Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why eSports Matters

Audience at Starcraft 2 finals of MLG Anahiem 2011
Recently I have been enthralled by sudden growth of the international competitive gaming scene, but I still cringe when some claim that eSports will explode into mainstream popularity. While gaming itself has now embedded itself into mainstream culture, competitive gaming has not reached the same level because it remains a niche pastime for the minority of the population. Despite the presence of gaming consoles in almost every household, we will not be seeing "Halo: Reach" or "Starcraft 2" tournament replays sharing airtime with conventional sports on any of the popular network channels. The diversity and vast scope of mainstream gaming is not compatible with the narrow focus of competitive gaming, and any attempts to introduce it into the mainstream awareness are bound for failure.

So is eSports a lost cause destined to burn out with the trends and fads of yesteryear? Actually, no. What makes eSports unique is that it does not need the mainstream to grow, and if it continues the rapid momentum it has built up over most of 2011 it can easily become a global juggernaut in online entertainment.
Korean Starcraft 2 professionals signing autographs at MLG Anahiem 2011
Even though its audience is relatively marginal in comparison with the massive audiences that follow various other popular traditional sports, eSports still captures the loyalty and passion of its audience, thriving off of its close-knit communities. Thanks to community websites and the numerous online and offline gaming competitions, story threads have been created about the individual competitors and the teams that they are a part of. Most of the individual ‘professional gamers’ are not above interacting with their fans as well, playing games with them and letting them spectate their practices via online streams, helping them create stronger bonds with their online fans.

Community involvement aside, competitive gaming’s retention of its existing audience and its ability to consistently expand to younger generations cannot be ignored. As fans of competitive gaming grow older, they tend to remain fans, and new younger fans will continue to be attracted by the online hype and discussions via social networking and word-of-mouth. With the Internet becoming a cornerstone of life for this generation and future generations, eSports is at the forefront of the growth of online entertainment, and its high visibility serves to further attract new fans and participants.

Many companies and corporations have embraced this growth potential of competitive gaming, and have been using eSports to spread brand awareness among the concentrated yet diverse demographic that follow the various gaming competitions. It used to be that tech companies such as Intel and Razer were among the few companies that sought to sponsor the various professional gamers and competitions, but now lifestyle brands such as Monster and Stride Gum have entered the fray with high-profile sponsorships. In business, where there is money there is life, and eSports has definitely secured itself a strong life source.

The other engine driving the growth of eSports is its international footprint. Even compared to some traditional sports, competitive gaming is dominant in its ability to transcend cultural and language boundaries. The language of gaming is international, and as a result international tournaments have had resounding success. The Dreamhack Summer 2011 LAN event in Sweden featuring "Starcraft 2" and "League of Legends" tournaments had three million unique views on its videos from across the globe, with hundreds of thousands of simultaneous viewers during the event itself. With an international pool of potential fans to draw from, there seems to be very little to restrain the growth of eSports as a powerful online entertainment medium.

Main stage at Dreamhack Summer 2011
Of course, there are caveats to any argument in favor of eSports. Much of the future of eSports is dependent on how the scene maintains itself, and how it will prevent itself from collapsing. The "Warcraft 3" professional scene was damaged by player salary-inflation, and the professional "Starcraft 1" televised league in Korea was marred by match fixing scandals surrounding popular professional players. With so many eyes watching the explosion of a very young scene with its equally young participants, combined with the lack of any regulatory organization, the future of eSports is anything but guaranteed. 

That said, there is not any other entertainment medium that is remotely comparable in scope to competitive gaming, and it is a force that should not be overlooked. eSports might not be able to break into the mainstream consciousness now, but mainstream culture will shift and adjust itself as it always does as the generations change. Competitive gaming probably will never approach the sheer size and scope of the traditional sports scenes, but it will dominate the online scene. With the future of entertainment looking to be increasingly dominated by the Internet, perhaps eSports itself will eventually redefine what we consider mainstream sports culture..

Image credits to Major League Gaming, Dreamhack, and Stride Gum.

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