eSports: a new type of spectator sport

In 2016, the eSports market was valued at approximately 493 million USD. By 2020, analysts expect the market to swell to 1.49 billion. Revenue streams are drawn from a variety of sources, including game publisher fees, media rights, advertising, sponsorships, and even merchandise and tickets10.

As a result, eSports are increasingly receiving attention in the mainstream press. However, what are eSports exactly? Why would someone watch others play video games? The goal of this article is to delve into the world of eSports, from the definition, history, demographics, and motivations.

What are eSports?

eSports is a broad term that refers to competitive video gaming as a spectator sport. Although your mind may jump immediately to virtual variants of physical sports, this is not the case. eSports is home to a wide range of game genres. Possibly the most popular genre of eSports is multiplayer-online battle arenas (including the most played game worldwide, League of Legends2, or DotA 2). First-person-shooters such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Overwatch are also incredibly popular. So too are real-time-strategy games such as Starcraft 2 and, until recently, Warcraft 3. There are also fighting games such as the Street Fighter series or Tekken. Other, less popular, genres include (although not limited to) racing and sports games.

Much like traditional sports, people can watch eSports remotely (such as through a streaming service or television), or in person (such as in an arena). In fact, to coincide with the launch of the Overwatch League, publisher Blizzard has established an eSports arena in LA. Very often, competitive gamers receive a salary or earn money from winning tournaments or matches (depending on the popularity of the game, or the level they play at).

The growth of eSports

According to most sources online, the first recorded example of eSports was a Stanford-hosted tournament for the game Spacewar3. A Rolling Stone journalist covered the event, and the winner received a year-long subscription to the magazine (and apparently all attendees had access to free beer). Over the years, these tournaments began to grow in size as the gaming industry itself grew. First with company-hosted tournaments and championships (e.g. Atari and Nintendo), and then to the eventual establishment of leagues (e.g. CPL, MLG) and Olympics style annual tournaments.

Another pivotal point in eSports history is the launch of two enormous games: League of Legends and DotA 24. Both are multiplayer-online-battle-arenas (MOBA) and take the form of five versus five arena-style battles. The release of these games was monumental not just due to their immense success and viewership, but their ability to translate these into massive tournaments. DotA is notable for launching in 2011 with a sponsored tournament and a grand prize of 1 million dollars. To this day, the game has distributed over 100 million dollars in prize money.5

One of the most recent developments in eSports has been the development of the Overwatch League by Blizzard Entertainment. Based on their popular team shooter Overwatch, Blizzard is modeling the league after traditional sports teams. This means teams will be geographically based, and players will earn a salary and benefits (not just tournament winnings). Although some may have scoffed at the buy-in price of 20 million, the league already has 12 registered teams and plans preseason games starting late 2017.

Who watches eSports?

Well, to start, approximately 395 million people watch eSports worldwide. This figure is expected to grow to 589 million by 202010. In terms of intensity, the split is approximately 50/50: half are enthusiasts, and half are occasional viewers. In terms of demographics, a survey by Mindshare has revealed that the composition of eSports fans may not be as disproportionately young and male as you may think.6

First, the majority of fans are actually older than the high school/college age, with 60% in the age range of 25-39. Moreover, 58% of fans who are 25 or older live with children at home. This statistic may challenge the stereotype of the reclusive bachelor watching video games in his man cave. Furthermore, while there isn’t an equal gender distribution, it is not exclusively male: 38% of eSports fans are women.

By some accounts, eSports have grown into a phenomenon rivals that of traditional sports. This is one of the reasons the two formats are often compared. However, there are other similarities. Both generate their own types of celebrities. The most popular eSports are team-based games, much as in regular sports. The list goes on. And while people may debate which form attracts the largest audiences, there is no doubt that both have highly devoted fanbases. But are motivations for watching eSports identical to traditional sports spectators?

Why do people watch eSports?

