Last weekend on July 17th, the idea of how a sport is defined was drastically challenged. In one of the most controversial business decisions ever made, ESPN decided to air a video game tournament live on television. For many, it was the first time they were exposed to Esports.

What is Esports?

Many asks themselves this question. Well, the literal way to define the term is electronic sports. It consists of competitive gameplay between players usually via a video game. With many different genres of games to play, Esports has found a wide variety of viewers that have up until now, shaken what may or may not be called an actual sport.

Although Esports may seem like a non sport that shares little to no similarities to the traditional demanding Basketball or Football, many would be surprised to learn how alike they really are. Like regular sports entertainment, Esports has a large following. Many of the games in the fray have household names. In fact, just this past week a large number of enthusiasts gathered in Las Vegas for the yearly fighting game tournament, Evolution. One player partaking in the tournament was Street Fighter player, Long Island Joe. Having made it through the pool of over a thousand competing players from around the world, Long Island Joe found himself as the last man representing the United States. With thousands of fans watching online and on ESPN 2, the entire country lay on his back as the crowd cheered his new name, American Joe.

Humble Origins

Amazing as it may sound to think that people actually cheer for video game players, it was not always as illustrious as it is today. Back in 2004, a man from Japan had come to the 2nd annual Evolution fighting game tournament to prove that he was number 1. Finding himself in a poorly lit room at California State Polytechnical School, Daigo Umehara had entered the pit against 700 players from around the world. It was here that he would make his name and be regarded as the first competitive player from Japan. There, Daigo faced off with his would be future rival Justin Wong. Displaying advanced technical skill, he impressed attendees and, for the first time, showed the world a new paradigm in entertainment.

Now a days, Daigo can be seen competing in several different tournaments around the world and hosts his own programming block on Amazon’s live streaming service, Twitch, on the show titled “Daigo the BeasTV”.

Not Just a Game Anymore

In what can be seen as a preemptive move, many companies have already invested a stake in Esports and have sponsored players or events. Although there are many people who would argue Esports has no future, companies like ESPN, Geico, and Redbull have all taken a look at the competitions as a potential business avenue. No longer are major Esport events held in eerie locales, but in sports arenas with fans cheering.

Razer, creator of PC hardware, has sponsored teams of League of Legends fame. Never heard of League of Legends? Well, you will be shocked to realize it’s the most popular Esport on the planet. Not only has the game had audiences fill entire sports arenas, it’s had its own fantasy league created with thousands of fans participating in this meta game. The popularity may be shocking to many but, on average, League of Legends has over eighty thousand viewers a night on the live streaming service, Twitch.

For Counter Logic Gaming, the team in Razer’s corner, League of Legends isn’t just a game; it’s a career. Wanting to show success, the American team travels to South Korea in order to train in a boot camp-like atmosphere against the dominating Korean players. With thousands of dollars on the line, the team spends hours on end practicing their talent. For Razer, having their sponsored team show off their products in front of over a hundred thousand viewers means potential Razer products being sold. The large exposure at events and daily live streams ensures that sponsors get their money’s worth.

With big sponsors already in the game, the foundation is set for Esports to grow into a profitable business. It may not be long before we see big names like Mcdonalds or even Starbucks sponsor a player or team in Esports.

Views

Although Esports may have money generating from sponsors, fan favorites like Long Island Joe and arenas full of fans is not enough for the broadcasting industry. With Evolution being televised live to households in the United States, one thing was in the back of the minds of the Disney owned sports network, ESPN: viewership numbers. The deal had come from an interest in the growing competitions. Before having Street Fighter V on the main stage, ESPN had already experimented with other genres in video games.

Massive Online Battle Arenas or MOBA for short, are games that are the most popular to watch online. With fans in the thousands, ESPN decided to ride the success of MOBA’s and broadcast a game of DOTA 2. The Daily Dot details that ESPN had “…seen enough recent successes with esports and are about to double down. The numbers they hit with The International have only cemented the view that the time is right.” While viewership number were not divulged, the call to action in support for Esports is undismissable. ESPN may have struck gold, all they needed next was to find the gold mine itself.

