For many, it seems laughable that a free-to-play game could rank alongside iconic singers and global television shows in terms of popularity.
But, just like Madonna, The X Factor and Olympic sporting events have in the past, the League of Legends Championship Series sold out Wembley Arena this year. And this success isn’t limited to LoL alone – eSports as a whole now stands as one of the fastest- growing industries in the world.
To put this in pure number terms, SuperData Research estimates that total viewership in the eSports market surpassed 70 million in 2013 – almost seven million more people than the entire population of the UK.
Prize money has also skyrocketed, hitting $25 million in 2013. Dota 2 competition The International 3 alone offered a record-breaking $2.87m – an impressive number that’s been smashed this year by The International 4’s $10.9m prize pool.
These breath-taking statistics are only set to rise further, too. IHS Technology predicts that the eSports video market alone will be worth $300 million by 2018, and given the number of firms jumping on-board for a slice of the pie, there’s no reason to expect this sector will slow down.
ESPORTS FOR EVERYONE
Clearly, then, eSports is far from the niche market it was five years ago – and its popularity only continues to increase.
“The last few years have seen tremendous growth globally with more and more major tournaments being held,” says Michael ‘ODEE’ O’Dell, professional manager for UK eSports team Team Dignitas.
“Prize money has gone up and payment of prize money is almost on time now, which is a major step forward. Viewership also continues to rise, which is the best indication of the growth we are currently seeing. Over the next five years it will only continue to grow, and I hope more sustainability will set in as our industry infrastructure starts to establish itself.”
Anthony Cornish, marketing director at The Poke?mon Company, adds that the rise in the number of people live streaming has been a key contributing factor to the wider growth of competitive gaming. “The fan communities surrounding all games have been galvanised by social media and online play,” he explains. “In the next five years, more and more viewers will tune in, with live streaming services like Twitch leading the way.
"Competitive gaming is showing that it
isn’t as niche as many think."
Anthony Cornish, Poke?mon Company
“Live streaming has been around for years but the technology continues to improve – as do internet speeds, which have meant we can reach an ever wider audience.
“Live streaming can open up competitive gaming to people who maybe hadn’t ever watched a Poke?mon video game or Trading Card Game battle. We streamed the Poke?mon US National Championships in July and the Poke?mon World Championships for the past two years, and will again this August. Interest and viewers are growing every year.”
He adds that the number of people watching eSports online is proof that the market is no longer restricted to a limited audience.
“Larger competitive gaming events are drawing crowds that are filling arenas and capturing online views that rival cable show audiences,” he observes. “Competitive gaming is already showing that it has mass appeal and isn’t as niche as many think.”
THE VALUE OF FREE-TO-PLAY
Matt Macdonald, senior eSports manager at gaming event organiser Multiplay, argues that the rise in free-to-play games, which allow more players to try a game for free, before getting hooked on the competitive aspects of titles, is responsible for the recent explosion in pro-gaming interest.
“In business terms, the F2P model has made eSports much more accessible to the average user,” he explains. “The large player bases of free games like League of Legends make for a much bigger interested audience. Mostly this audience has been at home, and the transition is now being made into more and more live physical events.
"Prize money has gone up and payment of prize money is almost on time now, which is a major step forward. Viewership also continues to rise, which is the best indication of the growth we are currently seeing."
Michael 'ODEE' O'Dell, Team Dignitas
“Riot Games filled Wembley Arena with their League of Legends Championship Series; the tickets sold out in mere minutes.”
He echoes O’Dell’s comments that observers should expect to see event audience numbers boom as bigger prize pools attract greater numbers of competitors.
“Over the next five years we will see many more live events – the Wimbledons and FA Cups of the digital world, featuring gatherings of spectators watching global stars battle on increasingly grand live stages,” he predicts. “Prize pools are going to get bigger and better. Just take the growth of The International: in one year we saw a rise from nearly $3 million to over $10 million – an unprecedented increase never before seen in sporting prize pools. In short, eSports means business.”