The lines between sports and gaming are becoming increasingly blurred as the stature of e-sports—sport competition using video games—grows. With professional athletes, astronomical sponsorship deals and a reported worldwide audience of just under 500 million people, the e-sports juggernaut shows no signs of slowing, and looks set to compete even more intensely with traditional sports in the future.

From a gambling perspective, e-sports betting has transformed from a lucrative but unregulated sector to one with proper governance and a rising profile, with an estimated $8 billion wagered on e-sports in 2019. An increasing number of dedicated e-sports bookmakers is beginning to emerge, and traditional sportsbooks are giving odds on e-sports events across the world. Indeed, as the COVID-19 pandemic prevents sporting events from going ahead, more and more bettors are filling the void by wagering on video games instead, according to Wired magazine. 

But how exactly are mainstream sports and eSports intersecting, and what does the future hold for the sports gaming industry?

 

A WORTHY SPORTS RIVAL

Just a couple of decades ago, the prospect of tens of thousands of fans gathering in stadiums to watch people play video games rather than sport would’ve been inconceivable. But events like the League of Legends Championships, one of the world’s most popular e-sports competitions, have seen some 43,000 fans descend upon Beijing’s Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium in 2015. Meanwhile, ESL and Intel welcomed over 174,000 attendees for a series of tournaments across two weekends in March 2019, according to Sports Video Group News.

And when you consider just how many more people watch these competitions online, the prominence of e-sports really hits home. The most viewed event ever is the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational 2018, which saw 60 million people tune in according to Statista, while big tournaments regularly attract up to tens of millions of viewers. This again illustrates just how convergent mainstream sports and e-sports are becoming, as sports viewership declines and mainstream broadcasters scramble to secure the rights to more e-sports events.

This interest from major broadcasters has come in the wake of streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube dominating the e-sports broadcast market. Sports media giant ESPN has already set up its own e-sports channel, while the likes of ABC, BBC in the UK and TV 2 in Norway have also started showing competitions themselves.

 

LEAGUES EYE E-SPORTS

Another huge indication of the growing alignment between mainstream sports and e-sports is how enthusiastically mainstream sports leagues and teams are adopting sports gaming. The NBA, NHL and the English Soccer Premier League are just some of the leagues to launch their own e-sports competitions. NBA 2K League players even receive a base salary and accommodation during the season. While this remuneration pales in comparison to the earnings of professional basketballers, it’s obvious how e-sports players are starting to be seen in the same light.

And considering many mainstream sports teams now field their own e-sports side, they’re also taking it seriously, especially in soccer. The likes of Manchester City, Ajax and Sporting Lisbon have already signed e-sports players, while Schalke even bought their entire League of Legends (LoL) team Elements. Likewise, NBA teams the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings have all invested in LoL sides themselves.

And as the current pandemic prevents sports players from performing, many have volunteered to represent their teams in e-sports tournaments instead. Basketballers, soccer players and Formula One drivers have all picked up gamepads to give sport-starved fans something to shout about, as well as raise money for charity. These kinds of initiatives are sure to raise the profile of e-sports even further.

The trajectory of e-sports is only heading one way, as its popularity continues to grow, and more professional structures are put in place to support it. With immersive VR and AR technology developing all the time, video games will also become increasingly advanced, which is sure to drive further interest in e-sports. If its success continues at its current rate, it won’t be long before e-sports are considered a sport in their own right, ending once and for all any distinction between them and mainstream sports.