Will eSports Ever Become As Popular As Real Sports?

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There is a lot of chatter among the gaming community that eSports will become as popular as real sports someday. Is it possible?  Sure, anything is possible, but there are major differences between sports and esports that will make esports accession challenging.

At the moment, the most popular esport (from a casting perspective) is StarCraft2 (the top two gaming channels on Youtube broadcast SC2 content, so calling SC2 the most popular esport I think is a fair assessment.)  The challenge for SC2 as an esport then is that it is more like professional chess than the NFL.  It is recognisable names, and less so the teams they play for (who cares Kasparov plays for Russia, it is his name that matters), that power SC2 viewership.  This is a challenge for SC2 (and any other game where it is small numbers of players like 1v1, 2v2) because how then does industry make money off of it?

In part, part of the the reason that the NFL and other sports are popular is because someone is making money off of it, and they want to keep you interested (and paying.)  They want you to identify with a certain team, so they will lease manufacturing rights to produce, hats, jersey’s, and anything else you’d be willing to pay a buck for.  In turn, these funds you have separated with go to build big impressive infrastructures like stadiums.  These edifices beget attention, and you continue to separate with your money, and they continue to build stadiums, magazines, whatever as monuments to the sport.

In SC2, you can’t buy a “Team Liquid” jersey, or you wouldn’t want to because it is Huk, not Team Liquid, that you care about.  The challenge for esports is that the pool to make money off of it is way too shallow.  But there is hope.

Battlefield 3 is going to be a massive multiplayer game when it releases.  Via the PC version, teams of 32 (30-two!) will face off against one another.  This is more akin to the sports I am familiar with.  Not only do you have sufficiently large teams to make the viewership be driven by team-based loyalty, and not just individual-based fanship, you also have the capacity for team owners to invest in specific skill sets.  Your team’s lieutenant of the 3rd division not leading his crew?  Fire him–get the hot shot out of Korea. 

The future of esports will need large teams.  Otherwise it will be as popular as professional chess and not the NFL.

Life automatically updates—game generations don’t
Professional sports is one of the best examples of a free and efficient market.  On one team, you have some of today’s best players.  On the other team, you have some of today’s other best players.  In professional sports, no one player is so superior to everyone else (I know about Jordan, but go with me on this) that they are able to dominate everyone else.  The reason for this?  Today’s players have all trained with basically the same top-of-the-line equipment and coaching techniques.  If you didn’t get the analogy, it would be like comparing a 1950’s football player to today’s player; sports are updated automatically by the era or decade that they are played.

For games, game developers haven’t developed a way to update games (or searched for a way) as to make the transition between game generations seamless.  Think of it in terms of series.  There was Star Craft 1, then there was Star Craft 2.  In a seamless world, you would install Star Craft 1, and it would incrementally transition to the current form of Star Craft 2.

Short of graphics, game developers couldn’t update games because it would change the rules (mechanics) to the game.  That is a challenge because we agree that a sport is a game to rules by which we have agreed to by.  Football, for the most part, has remained the same game since your father’s days because the rules have changed very little.  In a virtual world, guaranteeing this similarity between versions would be a little more challenging.

Do you really want to trust one company for decades on end?  Could you even?
I was a Magic the Gathering player (card game) and in my one issue of my MTG mag I saw they ranked the top 10 video games of the day.  At the top of the list was Unreal Tournament, a first-person shooter game for the PC.  It looked like fun so I picked it up and I enjoyed the game for many years.  I liked it (and the community) so much, that I bought the next UT game, Unreal Tournament 2004.  However, now at the time of this authorship, I don’t play the latest UT game.  Why?  Because the original game developers sold the rights of the game to another company, and the new company so massively change the game that the community and I left it.  Does any fan really want to trust one company to manufacture a successful game for decades on end?  Could it even be done?

This last challenge might also be the most formidable challenge to the popularity of esports.  Sports, by definition, are games that we agree will have small changes to over the years and nothing more(while the yardage for a penalty might be changed someday, I doubt that the NFL will ever introduce jet packs).  This consistency to sports is the polar opposite to games (at least today’s games) and marrying the two—consistency of rules in sports, and a strong inclination to try new things in games—is not only challenging, it might prove to be insurmountable.

Will esports continue to become more popular? You betcha’! Not even 10 years ago, you couldn’t watch video games casted, but today with the power of Youtube, you can  I think that esports will continue to become more popular for the coming decades because they have become more popular over the past decade.

But if esports is ever to become as popular as actual sports, esports must begin to resemble real sports.  They must include teams large enough so that it is team loyalty that drives viewership; they must make game-generations transitions seamless, or the transition between games nearly-only graphical based upgrades; and they must aim to be decade-long companies committed to one game and one game only.