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The Billion Dollar Industry: What’s the reason behind eSports boom?

“There are 18, 19 years old earning millions in this industry. And that’s why I love eSports. It’s a meritocracy. Anyone with a computer, a webcam, and a video game can make it big.”

That’s the thoughts of Madalin Ionut, one of the directors at House of Gamers in Birmingham. He manages and runs an eSports cafe with his business partner Dash Virdee. Set up in October 2018, his cafe is one of many new businesses set up in the UK as a response to the meteoric rise of eSports–or professional competitive computer gaming. It’s making the gaming industry an increasingly tempting prospect for brands and charities to invest money, with some critics arguing eSports will become an Olympic sport in its own right by 2024.

eSports (short for Electronic Sports) is the name given to professional competitive gaming.

In a nutshell, competitors play video games, while being watched by a live audience. Millions more watch the games online. It typically involves team-based gaming as a spectator sport with ranked matches. It’s like traditional real-life sports, only rather than watching it at a stadium or training ground, you can watch the games online via a streaming service such as Twitch.

I was invited to the House of Gamers charity live stream for St Mary Hospice event–a 24-hour gaming marathon where a gaming influencer streams their game-playing live on Twitch, while their viewers will donate whilst watching their stream. It reminded me of when I used to play World of Warcraft, DOOM, and Gears of War quite regularly before books replaced my console. I’d be one of many watching videos on Youtube of the latest game releases, and learning about video game strategies.

In fact, global audiences for some big gaming events have surpassed 100 million viewers, driven largely by esports' exploding popularity in Asia. It’s become so popular that Wanyoo, Asia’s largest gaming café chain, has opened a brand new eSports studio in London back in January this year. It’s set to become the largest public eSports studio in the UK, providing multi-purpose gaming facilities, professional esports equipment and gaming PCs.

So why has eSports boomed now?

Ionut asserts it’s due to a perception change within eSports: “If you played video games in the past, you’d be seen as a loser. No social skills. Little ambition. Gamers would often be white, male dudes who’d live off energy drinks and take-out pizza. But that stereotype has changed drastically. Anyone can play a video game now. I’d say it’s more welcoming than traditional sports for anyone to participate!” 

He’s not wrong. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), both men and women are almost equally participatory and invested when it comes to video games. The study concluded that approximately 52 per cent of men and 48 per cent of women play video games, proving that female gamers are not as rare and elusive as some outsiders may believe there to be.

He invites me to look at the current home page for Twitch. The vast majority of streamers are female. “Unfortunately, a large majority of men still believe they “own” gaming. But the evidence is right here that eSports is evolving to demand. And that demand comes from this huge influx of female gamers.” He points out Mariahsonfire’s streaming channel via Twitch, a gamer who participated at House of Gamers’ charity event raising money for St Mary's Hospice.

“Twitch offers a community known for being a tightly-knit group of followers, donors, subscribers, and tippers. So it’s easy to see why more and more female video gamers have boomed.” He continues. “Did you know 35% of the streamer base on Twitch is female? That’s a big market to tap, and I think it’s vital to support different kind of streams and different streamers.”

And with a prize pool now rivalling those for some of the biggest events in traditional sports, it’s easy to see why people from all walks of life are becoming interested in eSports. In August 2015, the DOTA-2 International Tournament was played over five days and the prize pool was a whopping $18,429,613, beating the Super Bowl and World Series. In 2016 it was a modest $20,770,640.

Could the same amount of money be donated for charity events?

Ionut believes so. “Gaming for ‘good’ is an untapped market for fundraising, and it’s pretty low-cost. We wanted to put on a tournament that eSports fans can watch and give them the chance to support their favourite streamers and charities in the process.”

And that’s key. eSports is making a better and better case as a fan-friendly, fast-growing entertainment option capturing the attention of young audiences who care less and less about traditional sports. It’s no wonder close to 100 universities are now sponsoring eSports teams, creating a college-level fanbase for club teams, along with new ways to connect young fans with up-and-coming players and the brands that back.

Ionut is passionate about reaching out to young fans. “Universities have been really keen to use our facilities and even help set up eSports unions. We have a partnership with Aston University’s eSports Club, where we give them 25% off their group events. We want more universities to promote eSports in the same manner that they promote traditional sports.” 

He reflects. “eSports has disrupted the sports industry. Live viewership has been drastically declining because traditional sports haven’t caught up with the technology eSports offers. eSports has better engagement, more room for growth and is much more innovative than regular sports. Viewers are already moving on from watching televised sports to new forms of entertainment like streamed games.”

“There’s new ways to make money. Downloadable content is a big thing in free games such as Dota. Players are asked to pay to play, so it makes the game operate like a service. And that’s really interesting for games, because players can stop at any time.”

What’s the future for eSports then?

I asked Ionut what the future held for his cafe. “I’d like to be able to build more cafes across the UK. This is a growing community, and I want to see our cafes almost like community centres for our players.”

One of the reasons why many gamers go to these cafes is because it feels like a second home for them. And I can see that as I play a quick game of World of Warcraft. A few university students come in and set up an Apex Legends game. A school-kid is sat next to me playing a video game and uploading videos onto his Instagram account for his friends to see. Some young professionals come into the cafe, curious at the opening of this cafe. There’s plenty of snacks, a coffee machine, and a board full of community updates for the cafe.

If eSports is projected to make $1.4 billion by 2020, then gaming isn’t just fun—it’s big business. Ionut agrees: “I think there's always going to be a place for new and upcoming games," he said. "I don't think eSports will disappear anytime soon. When I look at 2018, I feel like it was the year that eSports really became mainstream. I hope 2019 will be the year eSports accelerates in popularity.”

Featured image: Florian Olivo on Unsplash