Esports has always had a small and vibrant following among hardcore gamers, and has been around in one form or another since the arcade era. However, circumstances conspired to make 2020 the year that Esports definitively broke through into mainstream awareness. Competitive gaming was able to jump into the media void left by the wide-scale cancellation of sporting events and shows no sign of quietly slinking back into the shadows as we move into 2021. Global viewership of the sport has leapt from 130 million in 2015 up to 495 million in 2020, and this figure is projected to continue growing at a rate of 25 million year-on-year into 2023.
As Esports flourishes, many traditional sporting organisations are actively exploring ways to integrate their services into this growing industry. Established gaming brand PokerStars have been working alongside streaming platform Twitch to bring online poker to new audiences. Their Stadium Series tournaments, which are broadcast over Twitch, set new records for the platform in 2020, with prize money payouts amounting to $52 million.
It is reported that in March 2021 alone, users watched over 7 million hours of online poker on the service, a sure sign that the sport is set to become a major force in the growth of Esports. This is understandable, as online poker has found the perfect platform and community for broadcasting in the Amazon-owned media site. Streamers can share their hands with a small time delay and provide real-time commentary as to their thought process and decision making, bringing a new collaborative depth to spectatorship of the sport.
In response to a new generation of hopefuls dreaming of the chance to become the next big name in competitive gaming, special Esports gyms are opening up across South Korea and Japan. These spaces look like high-octane internet cafes, providing customers with a range of high powered gaming computers and offering coaching and personal trainers to gamers of all skill levels looking to improve their play.
At the elite end of this spectrum are specialised Esports academies such as the T1 building in Seoul, where 70 pro-gamers live on-site and stick to a strict regime of physical exercise, gaming skills training and specially tailored nutrition plans. While such facilities are commonplace at the professional end of most sports, this is new and uncharted territory for Esports.
Many will now be looking to the major Esports organisations and competitions for indications as to how the scene is going to respond and adapt to this rapid growth in interest. The LCS (League of Legends Championship Series) is a League of Legends tournament run by developers Riot Games. In recent years it has grown to become the largest Esports event in the North American calendar, as well as one of the most influential tournaments in the world.
Since its inaugural season in 2013, the LCS has always been a strong signifier as to the state of the global community. The competition has been attracting investment and media exposure that has been pushing its format to increasingly resemble traditional sporting coverage such as that witnessed in the NBA.
Back to Basics
Undoubtedly this change to format did the tournament, and the global community in general, a lot of good, as it served as a test case of the young sport’s ability to draw viewership and attract sponsorship. In 2020, Riot Games decided it was a good time to redesign their studio along the lines of a new vision which reflects the roots and the ethos of the Esports phenomenon. Many see this as a sign that Esports is coming of age and is beginning to focus on setting its own agenda on the world stage. The new LCS studio is designed to be a versatile arena that caters to both coverage of physical events and streamed content, and features over 4100 square feet of LED wall-to-wall screens in an unapologetic gesture of celebration for the community’s tech-heavy roots.
Major gaming studios are adapting, the media continues to show interest in broadcasting, and both prize money and viewerships are on the rise. Esports is here to stay, and is expected to grow at rapid rates in the coming years.