eSports Rupert Pratt Thought Leaders

The rise of esports: traditional sports must learn from new kid on the block

October 12, 2017

What can we learn from the rise of eports?

The rise and rise of esports has been well documented and there is no doubt that it has established itself with professional teams, events, tournaments and – of course – viewing and participation figures.

I once questioned whether esports was a ‘real sport’ but, given the above, it is as much a sport as any other.

As Dave Holt puts it, the movement is “certainly as much a sport as Darts. I think it will inherently encourage a more devoted following to the games represented in the competitions which have lucrative prizes, in the same way many young people still aspire to be a footballer because they enjoy it, and it can pay extraordinarily well if you are in the top 0.5% of all players.”

If the predictive figures are accurate, esports is growing at a considerable rate. Newzoo, a specialist market researcher in the sector, says the currently boasts “131 million enthusiasts (up 27.7 percent) and another 125 million occasional viewers who tune in mainly for the big international events”.

And, as with all popular sports, it has revenue streams such as ticket sales, merchandise, broadcasting rights and sponsorship. The market was set to grow to 43% a year reaching $463 million in 2016, according to Newzoo. By 2019, esports revenues are expected to grow to $1.1 billion.

But let’s put this into context with other sports and events – is the hype justified? Should traditional sports be just as concerned as the industry is excited?

The 2014 FIFA World Cup reached 3.2 billion viewers and one billion watched the final, according to FIFA.

As impressive as Activate’s forecast for the sport is (see below), the figures still only account for 10% of US sports viewing. That said, 2020 is only just over two years away. What will this look like in 10 years’ time?

The big differentiator in my mind (and hence the hype and interest) is the audience it plays to are young millennials, who represent the future participant / fan and therefore consumer.

What does the rise of esports tell us and what can we learn?

The basic ingredients for the success of most sports are participation, interest, personalities, reach and elite success. The more successful you are at any of these the better chance you have of growing your sport.

Participation – ease of access

Football is arguably one of the most accessible (team) sports with the least barriers to entry. As the Brazilians taught us, you don’t even need a ball to play and countless kids still do so every day without a pitch.

Esports could be argued to be even more inclusive with no age, gender, geographic or social barriers – but you do need a device. You can play when, where and with who want, when you want. A perfect fit for the ‘me now’ millennials.

Personalised Interest & Reach

In today’s social media and mobile phone generation esports plays to how people want to engage with each other and communicate. Like with participation, there are few barriers to consuming the sport and it is distributed across the devices and channels that the generation likes. Esports reach is also now broadening to more mainstream media such as television.

A new type of personality

Esports has also spawned a new generation of ‘stars’, commentators and personalities who, much like the new generation of youtubers and vloggers, deliver in a style and short-form context that the generation likes as well.

READ MORE: Hulu agrees exclusive esports content deal with ESL

Elite competition & events

The sport has matured with professional players, teams and tournaments. This is another key milestone on the road to growth and popularity. There are teams and players to be passionate about and, most importantly, aspire to. Again, the barriers to be a professional must seem much lower than most traditional sports.

Counter culture appeal

The sport is relatively new and, despite the figures, is still relatively non mainstream. Your mum or dad probably still don’t understand it, nor are they on the channels used. Again, this plays well to the youth market much like skateboarding did and still does.

The vast majority of esports are not traditional ‘sports’ platforms

The GT Academy (where drivers compete to win a professional contract) is a great example of a talent pathway, especially given the success of some of their console drivers in top level motorsport.

I’m sure EA’s FIFA game is fuelling passion for football and even tactical understanding in regards to passing, positioning and following specific teams and players.

So this creates a threat as Adam Hodge points out: “Smart traditional sporting teams and bodies are already hedging with partnerships or acquisition of esports teams. Less a defensive play and more a shrewd way to educate themselves whilst placing some chips on the table in case it does blow up.”

What can traditional sports learn / benefit?

Think of all the buzz words for today’s marketing – connectivity, personalisation, content, social (media) – and you instantly think esports.

Interestingly in traditional sport, much of the really successful and engaging content and content platforms are unofficial – vloggers, fan sites and forums. Despite unique access to talent, the behind the scenes and exclusive content most rights holder channels produce amount to glorified press releases.

If the traditional sports sector could learn anything it would be to be less official, experiment more and don’t be afraid to make some mistakes (difficult I know, but there is a way of managing experimentation to mitigate risk).

I’m being a little unfair and the sector is shifting its attitude from how new signings are announced to the likes of an ultra-traditional event like Wimbledon embracing Snapchat before most of us knew what it was.

As Mark Liversidge comments “traditional sports entities should be aware and educated about the consumer behaviours that are driving the esports growth. Then [they should] be applying the learning to their own business and participation model to shape a strategy to engage with these behaviours.

“It is no different to any other leisure time interest that is fighting for a share of consumers’ disposable time, money and audience to drive commercial interests.”

What about the downsides?

A lot has been spoken about the growth but like all sports there are challenges. Firstly, in an era where most modern and developing cultures are battling obesity and mental health issues there must be concerns about esports’ growth? Do we want the next generation aspiring and training to be a professional sports or esports person? In addition, much of the sport and the figures that support it are unregulated.

The industry points out that the esports professionals are athletes who need to look after their physical and mental condition from working on reaction times, staying fit and building up stamina in order to increase professionalism and income; proving that esports is beginning to regulate itself.

The future

For me, the counter culture argument probably holds the key to the future of esports. It’s a fast growing sport but so were surfing, skateboarding, windsurfing and snowboarding. Will the more mainstream elements of esports lose their relevance with its core audience by embracing the mainstream and therefore blow itself out? Or will it remain a youth sport from generation to generation?

Only time will tell, but esports has established itself and is undoubtedly here to stay, yet still needs to embrace its challenges. Equally, traditional sport needs to look at the ingredients that have made esports so appealing to the next generation and adapt as much as possible too.

Rupert Pratt is Co-Founder of and a Director of Mongoose Sports & Entertainment

eSports Rupert Pratt Thought Leaders