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eSports – The Future of Gaming and Sports?

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Sports have existed for just about as long as humans. We have a distinct desire to compete with each other, no matter whether it has been simple running races, racing horses, or trying to get various-sized balls into different-shaped goals. Sport really became big business back in the late 19th century and early 20th century as professional leagues began to form. The period after 1945 saw these professional leagues take off, turning them into multi-billion-dollar businesses.

Video games have been around for a much shorter time, with the first titles released some time around the early 1970s. Like sports before them, video games became a way for people to compete with each other and prove that they were more skilled than their friends. As network play and online services like Xbox Live became available, people were able to compete against strangers over the internet. Another popular way to hold competitions was to organise LAN parties, where multiple gamers would connect their computers together in a room in order to be able to play a multiplayer version of the game.

Just like the way sports went from being a way for people to compete with each other to a well-organised competition, with sponsors and TV rights deals, video games have followed. These new “eSports” are attracting the attention of big-name sponsors and garnering the interest of hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the world.

What is an “eSport”?

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An eSport is a video game that is played competitively by several players, with spectators watching either in the same room or via live stream. Typically, these eSports events are filled with professional players, just like in any other sports league. The games are typically either the exact same retail versions of video games that consumers are able to go and buy from a shop or modified versions that resemble the retail versions very closely.

What Games Can be Used for eSports?
There are eSports leagues for just about every genre of video game, from motor racing to fantasy games. Some of the biggest eSports leagues have been set up by either the producer of the video game, such as the Call of Duty World League, or by the sports league in which the video game is based on.

Sports Leagues Running Their Own eSports Leagues
The owners of sports leagues have been quick to recognise the growing demand for eSports. Strategically it makes sense for them to set up their own leagues; doing so allows them to leverage their brands to capture a large portion of the market, whilst simultaneously promoting their existing real-life leagues to new potential fans. It also works as a move that prevents others from entering the market, regardless of how successful the leagues eventually turn out to be.

One example of an existing sport setting up its own eSports league is Formula 1. Now in its third season, the Formula 1 Esports Series uses the Codemasters video game, with the official Formula 1 teams competing as part of the action. Although the teams are involved, the real-life drivers are not. Instead, other competitors get behind the virtual wheel to compete.

Many American sports, including baseball and basketball, have begun to get involved in eSports, too. The MLB China eSports League will follow the same format as the real-life MLB league in the United States, beginning with a regular season and leading to playoffs. What is currently not yet known is whether the eSports teams will be linked to, or share the names of, the teams in the real-life league. If there is a connection, it will likely be set up in a way that is similar to the NBA 2K League, which has official eSports teams affiliated to the real-life NBA teams, but their success (or otherwise) in either league has no bearing on the outcome in the other. For example, the New York Yankees are currently favourite to win the World Series, but this success would not mean that their eSports league would receive any advantage, points, or favourable treatment in their league.

Big Money
Despite the involvement of the official sports leagues in some eSports leagues, many still write off the latter as “just people playing video games”. However, some large brands have gotten involved by providing sponsorship. For example, the NBA 2K League is sponsored by leading chipset manufacturer, Intel, and the computer giant Dell. Other leagues are sponsored by other global brands including Mercedes Benz, Mountain Dew, Red Bull, Airbus, Comcast Xfinity, Coca-Cola, and Twitch.

Is it Just a Fad?
It is certainly true that eSports are not even close to competing on the scale of real-life sports. Direct comparisons like the NBA to the NBA 2K League and Formula 1 to the Formula 1 Esports Series show that the eSports leagues are miniscule in comparison. Formula 1 races can attract upwards of 1 billion spectators, whilst the Esports Series attracted 5.5 million viewers in 2018. Although eSports leagues are much smaller in terms of viewing figures, they are in their infancy and cost much less to run than the real-world counterparts.

It is too soon to tell if eSports leagues are here to stay or whether they will fizzle out in a few years when the novelty has worn off. However, it is safe to say that the trend will likely be that more eSports leagues will spring up in the next few years. eSports will likely follow a similar path to traditional sports, by which many competing leagues formed before a period of consolidation created the multi-billion dollar brands we know today.

Regardless of their success as independent entities, the eSports leagues that are linked to video games and real-life sports leagues provide marketing opportunities for their owners that will ensure their survival for many years to come. If the MLB China eSports League succeeds in achieving what MLB hopes it will do, then it is safe to assume that many other sports leagues will launch eSports leagues in overseas markets in which they would like to grow their brand.