Video games. While they’ve long been associated with teenage boys and creative insults, they’re receiving a massive rebranding by way of eSports. With a global audience of more than 320 million people and counting, eSports have developed a dedicated following and a high-stakes competition environment with millions of dollars in prize money on the line.

Electronic sports, or “eSports” as they are commonly referred to, are the latest craze in the sports world. While there are hundreds of varieties of these games, the four most popular are real-time strategy (RTS), first-person shooter (FPS), fighting, and multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA). Professional players on the international gaming circuit have built their names, and usernames, on being the most strategically advanced players of these categories among others. Top teams under big gaming syndicates have made close to $20 million in prize money alone from national and international competitions.

Even though they’ve only recently caught media attention, competitions involving video games have been going on since the 1980’s. With the inception of Atari systems, the world saw its first large-scale eSports competition with the National Space Invaders Tournament. As the years went on and these games developed, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter became common features in hundreds of local tournaments in different countries across the world. In fact, these became the basis of South Korea’s diehard eSports audience and culture. Around the turn of the century, South Korea’s ultra-popular gaming scene became the first real hub for large-scale competitions with games like Starcraft rising in popularity.

Since then, there have obviously been massive updates to many of the games and systems, but one thing is becoming more apparent: eSports may very well surpass the sports we’ve come to know and love in the very near future. Inspired by South Korea, the rest of the world is quickly catching on to the gaming obsession. As soon as 2021, it is predicted that more people will be watching eSports than Major League Baseball games. In fact, the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship final garnered more viewers (close to 32 million) than that year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball final, NHL Stanley Cup Final, or NBA Final. League of Legends (or LoL as dedicated gamers call it) has skyrocketed in recent years in terms of both player count and overall viewership. It currently boasts the most active players and is also one of the most popular gaming platforms featured in these worldwide competitions.

With sites like Twitch, which makes it possible for video game players to live stream their gaming experience with fans across the world, the audience is now bigger and more powerful than ever. Twitch reported that in 2015 alone, its site had more than 220 million unique users consuming more than 6.6 billion hours of eSports content. While this far surpasses researchers’ expectations for the success of this “new” sport, it also shows how powerful these communities really are. As of right now, it is estimated that there are about 320 million active gamers and participants around the world. However, that number is expected to rise to somewhere around 600 million people by 2021, according to Newzoo, an eSports market research firm.

This winning combination of ease of access and overall viral capability has been one of the main factors for Fortnite’s rise to fame.  As of January 2018, there were more than 45 million unique players, including the 3.4 million that were online playing concurrently at any given point. With a reported revenue of nearly $300 million since its release in the summer of 2017, it is one of the fastest growing games in history. Fortnite has become a cultural phenomenon– the Fortnite Pro-Am competition in Los Angeles brought in some of the biggest names in sports, eSports, and entertainment.

The level of growth for this new kind of sport is unprecedented. Newzoo predicts that the gaming industry will reach the $1.4 billion mark by 2020. With new platforms like mobile gaming and the Switch console, video games are connected and portable, so people can play anytime, anywhere, with anyone. Developments in augmented reality tech have also given players the ability to almost seamlessly meld their own world with the worlds of their favorite game characters.

One of the most important factors in being successful in any sport is the ability to make split-second decisions with an almost immediate response time.  As the human brain’s neurological ability starts deteriorating around the age of 24 years old, though, so do those rapid-fire twitch reflexes. In turn, unlike most professional athletes who can sometimes play into their 40’s, professional gamers’ careers are relatively quite short lived. In order to catch gamers in their prime, according to the National Association of Collegiate eSports, some colleges are offering scholarships to gifted players. As these universities jump onto the bandwagon, they have started creating their own varsity teams to play competitively just as other student-athlete counterparts do for traditional sports.

Larger entities have noticed this trend as well. As the sport grows, massive corporations have started lining up players to represent them on the professional competition. Several NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLS teams have gone so far as to draft gamers to play the respective sport’s video game equivalent. Many of these leagues, as well as car brands and other organizations, own their own teams to compete on the international level. To add to this level of recognition, countries around the world are even offering athlete visas to these gamers so they can travel and practice with their teams.

Regardless of the popular opinion of gaming, eSports is an unstoppable force that has been gaining momentum for almost 40 years. With new technological advances happening every day, we can only imagine where this industry and sport will go in the future.

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Jenni Sherwood

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Jenni Sherwood

When she’s not lint-rolling dog fur off of her mostly black wardrobe, Jenni is pursuing her degrees in the best college town in America. She is currently focused on finding where communication and technology intersect and how she can help others be more knowledgeable about the ever-advancing world around them. If there is time between working or studying, she can most likely be found cheering on her often times disappointing home teams.

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