Once limited to a cult following of avid gamers, eSports are now becoming familiar to a mass audience thanks to the meteoric rise of the activity over the past few years. Not too long ago, if you asked whether professional competitive video gaming could become as popular and lucrative as traditional sports like football, baseball, basketball, cricket and tennis, you’d have been met with disbelief and laughter. Today, however, eSports are not only matching some traditional sports in terms of viewing figures, they’re actually set to outpace them. As a result, major franchises and television networks are sitting up and taking notice, which means that the visibility and ubiquity of eSports is only set to grow.

Are eSports really sports at all?

The traditional dictionary definition of sport is that it is a game involving physical exertion and skill played competitively before an audience. Many have questioned whether video gaming could be described as a sport at all using that definition. Can gamers, who are frequently characterized as couch potatoes, really be described as athletes fit to one day take their place at the Olympic Games?

Professor Ingo Frobose, an expert in prevention and rehabilitation at the German Sports University in Cologne, thinks that they can. He carried out the first-ever study of eSports athletes that showed that professional gamers required a level of hand-to-eye coordination and motor skills, often involving asymmetrical activity, that is unmatched in any other sport. The strain on eSports players was greater than that on tennis players, Professor Frobose concluded, especially given the level of tactical thinking also involved. The production of the stress hormone cortisol matched that of a professional racing driver, while the high pulse rate was equivalent to someone running a long-distance race.

The level of athleticism involved is not fully understood even by high-level eSports players, and Frobose urged better diet and physical training to avoid burnout and exhaustion.

Big money

It is clear then that eSports count as real sports in every sense, and this is reflected in the popularity of the activity and the money involved. In 2016, eSports generated $493m in revenue, mostly from advertising and sponsorship. This is expected to exceed $1bn by 2019. Betting on eSports is also increasingly popular, so it might not be too longer before the best betting sites offer the option to wager on eSports tournaments alongside traditional sports. Recent research shows that the betting volume on eSports already exceeds that of golf, tennis and rugby, and it is expected to reach over $23bn by 2020.

The prize money that professional gamers can expect to take home at the major eSports tournaments also exceeds that of many big traditional sports fixtures. In 2017, the total prize money at the international DOTA 2 championship was nearly $21m; this is roughly double that of the Masters.

Worldwide audience                                            

Perhaps because it naturally belongs to the digital online medium, eSports has quickly found a massive worldwide audience through live streaming on sites like Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Hitbox. Twitch has 21m unique streamers per month. In 2016, 320m people watched eSports, mostly young men. Within that demographic in America, 22 percent watch eSports, which is roughly equal to the amount that watch baseball and hockey.

The gender disparity is of some concern, with the split among eSports fans being roughly 70 percent male and 30 percent female. Most pro gamers are also male, and attempts to introduce women-only tournaments have not achieved the same level of popularity; hopefully, this will change soon.

In addition to worldwide streaming, eSports live events also attract huge audiences. An eSports tournament comfortably sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2016, and other major arenas around the US were similarly packed with fans watching players competing on giant screens.

Unstoppable phenomenon

Cable TV is now recognizing the potential of eSports and is helping it to reach an audience beyond gaming fanatics. Turner Sports and ESPN have both shown eSports to impressive viewing figures. With the worldwide audience expected to reach 600m by 2020, it seems as though eSports’ rise is unstoppable. Perhaps only resistance from non-gamers can hold the phenomenon back, but this will surely change as eSports become normalized and more widely accepted. More women should become involved as viewers and participants as the activity spreads beyond its male millennial roots.

Perhaps the most telling sign is the degree to which traditional sports teams and organizations are rushing to establish their own eSports teams and franchises. The top European football club Paris Saint-Germain created its own eSports franchise in 2016, while the NBA announced a partnership with Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. to create the NBA 2K eLeague, in which every NBA team will eventually be represented. More than anything else, this “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality surely confirms that eSports are here to stay.