Esports have a long and rollercoaster like history, with huge ups and downs in popularity. You can go all the way back to the late 70s and early 80s to see the first iteration of what today's esports scene would become. With organisations like Twin Galaxies and Nintendo Power helping to centralise scoring systems, there was a time back then when games were becoming mainstream and the people that played them best of all were put on pedestals and on game shows and even given a chance to compete for big cash prizes courtesy of Nintendo.
But then the videogame bust of the 80s came along and those pro-gamers went away and got real jobs. The groupies disappeared and the gaming industry almost completely collapsed under its own weight, just like the Dotcom bubble of the early 2000s and the Bitcoin boom of recent months. But games eventually did what those two industries are also doing and bounced back.
In the 90s we saw the growth of the shooter and with the latter years, games like Unreal Tournament, Quake III and Counter Strike ushered in the new breed of pro gamers. These were twitch professionals with the reflexes of fighter pilots and the cardio-vascular capacity of 70 year old smokers – the champions of tomorrow. We heard names like John Fatal1ty Wendel who in one year made several hundred thousand dollars, a crowning achievement in pro gaming. But again, that didn't last.
While the pro-tournaments continued, the scene wasn't that well organised and the average gamer didn't much care for the professionals and what they were up to. Besides, back before Youtube, before Twitter, before Twitch, there wasn't much in the way of interaction with these people. You couldn't watch them play unless you went to one of these tournaments yourself and with little in the way of mainstream news coverage, you were unlikely to find out much about them unless you moved within the tech news circles.
But that's all changed in recent years, when we hit the third wave of pro-gaming and it is really, really taking off. Thanks to games like League of Legends, DotA and its sequels, Starcraft and its follow up, professional gaming is starting to become something very, very big indeed. Big enough in-fact, that even if there's another big video game bust, they'll continue on without a hiccup.
In-fact professional gaming and the moniker with which they all come under, Esports, is growing so big, that my prediction is by the end of this year, you'll start hearing people outside of the gaming world talk about it. Yes, 2014 is the year I believe esports will go mainstream.
Now you may be thinking that's ridiculous right? Why would the news start talking about esports? Facebook posts might cover it, tech news blogs or Youtube commenters, but why would TV, or newspapers or any of the 'traditional' outlets for big stories cover a bunch of nerds playing a PC game better than most others? There's actually a few reasons and they're the same ones that have given traditional sports such big platforms on these mediums:
Big money, big viewing audiences, big sponsorships, and longevity.
Money is perhaps the biggest indicator that esports are poised to hit the mainstream, because the figures being tossed around the scene are starting to get huge. Firstly you have the prizes at the major tournaments, which are now breaking into the multiple millions – the latest DotA 2 International had a prize pack of $2.8 million. League of Legends competitions frequently break into similar numbers.
Then there's the fact that players are beginning to earn huge salaries from their gaming. While the average LoL team member only makes $12,000 a year from Riot, that's their flat rate salary; it's nothing compared to what they can earn elsewhere. Big players can earn thousands streaming their practice rounds to fans around the world, in a similar way to how professional boxers would do public workouts and training sessions.
Add that to product endorsements and paid appearances and it's no wonder Ocelote became the first professional gamer to break a million dollars in one year.
Need I remind you that he's 23.
Those kinds of figures turn heads and once you start seeing teams making enough money to be assets in their own right, expect transfer deals to follow and then the money will really start to get huge. Newspapers and TV love reporting on giant salaries because it's relatable to everyone, even those that know nothing of the sport.
Of course there's betting too. That's becoming huge and with the combination of simple online streaming, there's big money floating around with each big game, as people throw cash at the online bookies to back their favourite team of professionals.
And that money is only being made, because there's enough people watching these games. And by enough, I mean millions. The biggest League of Legends professional game last year was the LCS finals and it brought in over 32 million people to watch that one game. That's the kind of numbers that are only normally reserved for worldwide sporting events. Of course shows like the Superbowl bring in more than three times that many fans, but considering this is a game of League of Legends we're talking about and “only” a factor of three, that's a huge achievement and is testament to how big the scene has gotten.
It's also testament to how fast it's growing. Last year's final only drew in eight million people.
It's also developing into a live sport as well. Go to any big LAN party and you'll often find a broadcast booth with a pair of commenters talking you through the latest League of Legends tournament action and with the aforementioned world championships, more than 20,000 fans packed into the Staples Centre to watch the two best teams in the world duke it out for the grand prize.
Just in terms of live entertainment, be it online or in person, esports are really gathering speed.
The big teller though that this year is going to be the year that Pro Gaming goes mainstream is sponsorship. Your company or your organisation might be doing well, but until a big sponsor from traditional business gives you the nod, you're still a niche product. Not so any more with esports and specifically League of Legends.
Name two of the biggest companies in the world. Chances are you got one of them right: Coca Cola. Yes, Coke is now a real League of Legends sponsor, dishing out untold millions to support the League Challenger Series which helps the amateurs get into the pro circuit.
And it's not the only one.
American Express signed up to sponsor League of Legends last year, because why wouldn't it? That's 32 million players, most of them male and between the ages of 18 and 30. It's a very specific audience with a large base to advertise too.
Not only does this legitimise the esports scene though, but it paves the way for other advertisers who are far more likely to take a risk on something like DotA 2 now that it's seen other companies do it with Riot Games and League of Legends.
The final reason that esports are going to hit mainstream culture this year is longevity. The MOBA genre, DoTA, League of Legends, it's all been around for a while now. It's growing massively but it's not fallen out of favour yet – one of the big reasons pro-gaming failed in the past, was because there was a new game every couple of years. It's one of the (several) reasons FIFA or professional COD gaming isn't even close to what you see for LoL and its contemporaries.
These games aren't going away. They're free to play, so will continue to bring in more fans as time goes on and with frequent updates, could theoretically last a long, long time. In fact, Riot believes it could last decades if managed right.
Of course being around for decades isn't going to push LoL forward this year, but its pedigree will. This is season four, of a continually growing and consistently strong game, player base and professional scene. There's people coming into it all the time reinventing the old and refreshing the new, there's big money, big sponsors and the number of people tuning in is staggering.
Esports has adopted online streaming like nothing else and it won't be long before games are easily beating out the world's biggest real sport broadcasts, but it will take mainstream media to push it over the top and I really think this year is when we'll start to see it happen.
Mark my words.