Why American Esports Are Taking Off

Esports are a multimillion-dollar industry, but remain a mystery to most Americans.

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Gamebreaker

Last year, Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million. You may have thought that you would see a whole lot more of Twitch in your everyday life thanks to this purchase, but that likely hasn’t happened yet. Why might that be?

The best way to find the answer may be to watch the final match of the League of Legends World Championship, one of the biggest events in esports; last year’s championship was viewed by 27 million spectators the world over. Take a moment and try to follow the action.

Yeah. It’s a lot. Physical sports alone give viewers a great deal of onscreen action to track, whether the game is segmented like football and baseball, or continuously played like basketball. With League of Legends, you’re seeing not just the avatars onscreen, but the players themselves — all of whom are wearing headsets and staring into screens with the same seemingly vacant intensity, and all of whom go by usernames, which in turn correspond to those avatars running around on the field, sometimes in duplicate, all with various special abilities. And everything is exploding, all the time.

Luckily for the common Western viewer (and the motion sick), this is not all there is to esports. While on a global scale, top-down real-time strategy games — League of Legends, DoTA 2, and of course Starcraft — dominate esports viewership, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a notable outlier as the most prominent first-person shooter with a globe-spanning world league.

That “outlier” status is about to change, though. Just last month, Activision announced that it was forming an esports league for Call of Duty, debuting in January with a prize pool of $3 million; in August, Microsoft announced that it was boosting the Halo Championship Series’ prize pool from $150,000 to $1 million. Whereas League of Legends and DoTA 2 find the bulk of their teams and viewership from East Asia with a minority of Western players and spectators, the converse is true for these shooters. With industry giants pumping money into competitive video gaming, and with said industry still on a formidably steep upswing, one thing is clear: though it took some time, esports are about to have their stateside boom.

“It went from the basement to hotel ballrooms to stadiums. That all happened over the last five to eight years.”

But don’t go thinking all this started in the past five years. Besides the long aforementioned tradition of esports in East Asia, esports in the Western world have simmered as a grassroots phenomenon for decades before coming to a boil; the advent of online console gaming in the early aughts bolstered the community of online competitors beyond PC-bound Counter-Strike players, a trend that continued as high-speed Internet became more widely available. This in turn helped birth the still-growing market of online video game spectators on Twitch and elsewhere, who provide an audience for nascent esports leagues.

It’s only fitting that the single biggest game of that early-aughts online boom — Halo — is helping lead the charge of Western esports. “More than 10 years ago, Halo grew into esports from the grassroots,” says Che Chou, franchise media director at 343 Industries, the developer of Halo 5: Guardians. “It’s a byproduct of a really excellent, balanced multiplayer game that caught on with competitive players. It went from the basement to hotel ballrooms to stadiums. That all happened over the last five to eight years.” With Halo 5: Guardians, 343 Studios made competitive play the focus — a return to form. Not by coincidence, reviewers have noted that the latest Halo installment plays slower than its predecessor, echoing to the pace of the original. It stands to reason; many competitive Halo players are longtime fans.

Citing Counter-Strike for comparison, Chou remarks: “They’ve been at it for a long time.” The basic gameplay has gone mostly unchanged since ‘99; of League of Legends and DoTA 2, he says, “They’re arguably the same game,” unchanged for years. The goal with esports is to find the purest expression of play and make it standard. After all, the rules of baseball don’t change year to year.

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According to Chou, the vast majority of Halo’s player- and viewership comes from the US, with the rest of the audience formed from swaths of players and viewers all across Europe (particularly in the UK), as well as South and Central America (Mexico City is one of their larger markets, in terms of global cities), and a scant minority from East Asia. This makes sense, as first-person shooters are historically more popular in the Western world, and especially the US, than anywhere else. For comparison, Counter-Strike‘s various esports leagues are largely made up of Northern and European teams in addition to North American ones, while countries like China are the outliers.

What Halo’s $1 million prize pool means for all these players is more competition. And the developer sanctioning — essentially the game developer’s blessing upon the esports league — means greater legitimacy. “Console esports is behind in terms of player base and viewership as a whole right now — compared to PC — and I think just having more involvement from developers and publishers for official esports efforts is totally welcome, in my opinion. Any time a publisher officially gets involved, especially a console publisher… the end result is great for the community, great for the scene.” Since the developer is directly involved with the league, game programmers can actively optimize the game for competitive play, fixing bugs and other issues that would throw a wrench in the whole operation. It also means more solid branding, as the league no longer operates under the umbrella of the Electronic Sports League (ESL), essentially a holding ground for smaller esports leagues that operate without the developers’ help or control (e.g., Counter-Strike).

Which is not to discount the numerous leagues under the ESL; the organization is a boon to the grassroots esports enthusiasts of the very same cloth from which the Halo Championship Series was cut, and it gives fans and players of games like FIFA, Mortal Kombat, Rocket League and many others a space to compete and spectate. And with the growth of Twitch, and YouTube’s push to boost its gaming content, there seems to be nowhere to go but up. Now that streams of game competitions are widely available, even the most niche games will have an audience, and therefore a market capable of supporting a league.

Does that mean a game like Starwhal: Just the Tip will have esports league as robust as Halo’s? Well, probably not. Jai Alai didn’t exactly take the country by storm either. But picture a neighborhood intramural sports league. That kind of community can exist for video games now, alongside behemoth major leagues. And if you want to sit down and watch some pro gaming, you have far more options than a pastime from halfway across the world.

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