Esports Payouts Rival that of other Professional Sports on ESPN

Having found confidence in the Esport trend, ESPN had to find out if lightning does indeed strike twice and, luckily for the sports network, the lightning rod itself was available for use. Regarded as one of the all time classics, Street Fighter was about to have its yearly showing at Evolution. Now in its fifth installment, Street Fighter 5 had amassed a following like no other. It was a no brainer for ESPN to chase the game and feature it on live TV. The result was a staggering 201K views. placing it as the third most publicly viewed Esport of the year. The game was beat out by the Counter Strike Go, a popular shooting game and, rival fighting game, Mortal Kombat X. Having had its viewership split by the broadcast and Twitch, Street Fighter V had its debut crippled in terms of viewership and, unlike Mortal Kombat X, it was broadcast on cable with no lead in. Even without the top spot, Street Fighter did its job to highlight Esports as a serious contender in the entertainment world and even gained respect by NBA champion, Bill Walton.

Rival game Mortal Kombat X was hosted on public television channel The CW and had a more appropriate audience lead in via super hero TV show The Flash. The support comes after they had seen the success of the game with over 1 million copies sold. The Esport show Mortal Kombat: Chasing the Cup had a total of 770,000 viewers. In comparison, the TV show, The Flash, debuted with over 4 million viewers and a ball game between between the Yankees and the Red Sox totaled 2.066 million views. Impressive numbers if you compare both the baseball game and the video game turn out. Achieving nearly half of the views of an established sport could signal a new Television viewing trend emerging in America.

Still not sold on Esports? Perhaps the best way to understand the appeal of the games is to view a full set and see for yourself the emotion that runs through competitive play. A great demonstration comes through player technical understanding of each game. Armed with joysticks, both AS Reynolds and Hee San Woo put on a show of a lifetime with the game, King of Fighters 13. Pitted against each other in grand finals, both players proved why they made it so far in the tournament and why people cheer their names not only in the tournament hall, but in chat rooms via Twitch.

Not All Fun and Games

While many would think simple video games would be a happy, good time and non-competitive, in this case, it’s the opposite. This is specifically true of the fighting game community which has a vast history of moments in which some lines were crossed.

One example of this extreme behavior would be when Budlight and Geico sponsored player, Ryan Ramirez, also known as Filipino Champ, confronted advisory Nicolas Gonzales (AKA Kane Blue River). Champ, regarded as one of the best Marvel vs Capcom players, had his confidence at an all time high when playing against River. Not only was Champ taunting his opponent in between rounds, he was doing it in front of thousands of viewers. After the set of matches, Champ emerged victorious and more egotistical than ever. River would later win in the losers bracket and win it all in the tournament causing Champ to back peddle in his remarks live in front of the tournament attendees and audiences. Love him or hate him, Champ put on quite the show.

Another bruise for the fighting game community came when an online quarrel between two men turned into an in-person meetup. When fighting game players, Dalauan Sparrow and Jay Viscant, threw the most vicious of slurs they could via Twitter, both men decided to settle the matter in the only way they knew how: by playing a set of Street Fighter 4 matches. Sparrow, known as Low Tier God online, was the underdog of the match and Viscant, a veteran of the scene, showed no restraint when facing his opponent. While the set was one sided and predictable for many, the after match outcome was far from obvious. The results became a viral hit.

Moments like these have left the fighting game section of Esports with a bruised eye and has set it back from popularity unlike other genres like MOBAS. With network television keeping its eye on Esports, the fighting game community is going to want to better its image in order to get the respect it wants.

With all things considered Esports may have a future in the world of tomorrow. Like regular sports, Esports has champions that carry a body of people to the edge of their seats. It has sponsored players backed by huge companies like Redbull and Razer that whole heartedly want a stake of the future of sports entertainment. Lastly, it has the early views that it needs in order to grow into a long standing piece of television programming. Even if Esports is rejected by many, the money flowing through the scene will cause it to flourish whether people support it or not.

As tradition, tournament organizers in the fighting game community end their events by playing a scene of the film Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky.