DotA, League of Legends and StarCraft II are not athletic endeavors typically discussed alongside hockey, baseball and soccer in conversations about professional sports; however, growing interest in Electronic Sports (a.k.a., eSports or professional, competitive video gaming) is starting to shift popular notions of what it means to be a pro athlete playing on a multimillion-dollar team.
It’s difficult to give much credence to a bunch of (mostly) guys sitting in front of computer monitors playing video games for 12 hours a day, but a look at the stats reveal a devoted and passionate fan base. In 2013, more than 70 million people worldwide watched eSports over the Internet. Last year’s League of Legends finale was watched by 32 million online viewers, while the live event at Los Angeles’ Staples Center sold all 18,000 seats in less than two hours. Compare that to the 14.9 million viewers of the World Series or the 15.7 million viewers of the NCAA Final Four playoffs, and there’s no denying that eSports is coming into its own.
Twitch, the world’s leading video platform and community for gamers, logged 45 million users last year and was purchased for $970 million by Amazon in August. And the stakes—not to mention the prize money—continue to get higher for eSports players: According to esportsearnings, players are cashing in. China’s Chen “Hao” Zhihao walked away with earnings of $1,171,579.77 for 32 tournaments. Overall, total prize money has increased by 350 percent over four years to $25 million in 2013.
What’s more, the U.S. government now recognizes League of Legends players as pro athletes and awards visas for them to come to the U.S. and play. Riot Games eSports manager told GameSpot that “this is groundbreaking for eSports; now we can start looking at international players when they come over. It’s a much easier process because they’re actually recognized by the government.”
Robert Morris University-Illinois is the first U.S. school to consider League of Legends a varsity sport, alongside football, hockey and basketball. It seems there will be a League of Legends coach and the team will be competing again schools such as Harvard, MIT and Princeton. Athletic scholarships will even be available to offset up to 50% of the cost of attendance, making it slightly more appealing to skeptical parents.
Online gamers are now looking for an offline space to hone their skills and cheer on their favorite players. Meltdown, currently in Paris and London, is the first eSports bar of its kind, which features little by way of furniture but plenty of expensive electronics. Footage of contests appears on screens around the bar, allowing spectators to enjoy the game, with a drink in hand, as they would any other sporting event.
With sports marketing giant Red Bull getting into the eSports game, gamers are earning the kind of street cred formerly reserved for extreme sports athletes. Hobby or profession, any industry with global revenue that’s $20 billion dollars higher than the music industry is garnering the attention of big name sponsors and athletes alike. It’s hard to argue the validity of these “athletes” and the “stadiums” in which they play when the numbers speak for themselves.