A decade ago, Europeans and North Americans watched in disbelief how eSports were more popular in South Korea and then traditional sports. Starcraft 2 started the revolution, with the best players enjoying celebrity status in the Asian country. Over the last couple of years, eSports gained even more traction and last year, more people watched the live stream of major tournaments than the Super Bowl.

The most important Dota 2 and League of Legends tournaments outstrip sports events in every way, with tens of millions watching the games live. Not only professional videogame competitions enjoy this much attention, but even the practice games draw huge crowds. Specialized services such as Twitch broadcast these matches in real-time and players can also watch the games recorded at leisure.

The Dota 2 International tournaments set new milestones in 2015, with a prize pool of more than $80 million and a viewership of more than 8 million people. The decisive NBA, NHL and MLB games rarely draw such an audience and the trend seems to be irreversible. This is the result of a fan base that keeps growing at an accelerated pace, with millions of players of all skill levels watching professionals.

Guaranteed prize pools increase every year

Every day millions of people watch regular games, practice matches and the highlights of past tournaments. When international competitions start, the numbers surge and the increasingly high guaranteed prize pools act as a catalyst. Prize money increased more than 60 times since year 2000, when the first eSports tournaments took place and in 2015 nearly $40 million were awarded in prizes.

The surging popularity of video games and the corresponding tournaments didn’t go unnoticed and major companies provide multimillion dollar sponsorships. The best players win millions every year and some are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in the yearly salaries, in addition to what they claim in the tournaments. They enjoy celebrity status and have a steady base of followers that watch their activity every day, even when they engage in practice games.

Athletic scholarships for top gamers

Not so long ago video games were frowned upon and sometimes those who spent a lot of time playing them were tagged as losers and no-lifers. Those harsh words are nothing more than a distant memory, as players gain recognition both from inside and outside the industry. The best are treated like celebrities and even the State Department pays attention to this category of gambling, by granting visas to professionals.

Students have always been big fans of video games, but now they have another reason to take them seriously. Athletic scholarships are frequently offered to gamers in the United States and some universities have developed their own eSports organizations. Major League Gaming tries to attract students and in many cases there are more players participating in college gaming leagues than in their hockey, soccer, basketball and baseball counterparts.

The betting industry pays attention to eSports

eSports were already very popular in South Korea when the first bookmakers introduced the possibility of punters betting on Starcraft games. The options were fairly limited and things didn’t change much in the wake of Blizzard developing a sequel. It was the MOBA genre that changed this perception and prompted more bookies to add eSports on the list of gambling options. Today, virtually all serious bookmakers present players with the chance of betting on at least five distinct video games and dozens of tournaments.

Sports outlets now broadcast both traditional games and eSports, with the latter bringing more people in the front of the TV set. League of Legends Championship currently holds the record for the most players watching the games live. ESPN broadcasts hundreds of games on a yearly basis, although the vast majority of those who want to watch matches live go online.

Potential threats to the eSports industry

While the growing popularity of eSports can no longer be ignored, there are potential threats to the industry that need to be addressed. With so much money at stake, match fixing is now a serious problem and there were many instances in which famous teams and professional gamblers threw matches. Given the sensitive nature of these games and the possibility of underdogs prevailing, it is very difficult even for specialists and keen observers to know for sure when someone loses on purpose.

With more tournaments and games being added on the betting offer every week, it is increasingly difficult to monitor all of them effectively. The best thing that bookmakers can do is to freeze the betting markets, whenever they realize that there is a possibility of a game going south on purpose. These are only temporary measures however that address the consequences rather than the causes and that is why a legal framework needs to be established.

Legal issues of the eSports

As eSports start to generate revenue comparable to traditional professional sports, it will be essential to properly regulate the market. Professional players are facing even today plenty of legal issues, in addition to enjoying unique advantages. They can enter the US easier, by using the P-1 athlete visas, but taxation issues and other legal concerns need to be addressed as well. Employment law is still very vague in their case and it is yet to be decided whether professional gamers are independent contractors or employees.

Player rights also need to be properly regulated, to determine the extent of player mobility and the restrictions that can be legally applied. In professional sports, the bargaining power of players influences the manner in which they are paid, the salaries and so on. In eSports, it is yet too early to determine whether players are properly compensated for their contribution to the game or if there is a better way of sharing the money generated by the flagship tournaments.



Published by Steffen Ploeger