David Beckham became the latest sporting superstar to jump headfirst into the competitive gaming industry when he launched London-based franchise Guild Esports last week. It followed a long trend that has seen scores of famous athletes invest their hard-earned cash in the thriving esports sector, from Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson to Kevin Durant and Odell Beckham Jr.
It looks like a smart move. The esports industry is already worth more than $1 billion on an annual basis and growth projections for the years ahead are stratospheric. A decade ago, competitive gaming was a nerdy, underground pursuit that barely registered in popular culture. Now it is a cultural phenomenon.
Analysts at NewZoo projected that there would be 495 million esports viewers spread across the world in 2020. Then the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the traditional sporting calendar, and pro gaming events enjoyed an even greater spike in viewership figures. What is behind the industry’s impressive rise to prominence?
It owes a great debt to traditional sports leagues and investors like Jordan, Durant and co, who can lend their expertise, broaden its appeal and make the whole sector a lot more professional. The list of traditional sports franchises that have invested in esports goes on and on.
NBA franchises have NBA2K esports equivalents, but they also have teams competing in League of Legends and other games. It is common to see the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors clashing on the court and on Summoner’s Rift on the same evening.
Soccer clubs including Man City, PSG, Roma and Schalke are among the soccer clubs to make significant investments in competitive gaming. Danish side FC Copenhagen has enjoyed great success with its esports team, North.
Then there are individual investors. The likes of Beckham, Durrant, Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez, Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala generate the most headlines, but it is perhaps even more significant to see team owners such as Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones taking the scene seriously and setting up esports teams.
A Wealth of Potential
They all see the vast potential of the competitive gaming sector. Global viewership has doubled in the past five years, and it significantly over-indexes among young adults and teenagers. Esports will only grow bigger, richer and more prevalent in future, challenging traditional sports like football, basketball, tennis and golf in the popularity stakes.
Yet the pro gaming scene is still something of a Wild West, so traditional sports executives are able to make it a lot more professional. They have the money, but they also have the operational expertise. Esports are now mimicking traditional sports in several intriguing ways.
The leading players have agents, unions, sports psychologists, coaches and elaborate training facilities. They earn fat salaries and take home multimillion-dollar prize purses when successful. They have huge fan bases and make millions through sponsorships and endorsements. They are generally treated like superstars by their legions of adoring supporters.
A Major Departure
There are also some extremely ambitious projects taking place within the world of esports. A prime example is the Overwatch League. It seeks to mimic a traditional league like the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL by leveraging fans’ allegiance to a geographical region as opposed to merely a team. This is a major departure for esports, as big franchises like Team Liquid, Fnatic and Team SoloMid do not have such strong ties to a particular city.
The Overwatch League is a global competition, featuring teams like Shanghai Dragons, Philadelphia Fusion, San Francisco Shock, New York Excelsior, Paris Eternal, London Spitfire and Seoul Dynasty. The idea is that teams face one another home and away, in stadiums full of screaming Overwatch fans. The Covid-19 pandemic has naturally scuttled such dreams, forcing the action online instead, but the grand vision remains the same.
It also features a regular season and playoffs, just like traditional US leagues. Players enjoy a minimum annual salary, benefits, a portion of prize money and so on. Organizers are aping the traits that have made traditional sporting events successful, but bringing them to new generations of competitive gaming fans, and the sky is the limit.
The International 2019, a Dota 2 tournament, offered prize money of $34.3 million. The Fortnite World Cup had a $30 million prize pool and fans packed out the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York – usually seen hosting the US Open tennis tournament – to watch the action unfold. Teenagers became overnight millionaires. The League of Legends World Championship has previously racked up more viewers than the Super Bowl.
The money from sponsors and broadcasters keeps flowing in. Esports wagering is soaring. Fans can even play games for real money by betting on themselves playing popular esports titles like CS:GO and Dota 2.
A Golden Future
The scene is awash with cash and it is only just getting started, so it is easy to see why sporting executives, stars and team owners are so keen to jump aboard the bandwagon. Carleton Curtis, who helped set up the Overwatch League and the Call of Duty League in his executive role at Activision Blizzard, was naturally delighted to welcome Beckham on board when he was named executive chairman at Guild Esports.
“We have built an experienced management team and I am proud to have David Beckham as co-owner in this venture,” said Curtis. “His professionalism and deep experience of developing high-functioning sports teams aligns with our core strategy of building the best in class esports teams.”
Beckham is busy in his role at the helm of MLS franchise Inter Miami, but he is hedging his bets. Esports like Rocket League, FIFA and Fortnite have the potential to vastly outstrip the MLS in the future, so he is keen to get in while the industry is still in its formative stages.
His presence can help broaden pro gaming’s appeal among traditional football fans, but in future the world’s best gamers could be just as famous as Beckham. New games will be released, technology will improve and the scene will grow increasingly organized and professional as more sports teams pile in, so the future looks bright for this burgeoning industry.
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