By Chris Ames
Ten or fifteen years ago, if you had asked someone if video games were sports, they would have laughed at you and gone back to playing their CD Casette tape as they gelled up their 90’s hair. To put it simply, video games were still seen in the vein of something people did for recreation and fun (and still do, albeit with less of the stigma of a 30 year old man sititng in his basement, although they do still exist).
Yet now, in contemporary times, the entire field has changed. What was once a cultish industry has now exploded into one of the most profitable and rapidly increasing markets in electronics. As this market has grown, so has the opportunities associated with it, such as eSports, a term for organized multiplayer video game competitions, particularly between professional players.
In 2013, the League of Legends World Championship Series (LCS for short), garnered 32 million viewers- to put that in perspective, that’s more than the NBA finals or the MLB World Series and NCAA Basketball Final Four combined. This made it the most viewers of a single eSports event, with 8.5 concurrent viewers, and a grand prize of 1 million USD.
Many eSports events are streamed online to viewers over the internet. Dreamhack Winter 2011, for example, reached 1.7 million unique viewers on twitch.tv. With the shutdown of the Own3d streaming service in 2013, Twitch is by far the most popular streaming service for competitive gaming. However, newcomers like Hitbox and Azubu are growing fast and getting more attention. While coverage of live events usually brings in the largest viewership counts, the recent popularization of streaming services has allowed individuals to broadcast their own game play independent of such events as well. Individual broadcasters can enter an agreement with Twitch or hitbox in which they receive a portion of the advertisement revenue from commercials which run on the stream they create.
Another major streaming platform is Major League Gaming’s MLG.tv. The network, which specializes in Call of Duty content but hosts a range of gaming titles, has seen increasing popularity, with 1376% growth in MLG.tv viewership in Q1 of 2014. The 2014 Call of Duty: Ghosts broadcast at MLG’s X Games event drew over 160,000 unique viewers. The network, like Twitch, allows users to broadcast themselves playing games, though only select individuals can use the service. Currently, MLG.tv is the primary streaming platform for the Call of Duty professional scene; famous players such as NaDeSHoT have recently signed contracts with the company to use its streaming service exclusively.
Of course, this massive growth in the eSports community and gaming in general has not been without its critics. Upon the launch of YouTube Gaming, comedian Jimmy Kimmel took a stab at “gamers watching other gamers play games” in one of his usual comedy skits. If you’re unfamiliar with the type of comedy show Jimmy Kimmel runs, it’s usually pretty edgy and pushes some boundaries, but is often hilarious. The poke at gamers was no different, and as an avid supporter of online streaming and an obvious victim here, I found it hilarious. Unfortunately a large majority of his viewers and many others online didn’t agree, and chaos ensued.
If you’re going to make fun of gaming in this day and age, especially if you’re as famous as Jimmy Kimmel, you’re going to get the full force of the internet which I’m sure he expected. The video spread like wildfire through various social media platforms, and of course the Internet hub Reddit. Currently just shy of one million viewers, and over 100,000 thumbs down, Jimmy Kimmel’s controversial video was not as funny as he thought it would be. Perhaps his comments prior to the skit are what really struck the nerve of gamers as he shows an incredible amount of ignorance, but then again one has to remember he’s a comedian and this is what Comedians do.
Jimmy Kimmel and eSports is an odd thing to try and make connections with, granted. However, the rise of eSports and online entertainment/streaming in general is coming at a time when TV audiences have dropped dramatically over the past years, at least by 13% as opposed to the 17% increase of online media. With these statistics in mind, it would make sense how the stigma towards this new enterprise has grown instead of fading away: mainstream media feels threatened by audiences tuning out and plugging into online services such as Netflix or twitch instead.
With this conflict in mind however, the question must be begged, what is on the horizon for this new online market? Some would say that this movement has reached it’s peak, the ability to sell out Conference Centers and Stadiums for tournaments can be seen as the apex of what the eSports movement was trying ot accomplish since it’s inception: validation. Indeed, with nations like South Korea and even the United States recognizing eSports as official, this quest seems to be for the most part complete on paper. There will still be the Jimmy Kimmel’s of the world, sure, those who will slander and make fun of to try and spike their ratings via angry viewers, but for the most part the market has grown too much to be beaten into submission now.
Will mainstream audiences eventually accept eSports? Will it continue this pattern of unprecedented growth? The answers are too far and few in-between to give an estimated response. eSports is sailing into a clear horizon and opportunity, waiting to be discovered, all that’s left is simply seeing just what’s around the corner to be discovered.