A decade ago, stories about Starcraft tournaments filling stadiums in South Korea were more mythical than anything. Stories you would tell your friends and family who didn’t understand just how exciting competitive gaming could be. Now, this very weekend, fighting game fans will fill the Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay in Vegas for this year’s Evolution Championship Series, or EVO. League of Legends events sell out venues in Europe every other weekend. In 2022, esports are much more mainstream. They are in the same conversation as conventional sports, both as a competitive experience and as events worth spectating. How did we get here?
Partnerships with Traditional Sports
Esports have made some important partnerships over the past ten years. These pairings have helped legitimate competitive gaming in the eyes of casual spectators. Several esports leagues have benefited from direct partnerships with their associated sports leagues. The NBA 2K League is a perfect example of this. The majority of NBA 2K League’s 25 teams are partnered directly with NBA franchises. Their three main tournaments are hosted in-person in Indianapolis, Indiana near where the Pacers play their home games. Having the NBA’s support brings both more prize money, which encourages more players to compete, and better advertisement, bringing new eyes on the product.
ESPN, the center of sports media, dipped its toe into esports coverage from 2016 until the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. This meant that, suddenly, exciting esports tournaments were being featured on the same website that calls itself the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” This provided more mainstream coverage of esports, of course. ESPN also ran several esports events on live television, including the EVO fighting game tournament. Sure, you could find your share of folks on Twitter complaining that ESPN wasn’t showing “real sports,” but this also got folks interested in the excitement of competitive gaming. This exposure benefited many different genres of esports.
Another important sports institution has really stepped up its support for esports: College. In the past few years, more colleges have begun to offer scholarship programs for competitive gaming. Collegiate esports leagues have grown, sometimes despite meddling from developers. A disconnect from the NCAA means a small college could field a strong esports team. If you’d like to attend a traditionally Division I school, however, colleges like Maryland, Georgia State and Boise State also offer esports scholarships.
Money is an Effective Form of Involvement
In 2021, DOTA 2’s championship, The International, offered a record setting $40 million dollar prize pot. Some of this money comes from sponsors, but most of it is crowdfunded. This is an increasingly popular way to raise prize pools for larger esports events. In this way, spectators and casual fans can feel some kind of direct involvement in the event. Often, these events raise money in the form of merchandise sales, which gives supporters an even greater sense of support for their favorite teams and events. In other esports, the money goes towards voting certain players into invitation-only events. Fans of high profile players work together to raise money to make sure their favorites make it to the grand stage.
Esports have joined traditional sports in benefiting from recent changes in online gambling laws. Need to be invested in a match-up you know little about? Put money on it. Suddenly, a fighting game set has a clear favorite. While casinos have introduced new casino games, which are sometimes inspired by video games, betting websites have begun to offer bets on esports events. An influx of passionate esports fans have caused these sites to improve the overall security of their systems. Of course, folks should be careful when placing bets; If you find yourself having trouble knowing when to stop, it’s important to seek help.
Sometimes, Natural Growth is Enough
Not every video game community has had the benefit of direct partnerships with larger organizations. Ten years ago, most competitive games were struggling from a lack of acknowledgment from the game’s developers. This wasn’t enough to stop those community members from running their own events. Esports communities like the Super Smash Bros. community have thrived almost exclusively from events regularly hosted by members of the community. This is not the fastest way to experience growth or mainstream acceptance, but it is consistent.
With the release of each new Super Smash Bros. title, more and more new young players were able to play for the first time. Every time, a network of competitive events existed for them to find and experience. Events that used to host 10 players may now host hundreds. Some of the players who organized these tournaments have gone on to host larger events that rival those of esports with official support. Sometimes, the best way to increase mainstream appeal is to work really hard for a long time. Who knew?
In the past, the conversation surrounding esports often focused on whether or not competitive gaming was a “true sport.” Now, eSports has gained enough mainstream support to stand on its own. There are no signs of this slowing down. It will be exciting to see how esports continue to grow in the mainstream.