At the Bunkr, a shop in a hip east London neighbourhood, fans shop for the jerseys of their favourite teams, watch match highlights on wall-mounted televisions and splash out on the latest gear. But this is no ordinary sporting-goods store. Bunkr bills itself as the “world’s first e-sports concept store”. It sells computer mice, not football boots, and shows clips of gamers clashing in the popular “League of Legends” video game, not the latest scores from Wimbledon.
Shops such as Bunkr point to the future. Competitive video-gaming, or e-sports, is rapidly moving from the fringes to the mainstream. The industry is growing at internet speed. Championship matches sell out arenas and draw online crowds on a scale traditional sports can only dream of. Prize pools are soaring into the millions of dollars. One reason for this growth is that technology has made video games better. Equally important has been the advent of online streaming services such as Twitch, owned by Amazon, which have made the world smaller.
As e-sports have moved from the living-room to become something that spectators want to watch, so they have attracted investment from real-world sports teams, advertising giants and broadcasters. With consumers ditching cable subscriptions for live-streaming services, investors see e-sports as a means of reaching a largely untapped audience of young and digitally savvy fans, who are not following mainstream sports with the same fervour that baby-boomers did.
The e-sports industry will reach a number of milestones in 2018. Its global revenues will pass $1bn, predicts SuperData Research, a research firm. For the first time, a major sports league will own an e-sports franchise, when America’s National Basketball Association teams up with Take-Two Interactive Software, a video-game publisher, to launch its own e-sports league based on the popular video-game series “NBA 2K”. Colleges, too, will get in on the action. Staffordshire University in Britain will begin offering a three-year degree in e-sports.
Competitive gaming will take its most audacious leap towards mainstream recognition when it makes its debut as a demonstration sport at the Asian Games in Jakarta in August 2018. The games are the world’s second-largest multi-sport event after the Olympics. It may seem far-fetched to imagine that gamers could soon be vying for Olympic gold, but the organisers are mulling the inclusion of e-sports as a medal sport for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
There will be no shortage of new arenas to host e-sports contests in 2018. MGM Resorts will convert a former nightclub at its Luxor hotel in Las Vegas into a permanent venue for e-sports. Arenas wired for e-sports will open in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Washington, DC, and London.
As the e-sports industry booms, it can expect to experience growing pains. The large sums of money involved, coupled with a lack of regulation, make it ripe for the exploitation and governance problems that have plagued other sports. Watch out for match-fixing, doping, labour disputes and a gender pay-gap.
Correction: In our print edition, the research around e-sports global revenues was wrongly attributed to NewZoo BV. It should have been attributed to SuperData Research.