To answer this question, researchers recently administered the ‘motivation scale for sports consumption’; an instrument developed for traditional sports, to a sample of eSports spectators.7

Although the authors adapted the scale to be applicable to eSports, the scale generally contained the same constructs as traditional sports. These factors are vicarious achievement, aesthetics, drama, escapism, knowledge acquisition, athletic skill, social interaction, athlete attractiveness, novelty, and enjoyment of aggression. While these factors will differ between sports (e.g. the authors note that aesthetics drive people to watch figure skating), the scale has been shown to have strong predictive validity for explaining spectator motivations.

Surprisingly, only four factors emerged as positive predictors. First, the survey linked escapism with spectating. This means that watching eSports may allow viewers to escape the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Knowledge acquisition (learning about players and the game) was also associated with increased viewing. Perhaps surprisingly, aggression (seeing players behave aggressively) was another factor that predicted viewership. Lastly,  and to a lesser extent, novelty (new players, new teams, etc) was another motivating factor.

Interestingly, the authors also found that appreciating the aesthetics of the eSports was negatively associated with viewing behavior. Although the authors can only speculate on the reason for this, one possibility is that aesthetics may interfere with appreciating the nuances of the game. While aesthetics are essential for some sports, eSports may instead require a focus on other factors.

Contrasting digital with physical

It is admittedly problematic to broadly contrast eSports consumption motivations with those of traditional sports. Just as motivations may differ a lot between something like football and gymnastics, so too may the motivations differ between different eSport genres. For example, spectating a game like Starcraft 2 (a game that is in some ways comparable to chess8) is an entirely different experience from the action of a shooter game like Overwatch. Nevertheless, I think there are a number of fundamental differences as suggested by the research discussed above.

First, it is highly likely that knowledge acquisition may be more important for eSports consumption that traditional sports consumption. As revealed by the Mindshare survey, a clear majority of spectators indicate they watch games to improve their own skills. This finding is complemented by a 2017 survey by Newzoo which reported that 58% of eSports spectators play the games they watch9. Although this is speculative, I would expect that traditional sports fans are far less likely to be players themselves. Traditional sports impose a number of barriers (physical capabilities, team organization, equipment, timing) that eSports simply do not exhibit. As a result, video games may be more accessible, and as such it is much easier for a fan to play their eSport of choice.

Second, the difference in vicarious achievement is likely due to location: There is rarely a geographic component to eSports (although the upcoming Overwatch League is an exception). Although fans may have their favorite players or teams, these preferences are far more likely to be driven by other, less geographically determined, factors.

Conclusions

As widely noted, eSports are still in their youth (despite an arguably 40-year history). One Wall Street analyst recently downgraded the rating for Activision Blizzard (the company behind the upcoming Overwatch League), based upon the uncertainty surrounding the venture. One of the main reasons is that this is the first time a company has tried to launch a league from scratch, and there is likely to be a learning curve. Nevertheless, few can argue with the rising revenue generated by the industry. As a result, it is crucial to understand the motivations underlying eSports spectating in order to offer fans more of what they want and further grow the industry.

References

  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/baldwincunningham/2016/02/25/why-esports-is-the-next-big-thing-in-marketing/
  2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2016/09/13/riot-games-reveals-league-of-legends-has-100-million-monthly-players/#3a558785aa8b
  3. http://adanai.com/esports/
  4. https://www.redbull.com/se-en/dota-2-100-million-milestone-visualised
  5. https://dotesports.com/league-of-legends/the-evolution-of-esports-7693
  6. http://www.mindshareworld.com/news/game-what-marketers-should-know-about-esports-fans
  7. Hamari, J., & Sjöblom, M. (2017). What is eSports and why do people watch it?. Internet research, 27(2), 211-232.
  8. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-a-computer-game-is-reinventing-the-science-of-expertise-video/
  9. https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/esports-franchises-70-watch-only-one-game-and-42-dont-play/
  10. https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/esports-revenues-will-reach-696-million-in-2017/