The Rise of Digital Sports: An Introduction to Esports & Competitive Gaming

I’m not here to make a case that esports are “mainstream,” or even to argue that esports should be considered sports, because quite frankly, none of that matters. The $1.1 billion in annual esports revenue and 443 million fans that tune in to watch and support their favorite teams and pro players don’t care what you think about their industry. Esports is exactly that, an industry. Competitive gaming is a full-fledged economic and commercial activity that is hard to miss… even harder to ignore, but what is the difference between gaming and esports? Why do esports matter, and what does esports even mean? 


Gaming begets esports

All esports are games, but not all gaming is competitive. Electronic games have been evolving since the late ‘60s. Whether you played Pong and Grand Prix on coin-ops, booted up Tony Hawk Pro Skater or Halo with friends on your favorite console, or tested your skill with titles like Starcraft and Counter-Strike on your home PC, games have been a major part of our culture for the last five decades. These titles barely scratch the surface of what “gaming” has grown to become. Mario, Pokémon, Warcraft, Minecraft, Fortnite. The list goes on and on, including games you know and even more that you don’t. All said, the gaming economy is set to bring home a whopping $68.5 billion this year with $36.9 billion coming from the US market alone. 

Defining an Industry

What does esports mean, really? 

Bugha took home $3M after winning this year’s Fortnite World Cup.

The Oxford Dictionary defines esport as “A multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, typically by professional gamers.” While this definition explains esports in the strictest sense, it does a poor job of describing their nature for consumers, businesses, and even professionals. Now let’s take a look at their definition for sport: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

The definition of esport loses an integral part of its namesake thanks to the phrase “for spectators” rather than “for entertainment.” Competitive gaming is inherently entertaining and played less with spectators in mind compared to traditional sports. In fact, it is not all that uncommon to match up and play against your favorite pro or personality in the game. Good luck actually winning.

Digital Sports

Virtual competition for entertainment

Linguistic debate aside, we still need a more fitting definition. In a recent discussion with Vincent Borel of Logitech, he referred to the idea as “digital sports.” The term stuck with me. I now define esports as digital sports, virtual competition for entertainment. Digital sports have low barriers to entry, connect globally, are aspirational to casual gamers and amateurs alike, encompass the vastly diverse and highly participatory audience, and still speak to the competitive nature of traditional sports. 

A (very) Brief History

Competitive gaming evolution

Arcades and barcades are making a nostalgic resurgence in the US.

The early years of competitive gaming were all about comparing high scores and achievements. That quickly changed in the early 90’s after Street Fighter II popularized head to head matchups, the concept of winner stays on, and eventually tournament level competition. Shortly after, the internet allowed for increased connectivity and globalization. The First Person Shooter genre was the first to take advantage with games like Quake and Counter-Strike. Players met for live prized events, albeit much smaller than the likes of today. Most industry professionals actually point to Quake as the first organized esport. Korea catalyzed the following years with StarCraft and television bought into the craze with big names and big money.

After a short drop in popularity, streaming renewed interest in competitive gaming. The ability to follow, watch, and chat with communities of fans interested in the same games, teams, or personalities brought the next big wave of digital sports. Skip ahead to the last few years and franchised leagues are forming across the world dedicated to some of the biggest titles like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Call of Duty where team slots for each league are worth tens of millions. While the landscape has shifted dramatically from the Bring Your Own Computer events of days past, the idea and spirit today largely remain the same.

Entertaining the World

Digital sports impact a generation

Esports events regularly sell out stadiums around the world. 2

Digital sports are not just the $34 million prize pool of the Dota 2 International. They are not just the 60 million unique viewers that watched the League of Legends Mid Season Invitational. They are not just the college grad living off of energy drinks and chips in their parent’s basement. Digital sports are all of that and more. They are the over 8 billion hours watched online in 2018, the ability to pick up and play with friends across the world, and the opportunity to compete from your couch or from Madison Square Garden. Reuters sums up the sentiment nicely. “Gaming is now the world’s favorite form of entertainment.”

Photo Credit

Banner – Copyright: ESL | Helena Kristiansson
2 – Copyright: ESL | Helena Kristiansson

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