Remember coming home from school or work in the afternoon, flipping to TSN or Sportsnet and seeing paintball on TV? It was awesome! Maybe it was just the fourteen year-old me that though so, seeing as I loved the sport while simultaneously being petrified of getting hit by paintballs, but it was unique and new wave. That trend has since died out but there appears to be a new one on its way to North America.
The concept is pretty well understood: teams or solo players face each other in a video game either in one match or tournament play to see who is the best. It’s the same system as traditional sports in North America, the game is just League of Legends or Hearthstone, instead of football or hockey.
So why isn’t it popular in Canada and the United States yet? To this i’ll provide two answers – It already is popular, and what i’ll designate as “the NASCAR argument.”
It Already Is Popular
With dominant players coming out of South East Asia, and Europe there has certainly been a delay in the mass-market reach of Esports in North America. However, with companies based in the United States like Blizzard Entertainment constantly bringing more games into the fold of Esports, the opportunities for domestic success have grown. For both Hearthstone and Overwatch, Blizzard games that are heavily regarded as Esports games, the player base is in the millions globally. Overwatch surpassed 20 million copies of the game sold in 2017, and Hearthstone (a free to play game) had 30 million players in May of 2015.
With large percentages attributed to players in North America, these Esport friendly games have reached millions of users in North America on a player basis. What helps to get people invested in the games is fully fleshed out back stories of characters and the worlds these games exist in. It’s like HBO’s Hard Knocks, a documentary series that follows NFL training camps, but live and mixed in with game play.
The environment in which the games takes place has players and spectators willing to watch someone else play these games so they can experience high level play in something they have experience in. And the same can be said for traditional sports – we’ve all thrown a football or hit a baseball, but very few can throw a 60-yard pass into double coverage for a touchdown, or crank a fastball out of a stadium. We have physical memories of the actions, and will pay to see someone do it really really well.
The younger generation is dictating the success of these games as view-able programming because of the decline in traditional sports. Console and computer games are readily accessible for children with global player bases able to connect through the internet meaning there is little to no queue for these games. And without fear of concussion or injury outside of eye-strain and carpal tunnel, parents are opening up to these activities over physical sports.
“The NASCAR Argument”
This argument is reserved for the people aged 28+ who never grew up with video games being as mainstream as they are now. Older siblings, parents, some of your peers, whoever this group encompasses had been raised in households that featured sports as watchable entertainment, and video games as child-distracting hobbies.
I call this explanation “the NASCAR Argument’ because I don’t like NASCAR, or any racing really, where the car/horse/motorcycle seem to be doing all the work while a person sits in/on it and takes the glory. Are NASCAR drivers athletes? Well, they can turn left at an incredible speed, and if they don’t crash they’ll be able to complete hundreds of laps in a row, so my answer is No. I understand the reaction time, and coordination skills required – not to mention the ability to hold your bladder for hours on end, but I just don’t see it as a sport. I can appreciate it as an activity that is done at a high skill level but I can drive my Ford Focus to the grocery store, or get that baby humming to 120 mph on the highway and not be athletic at all!
The same goes for Esports. I can play hearthstone literally while sitting on my toilet, so how in the world can this be a sport? Well, I don’t think it is, but it sure is satisfying to see someone win a bunch of times in a row at a game that I struggle to compete in on ‘easy difficulty.’ It’s exactly like NASCAR – people will pay (whether with attention or cash) to see someone do something at an extremely high level of excellency.
TSN programming has constantly been telling me that I am wrong about NASCAR not being a sport by having weekly races feature across their multi-feed television network. The reality is that if we go by what makes a sports broadcasters programming schedule to justify what a sport is, we will just be following what has a viewing market in that region. For example, if competitive knitting etched out a niche market in Toronto you can bet that TSN1, and SPORTSNET ONTARIO would have Sunday Knight-Knit-o-rama on their TV schedule to cater to that market.
So, the discussion has to shift beyond “is it even a sport?” to “are people actually watching that?” and the statistics don’t lie here either. Brace for it NHL fans. After opening on TWITCH.TV for their first week of regular season play, the Overwatch League, a 12 team global league of Overwatch players, which began on January 10th 2018 is averaging 392,000 views on a massive six hour stream, with it’s peak number hitting 442,000 viewers. This is just 18,000 views off of the average NHL’s North American viewership.
Take it with a grain of salt- peak numbers don’t suggest staying power, can’t really be linked to average views, and January viewership of the NHL is expected to be lower with the dog-days of the season fully underway, nevertheless the Overwatch numbers are still impressive for a sports league in its infancy.
So why are so many people oblivious to Esports being a watchable event for entertainment in Canada and the United States? Because the mainstream, television media has yet to pick up on the trend. Sites like TWITCH.TV, which see individual streamers live stream their video game play with their personal audio over top can reach a wider audience through computer and mobile integration.
What fuels the success of this broadcaster is the link between the video gamer demographic and video game streamer demographic. Companies like Blizzard Entertainment capitalized on this already installed and invested viewership by striking a $90 million deal with TWITCH.TV to have exclusive broadcasting rights to show the Overwatch league.
The result of the growing fan base of Esports is that eventually we will see consistent programming for League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone and more video games on our television menus. The real dictating factor in all of this is money. Much like NASCAR, if people will pay to watch it, TV programmers will make it available. Esports’ trajectory is already shooting beyond that of paintball when I was in highschool, because it isn’t trying to fit into the mold of standard television programming. There is unique success to Esports viewing and mainstream media will have to adapt to that, in order to capture the growing market of video game nerds.
I really look forward to two things: Joe Buck calling a League of Legends match, and seeing the first Overwatch team sponsored by Tampax.