Kids have enjoyed playing video games for decades, but the days of waiting 30 minutes for a cassette video game to load have long since passed. Not only is the sector bigger than Hollywood, professionally competitive video games is already amassing audiences that has traditional sports looking over its collective shoulder.
A Rising eSports Tide
eSports, professional video games, have been rising in popularity for years now, and received a big shot in the arm when they remained largely unaffected by the 2020 pandemic restrictions and regular sports were almost uniformly disrupted. The world of esports has yet to hit its ceiling, so it remains to be seen just how high they can rise globally, and in the US specifically, but the future looks very bright indeed.
It’s also worth remembering that sports naturally ebb and flow in popularity. Soccer has already passed baseball when it comes to participation, and many now think it could end up passing the MLB when it comes to viewers too. Soccer benefits from a younger audience, which bodes well for the future of the sport in the USA, and the same is true (as one might expect) of esports.
Sports and eSports Betting
Another area that has seen substantial relative and actual gains for esports versus sports comes in the world of betting. Sports betting has always been big business in Europe and has recently become more popular in the United States as well. And just as more popular sports have more markets (sometimes hundreds on a single game), the leading esports such as Dota 2, CS:GO, and League of Legends are seeing an increasing number of markets available, both for single contests and titles.
Betting on esports is typically found either as a specific category within a sportsbook or as a separate, self-contained section. A similar betting field is the virtual sports category within online betting sites, which usually involves soccer or various types of racing. Many sites also have casino games, another growth area of betting, which are possible to play for free courtesy of the best USA no deposit bonuses. These allow players to try out the latest online casino games for free, but with the chance to win actual cash.
Vying with the Major Leagues
The advantage of gaming, and the competitive branch of gaming that is esports, is that it turns a hobby of mass appeal into a way to make money. Or to combine the passion of sports fans with the understanding of someone who plays on an amateur basis. Video games now are bigger than Hollywood, but in recent years esports has suddenly turned into a viable career from the perspective of being a player, rather than a video game developer.
When it comes to the MLB, the World Series is at the top of the tree. Viewership in 2021 hit 11.74 million (as an average), one of the lowest on record. In 2019 this was only a little higher at 13.91 million. The Fortnite World Cup, one of the biggest ever esports events, in 2019 had concurrent Twitch and Youtube viewers peak at 2.3 million, the highest (at the time) for any non-Chinese esports event. It’s interesting to note that while the sum total of esports viewers is massive, behind only the NFL, the peak of individual events remains substantially behind major leagues, for the time being. This implies a much broader but shallower audience than for traditional major league sports, which still retain their cultural cachet in a way esports have yet to challenge.
On that note, 2022 saw the biggest Super Bowl audience since 2017, with an average audience total of 110.4 million. This is a hefty improvement on last year’s 95.2 million. While the viewership total of esports is impressive they do not yet have anything that can go toe-to-toe with the Super Bowl.
The Global Aspect
Very few sports are truly global. Soccer’s popularity means it can lay claim to be, and Formula 1 does visit multiple countries and continents, and, while it now has American owners, the beating heart remains in Europe (with notable exceptions such as Japan and Brazil).
eSports, professional video games, have a reach that no other type of sport can match. And the lack of a necessary meeting place (pitch, court, course etc) combined with the absence of cultural limitations (American rugby players and British basketball players know this feeling) makes it easy for players from around the world to compete either against or alongside one another.
Formula 1’s cumulative TV audience in 2021, one of the most competitive seasons for many a year, was 1.55 billion. Per race, the average audience was 70.3 million, with 108.7m watching the title-deciding (and highly controversial) finale in Abu Dhabi.
In the same year, esports saw a global audience of 474m, up from 436m in 2020 and 398m in 2020, with a 2024 projected global esports viewership of 577 million (figures from statista.com). While this is still some way off F1 for now, the rate of growth makes it a matter of time before the world’s premier motorsport is overtaken by esports.
Co-operation over Competition?
NASCAR, like many sports, is embracing the electronic version of itself to good effect, and this was best exemplified by the record-breaking virtual Texas NASCAR race. There were 1.3m viewers for this 2020 phenomenon, the most popular televised esports event there had ever been. Not only that, it was the most watched sporting event all day and second most popular all week.
It can be tempting to view sports and esports as being in competition with one another, but to a large extent, this is a falsehood. While there are unique esport events (tournaments in Fortnite, League of Legends, etc) many esports are simply electronic versions of real-world sports, frequently with direct ties to actual teams.
It remains to be seen just how popular esports will get. It seems likely it will co-exist alongside the regular version, but whether video games can supplant traditional sports like the NFL is something only time will tell.