Video Games Are Becoming Spectator Sports

Via The Economist, an article on how video games are becoming spectator sports:

Video game sales soared in 2020 as people sought ways to cope with being confined at home. But even when they are allowed to go outside again, will they want to? The launch in November of the Play­Station 5 and the Xbox Series X, the next generation of video-game consoles, led to sales being rationed to cope with demand. With them come a host of new games, including the latest titles in blockbusting series such as “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed”—more good reasons to stay indoors.

It is not just the usual model of selling games that executives hope will do well in 2021. The past year also saw a boom in the viewership of e-sports—that is, teams playing video games professionally for spectators. Even before the pandemic, games such as “Counter-strike” (a counter-terrorism shooter) and “League of Legends” (a fantasy strategy game) could fill stadiums with spectators. The virus gave them a bigger boost. As traditional sports such as football and baseball shut down, e-sports—which can be played from home—were shown on terrestrial television for the first time in many countries. Formula One teams and English Premier League football clubs even experimented with having their players play video games for an audience instead. Video-game technology has also been used to fill empty stands with fake crowds for some sports broadcasts.

As the line between video games and traditional sports blurs, companies will strive to capitalise on the popularity of e-sports in 2021. Guild Esports, a team owned by David Beckham, an English former footballer, which competes in four different e-sports, is among those hiring professional players this year. In October the firm raised £20m ($26m) on the London Stock Exchange. Events which had to be scaled back in 2020 because of the pandemic should restart, too. The “Fortnite” World Cup, which debuted in 2019 but was cancelled in 2020, seems likely to kick off again. In 2019 Epic Games, the maker of “Fortnite”, provided $30m in prize money for the event. Blizzard, which runs leagues for “Overwatch” (another cartoonish shooting game) in half a dozen countries, may even be able to restart events in stadiums.

Will the money pouring into e-sports get a payoff? That is less clear. For all their growth, e-sports are chiefly a form of marketing for video games. Teenagers are keen, but their attention spans are short—and new games come out all the time. Traditional sports have much deeper roots. It is far from clear whether e-sports teams can build brands of even a fraction of the scale of a minor Premier League football team. But if you do not play, you cannot win.

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