Last year, 27 million people watched the League of Legends world championships on the live-streaming site Twitch and ESPN3.
That’s more viewers than the 23.5 million who watched Game 7 of the World Series and the 18 million who tuned into the NBA Finals.
To anyone paying attention, pro gaming is exploding in America.
One of the chief beneficiaries of that growth has been
Team SoloMid, a top team that plays “League of Legends” — one of the world’s most popular competitive video games.
We spoke with Dan Dinh, the vice president of Team SoloMid, to find out why pro gaming has exploded in popularity.
1. Barrier to entry
One explanation for the growth in pro gaming is the fact that people spend more time playing video games these days than they used to. People who like playing video games create a natural audience for pro gamers.
And, according to Dinh, people are playing video games more because there’s a low barrier to entry.
“All you need is a computer, the game, the internet. With a sport, you need gear, equipment, a field or court to play on, and transportation. Video games — you sit in your room,” Dinh says.
Former pro gamer Sean Plott expressed a similar point to us back in March.
“If you want to play soccer, you need a huge field. If you want to play football, you need armour! If you want to play squash, you need a court. If you want to play a video game, all you need is a computer and an internet connection,” Plott said.
2. Games are staying popular for longer
Video games used to follow the same business model. A developer poured millions into a game, sold it for $US60 to paying customers, and that was it. Popular games like “Call of Duty,” “StarCraft II,” and “Grand Theft Auto V” all followed this model and went out of style relatively quickly.
Today, e-sports like “League of Legends,” “Defence of the Ancients,” and “Hearthstone” are developed on the free-to-play model.
Gamers can download the game for free but pay for premium content like new characters or customisations. For example, “League of Legends” routinely releases new characters like Bard the Wandering Caretaker (available for $US7.50) or new outfits for those characters like a recent set of “pool party” outfits (also available for $US7.50).
“Now, you are a lifetime customer as opposed to a single payment. This makes the game more dynamic and keeps you engaged. It incentivizes developers to keep the game fun and updated,” Dinh says.
The longer a game stays fresh, the longer it stays popular, which gives teams and leagues more time to build a fanbase and stars.
3. A new kind of star power
The democratization of the internet has allowed for the creation of accessible “micro-celebrities,” Dinh points out. In the same way that YouTube stars like Jenna Marbles have replaced movie stars for many millennials, pro gamers replace traditional sports stars for many in the same age group. Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martínez, Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, and Lee “Faker” Sang-Hyeok are just a few of the stars made famous by pro gaming.
These new stars still have the influence of superstars with their fan base but are more humble and connected — something millennials crave in their idols.
“Players are not up in the sky. They’re down on the ground. They’re more relatable,” Dinh says. “That’s why the fan base is growing so fast. It’s really easy to connect to the players. These players are big-time celebrities in the game, but they don’t feel that way.”