With a gap in traditional sports during quarantine, isn’t it time for esports to rise? After all, esports is still doing better than ever, and without the ability to broadcast traditional sports, esports have been acting to fill the content void. However, arguing that esports can be a replacement for traditional sports directly is foolish, because esports are different from traditional sports in ways that make their path to popularity entirely different.
First, esports has a diverse group of characters. There are games that simulate traditional sports a la “NBA 2k,” “Madden NFL” and “FIFA,” and there are games like “League of Legends,” “Overwatch” and “CS:GO” that are nothing like traditional sports. While statistics measure total audience for these games to compare to sports leagues like the NFL and the NBA, it’s really more accurate to measure views by the individual games. A viewer for “Overwatch” doesn’t make money for “League of Legends” or vice versa, and these individual games do not pull the millions that the NFL and NBA do on television. As an example, the opening weekend of the “League of Legends” Championship Series (LCS) for the spring split had a peak viewership of 338,000 viewers, while the NFL’s opening weekend last year held an average of 17 million viewers. Any individual esport has a long way to go in competing with traditional sports, and ultimately, esports must develop their own audience.
While people can enjoy both esports and traditional sports, it’s going to be harder to get someone into a game that they’ve never heard of. As an example, how can one introduce a game like “Overwatch” to an avid football fan? “So, there’s six characters on each side, they’re all trying to kill each other in a bunch of different ways while trying to capture a point or push a cart.” If they have never played the game, that sentence will most likely sound entirely foreign. Same goes for “League of Legends:” you’d say something like, “Five people try to kill five other people through three lanes and destroy their nexus. Oh, and there’s a jungle too.” If someone is trying to join the esports audience without any video game knowledge, it’s an unfamiliar concept. What’s a nexus? Why all the killing? What’s a “gold lead” mean? And that’s not even mentioning all of the other little details that can come with a game, like all 134 potential kits you might have to explain once they do eventually get into watching the game. It can be difficult to explain all these mechanics to someone who has never played the game.
From here, esports has the potential to rise by developing their own viewership. Most of the viewing audience is aged 18-34, and there’s still more untapped potential audience to grab for any major esports game. On its recent 10th year anniversary, Riot stated that there were eight million daily players of “League of Legends.” Minus the 300,000 viewers at LCS, that’s about 7.7 million more people that know what “League of Legends” is, know how the game plays and can potentially be tapped to watch professional play. For example, most of the people that watch UTD esports have played the game they’re watching the Comets play, as evident by the Twitch chat commentary. So esports isn’t a replacement for traditional sports, but it doesn’t have to be. Esports’ path to growth lies within its own communities, and watchers of traditional sports can probably weather the storm as the NBA and MLB already have plans to return in a pandemic.
Can esports fill the void left in sports fans’ hearts with the pandemic cancelling sports events? Not particularly. But what esports can and should do is start to leverage their current and former player bases in order to grow a larger community and grow the industry. If you’re a fan of watching a pentakill or teamfight, you shouldn’t look to try and involve the hardcore football friend you know. The next fan of your favorite esport is probably the people you play with on Discord.