How? By saving their favourite parts of streams to share, subscribing to channels, and donating money to individuals as well. The monthly subscriptions are where Twitch makes most of its profit, as it takes a cut of each subscription. The streamers get their fair cut as well, along with donations, which can run into thousands.

Great, I guess I’ll try getting into it

Go for it, because most of it is easy to understand. Some games are a bit complicated like the first official E-sport in the world – Starcraft – or DoTA2. Others like Counter Strike have simple premises and visuals, so anyone can see what’s happening. Even the most complex games ultimately have straightforward end goals that anyone can understand, even if they don’t get all the details.

Much like the object of football is to get the ball into the opposing team’s net, E-sports have similarly simple objectives. This has made them widely accessible, fuelling their growth, while also attracting large corporations (and their money) looking for advertising opportunities. But there is a more personal level too. For example, the Italian Overwatch team – Samsung Morningstars – aren’t massive, but they still compete at events like the Samsung Fight for Glory and have a massive following, much like college American football games.

Teams – from the smallest to the biggest – have their own merchandise. Want to wear the same Jersey as your favourite player? Use the same gear they use? Buy a bobble head to sit on your desk, while you play the game yourself? You can.

So there’s a lot of support for players?

Definitely, and it’s not surprising when you consider that some E-sports events draw more viewers than traditional sports. Lots of companies have spotted the massive growth in the  market and are scrabbling to build their precence – some more successfully than others. For example, Redbull opened the ‘Gaming Sphere’ in London – an E-sports lounge in the heart of the city.

It’s important to remember, too, that unlike a game of tennis, E-sports games are owned by private companies. Recently after some company troubles, Blizzard (which owns Overwatch, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Heroes of the Storm) shut down its Heroes of the Storm E-sports league with no warning. All the professionals, businesses and fans who had invested lots of time and money into the game were cast adrift. So, the call of professional videogaming is alluring, but you have to be careful. Not everything will stay golden and bright forever.

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