Why are eSports so popular and do they compare to traditional sports?

In the past, playing video games was regularly portrayed as being an activity enjoyed by computer geeks in dark bedrooms and basements, but eSports are now all the rage. So just how far have they come in recent years – and could they become as popular as traditional sporting activities, such as football, rugby or cricket, as time goes on?

eSports – What Are Exactly Are They?

The term eSports is short for electronic sports, and it refers to competitive or professional video gaming. Players can compete against each other in tournaments featuring a wide range of popular PC, XBox and PlayStation games, including titles like “League of Legends” and “Call of Duty”. Players often compete in teams, although there are tournaments for individuals too.

Competitive video gaming is not as recent a development as some might think. The first recorded competition took place more than forty years ago, in 1972, when students at Stanford University took part in what was billed as an “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.” Two teams battled it out to be the champions of a video game named “Spacewar!”, using the only PDP-10 computer in the university’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Five individual players also took each other on in a “free for all” version of event.

The activity really began to take off in the 2000s, however. Many big-name tournaments and organisations were established at that time, including Major League Gaming (MGL), which holds competitions throughout the USA and Canada. The organisation was bought by Activision Blizzard – the makers of the “Hearthstone” and “Call of Duty” games – earlier this year.

Today, many of the leading tournaments take place in huge venues and offer substantial prize funds. The 2016 Hearthstone World Championship, which took place at Blizzcon, at the Anaheim Convention Center, in the USA, in June, boasted a total prize pool of $1,000,000, with the winner, Pavel from Russia, taking home $250,000. He also received a stunning custom-made trophy, manufactured from glass, wood and bronze.

Talented players can earn a great deal of money over the course of their careers. The top-earning player in the UK in 2015, for example, Nate “Ataraxia” Mark, won an estimated £78,009 playing “SMITE” that year – and players in the UK often earn substantially less than their international counterparts.

The activity has also attracted controversy, however, with some saying that gender inequality and discrimination are rife within the professional gaming world. Just this week, for example, the inaugural Esports Industry Awards took place in London, but the nominees didn’t include a single woman.

eSports – The Role of Spectators in Their Rise

Competitive gaming is hugely popular with spectators, and many tournaments and festivals are live-streamed to viewers across the world. Earlier this week, for example, Amazon announced that it was launching a new tournament, the “Champions of Fire Invitational”, which will have a £100,000 prize pool and be broadcast live on Twitch, Amazon.com, Amazon Fire TV and social media channels.

Twitch, billed as the “the world’s leading video platform and community for gamers”, was established in 2011 and acquired by Amazon in 2014. According to GeekWire, the service “now has more than 1.7 million active streamers, with 100 million viewers who watch an average of 421 minutes per month.”

Anything that attracts huge numbers of spectators like that appeals to big businesses, and sponsorship is enabling competitive and professional video gaming to grow rapidly. In August 2016, NewZoo reported that eSport revenues for the year were set to be around $493 million – a figure that’s “up 7% from the $463 million projected at the start of the year” and which represents year-on-year growth of 51.7 percent.

Spectators are also boosting the income of bookies around the world. Earlier this year, CNBC reported that “fans are projected to bet around $23.5 billion on e-sports by 2020, according to market research by Eilers”.

How Does Competitive Video Gaming Compare to Traditional Sports?

Many people would, of course, argue that playing computer games isn’t really a sport. After all, players simply sit and stare at a monitor for hours on end. However, according to Professor Ingo Froböse, of the German Sports University in Cologne, the activity does demand superb motor skills and hand to eye co-ordination. Playing video games also causes players to produce high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

“The amount of cortisol produced is about the same level as that of a race-car driver,” Froböse stated. “In my opinion, eSports are just as demanding as most other types of sports, if not more demanding”.

So will eSports soon be one of the world’s leading sporting activities, or even, as some have suggested, feature in the Olympic Games? Whatever happens, the idea that gaming could be a viable career option may provide comfort to any parent finding it difficult to prise their teenager away from his or her PC, XBox, or PlayStation.

Are you an eSports fan? Do you think gaming is a sport or not? Join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below.