Despite its huge following in the US and parts of Asia, eSports is still finding its feet in much of Europe, and is largely unknown in the UK. This is all set to change however, with many anticipating the sport to explode on these shores in the near future.
The first dedicated eSports arena was opened in London in March, in a collaboration between Vue Cinemas and Gfinity. In a three part series, SBC will introduce readers to the world of eSports, its success abroad, the big names, the potential of a lucrative new betting market, and predictions for its future in the UK and worldwide.
This, the primary segment, will focus on its brief history, its successes to date, and some of the major names involved.
Atari’s Space Invaders tournament in the 1980s was the first in which players merely completed to beat the others’ high scores. In the 1990s with the birth of the internet, PC-based games such as Quake and Starcraft attracted considerably more players, and since that time it has erupted in both the US, and Asia, with Korea and China as the hubs there. Indeed, South Korea has rehab clinics dedicated to aiding the recovery of those addicted to online gaming.
Meanwhile China boasts the top five individual eSports earners according to esportsearnings.com, with an amassed fortune of almost $6m (£4m) all exclusively from the game Dota 2.
Many began to cotton on to the financial potential of investment and professional organisation of this new form of entertainment, and in 2002 Major League Gaming (MLG) was established in order to take competitive gaming to a wider stage.
In terms of variety eSports is constantly evolving and expanding, but PC remains a huge format despite the popularity of console gaming. Senior eSports and Events Manager at Multiplay, Matt Macdonald, said of the UK market: ““Right now, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the dominant eSport in the UK in terms of both viewership and participants. Call of Duty also seems to be doing incredibly well in terms of console gaming.”
Major video gaming chain GAME recently acquired Multiplay, a live gaming events and eSports company, for the sum of £20m. With physical stores closing, and the chain struggling to compete with the huge array of online outlets selling games, this could have huge potential with the forthcoming seeming inevitability of events and gaming tournaments held in larger stores. Just as it turned out that Blockbuster were foolish to say no to Netflix, it is highly likely that GAME would have rued the day that they didn’t acquire Multiplay, or a similar eSports events firm.
GAME CEO Martyn Gibbs expressed how the company had been searching for the right opportunity to get into eSports and live events “for some time.” It is definitely the case that there is no time like the present, with huge sums of money being thrown around as cash prizes, a rapidly increasing audience and wider, and more mainstream, coverage.
According to statistics from last January, the game League of Legends had over 27m players daily, and furthermore 11m spectators watching the 2014 LoL World Championship event. Another Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) title mentioned earlier, Dota 2, has proven hugely popular since its launch in 2013. It is largely down to these two games that for many professional eSports gamers, PC remains the top format.
The creation and development of live streaming service, Twitch, in 2011 made waves in eSports due to its focus on regularly broadcasting competitive gaming events and tournaments via a high quality, that is to say minimal lag, and user friendly interface.
As a spin-off of Justin.tv it quickly garnered pace and it is now known as “the ESPN of eSports” according to Ron Breslau, the Senior eSports Editor for Gamespot. Breslau has stated that, at present, Twitch “have a stranglehold on the market” when it comes to big events.
Talking to The Verge (www.theverge.com), he continued to explain how “even five or six years ago it was still a pain in the ass to stream from home”. Twitch changed this and has reaped the rewards.
- 2011 – Launched as a spin-off of Justin.tv (itself started in 2007 initially as a 24 hour stream of creator, Justin Kan’s day to day life)
- 2012 – 20 million monthly visitors
- 2013 – 43 million average viewers per month
- 2014 – February – Became the fourth largest source of peak internet traffic in the US and parent company, Justin.tv, was renamed Twitch Interactive
- 2014 – September – Amazon.com acquire the service at a cost of $970m (£650m)
As a platform Twitch has allowed promoters and organisers of tournaments to easily, professionally, and perhaps most importantly, cheaply, broadcast events to millions. The integration with consoles, the PS4 and Xbox One, was another major leap forward in that any players connected acquired the option to broadcast their own gaming live.
Senior Manager of eSports at Blizzard Entertainment, Kim Phan, noted her views as to why Twitch grew so rapidly, and continues to be number one in the community; “The industry has largely adopted Twitch because they have the best infrastructure, features, and by far the biggest and most passionate community of gamers.”
Predictions that competition would drive down Twitch’s growth and dominance have, thus far, proved false. For example the creation of Major League Gaming’s own streaming platform, MLG.tv, and others like it, were expected to steal numbers from Twitch. Following Amazon’s acquisition in the summer of 2014 however, the latest figures showed that Twitch’s viewership actually doubled once again in 2014 from the previous year. Twitch states that it reached 100m monthly viewers in December 2014.
MLG.tv enjoyed enormous growth in 2014 itself, and is the primary platform for the popular title Call of Duty, whilst the planned relauch of Youtube’s service with a focus on eSports and live gaming will doubtless be marketed extensively and prove popular.
This continued expansion of both Twitch itself, and eSports broadcasting across platforms, shows its vast popularity. To the extent that it certainly should no longer be considered a niche market. Money talks, and a glance at the ever increasing prize money in this field is testament to its growth beyond its ‘niche market’ branding.
In the early days, that is the dawn of the new millenium, the prize money to be won in eSports was reasonably limited. In 2000 the grand total was a little over $300,000 (£200,000), whilst 2012 saw a total of $10m (£6.6m) , and 2013 over $14m (£9.3m)
In 2014 eSports was watched by 71.5m people worldwide. Television broadcaster ESPN aired the finals of The International live; a first in the history of the sport.
ESports is growing at an unexpectedly fast rate. Expect this to continue, with the UK looking to establish itself as an eSports hub in the coming year.
Part two of this series will analyse the expectations of the sport in the UK, plus potential problems and comparisons with the markets abroad. It will also look at those already making significant amounts from this area, including bookmakers and the players themselves.