E-Sports: A Sport By Any Other Name

“Is e-sports an actual sport?” is the wrong question. Understanding why this growing phenomenon is taking hold begins with seeing the basic human needs it fulfills.

Collin Leirvik is a Senior Strategist at Greenberg, and spends his spare time speed-running Super Metroid and waiting for the Portland Trail Blazers to win another NBA championship.

Collin Leirvik is a Senior Strategist at Greenberg, and spends his spare time speed-running Super Metroid and waiting for the Portland Trail Blazers to win another NBA championship.

With all the mainstream press around e-sports over the past year, one could be excused for thinking that this is a new phenomenon. In fact, organized, amateur and professional video game competitions are more than a decade old. The difference now is that new technologies have made e-sport’s unprecedented scale and reach^1 possible. 

As e-sports gains viewers by tens of millions every year, the debate about its legitimacy as a sport, and its lasting power, is heating up^2. Media corporations, advertisers, and marketers are all attempting to define where e-sports belongs in an effort to quantify its value. This kind of thinking ignores a simple, and more compelling idea — e-sports has the potential to surpass its already exponential growth not because it is or is not a sport, but because it fulfills latent needs in ways that traditional entertainment options, such as professional sports, do not. The debate about what it is should be replaced by the understanding of why it matters.

Here are three reasons why e-sports will garner further growth:

#1. Getting inside the game: Imagine that you’re a basketball fanatic. Now imagine that you can live-stream Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the gym, working on their offensive game in real time. Now imagine that you can also ask them questions during their workout. And incidentally, you can do all this for free. 

E-sports offers all of these possibilities and more: unedited, non-scripted reality TV and high-powered athlete personas rolled into one. E-sports is more than just the big events and prize pools – with the most popular athletes streaming the games they play, the movies they watch, and the websites they visit on a daily basis. It is a powerful platform delivering thought leadership that fulfills fans’ desires to get closer and be even more engaged. 

#2. Fan to pro: From Messi to Durant, we idolize and revere our sports athletes. We become invested in them, cheering their successes and lamenting their failures. But we can’t really relate to what they’re going through on the field. We rarely feel like we could be them.

E-sports turns this traditional fan/pro paradigm on its head. Any Average Joe can watch the strategies of an e-sports pro and immediately incorporate them into their own gaming. When Samsung’s sponsored team Samsung White unveiled a new technique during the Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) World Championships earlier this year, millions around the world logged on within seconds to try to replicate that tactic with their friends.
  
The engagement of e-sports isn’t just about being a fan or the power of the “6th man” — it’s about literally being part of the game.

#3. Content as credibility: The power of user-generated content to captivate viewers is clear, but this kind of democratized content reigns supreme in e-sports. Access to unfiltered, unbiased content is revealing a new set of consumer preferences with thousands logging in every second to watch their favorite players for hours at a time. And with new sets of tools to create content, easier platforms such as Twitch^3 to livestream, and new networks such as MLG.TV to promote it, the e-sports universe is expanding what it means to be emotionally engaged with digital entertainment into a new, symbiotic, user/creator paradigm.

This three-part dynamic — access, emotional relevance, and by-the-people-for-the-people content — point to a blurring of the lines between the different types of participants within the digital entertainment ecosystem. The social possibilities of such a universe are changing what it means to be a fan, a player, and a content creator.

The basic needs that e-sports is addressing — together with the enabling technologies — create a powerful force that will challenge not only the way we “consume” video games, but the ways we choose to interact with all streaming media and digital entertainment as we know it today.

E-sports fulfills latent needs in ways that traditional entertainment options cannot.

 
Global revenue for video gaming in general exceeds $20 billion, with 70 million people watching e-sports through a growing list of content platforms.

Global revenue for video gaming in general exceeds $20 billion, with 70 million people watching e-sports through a growing list of content platforms.

 
  ^1X-Games.com, Money in Action, "The Future of E-Sports", Avi Bhuiyan, November 23, 2014 ^2Forbes.com, "ESPN Boss Declares eSports 'Not A Sport," Paul Tassi, September 7, 2014 ^3TechCrunch, "Amazon’s Twitch Acquisition Is Official," Greg Kumparak, August 25, 2014  

 

^1X-Games.com, Money in Action, "The Future of E-Sports", Avi Bhuiyan, November 23, 2014

^2Forbes.com, "ESPN Boss Declares eSports 'Not A Sport," Paul Tassi, September 7, 2014

^3TechCrunch, "Amazon’s Twitch Acquisition Is Official," Greg Kumparak, August 25, 2014