esports: competitive multiplayer video game contests, typically where teams of professional gamers compete for monetary prizes in leagues and tournaments often held in arenas with live audiences and livestreaming to others.
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For gaming, this is a moment of convergence of trends. Professional esports leagues around games like League of Legends are growing more popular and more serious; huge numbers of people are tuning into livestreams to watch gamers play (Fortnite broke the record), and going to YouTube to get fun game-centric content from game celebrities.
At the same time? Physical spaces around the country are being renovated into gamer bars.
Those 150 million gamers in America want to gather. They want to sit next to each other, elbow to elbow, controller to controller. They want the lighting to be cool, the snacks to be Hot Pockets, and they want a full bar because they are not teenagers anymore.
It was inevitable. Movie theater attendance hit a 25-year low in 2017, while 638,000 tuned in to watch Drake play Fortnite recently. The Paris Olympics in 2024 are now in talks to include gaming as a demonstration sport.
Besides, gamers already have been playing together, chatting live on headsets and messaging apps as they march through their increasingly beautiful digital worlds.
Esports—aka competitive video-gaming—is the world’s fastest-growing spectator sport. Last year, esports tournaments and live streams drew 258 million unique viewers. Put another way, more people watched other people play videogames in 2017 than all NFL regular-season games combined. Esports tournaments have sold out Madison Square Garden and World Cup stadiums. Competitive gamers like those on Team Dignitas can earn over $2 million in annual salary, plus more from endorsements and prize money. The 76ers became the first American sports franchise to own an esports team when they purchased Dignitas in 2016. Other franchises, from the Golden State Warriors to the New England Patriots, have followed their lead.
For much of the past six years, Andrew Paradise felt like an outsider in esports—a new revenue source in the video game industry, built around enormous multiplayer competitions. Skillz, his mobile esports platform, was small in comparison and deemed fringe by his peers. They were focused on PC games with dazzling, hardware-hungry visuals. Not phones.
But things are different now. At the annual Game Developers Conference held each March in San Francisco, on the day dedicated to esports, one of the first panels focused on mobile game competitions. More than 200 developers visited the Skillz Inc. booth. “Mobile esports was the hottest thing at GDC,” Paradise says. “The industry is shifting very quickly.”
Esports contests have gone from peripheral affairs to massive spectacles, with investment from billion-dollar game publishers, broadcast TV networks, and venture capitalists pouring into teams adept at PC games. Mobile games such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush attract more players—2.2 billion worldwide, according to researcher Newzoo—but generally not the kind who’ll train for tournaments. Now that phone hardware is good enough to run more complex games, even hard-core players are shifting their attention to phones. Six-year-old Skillz, the mobile esports leader, says it hosts more than 1 million tournaments a day and has doubled its monthly revenue, to $16 million, in the last nine months, putting it on pace to blow past $200 million in the next year.
Skillz is a central hub that can turn any game into a contest among friends or strangers, either by pitting players against one another or by ranking their scores. The company works with more than 8,000 developers to tweak their games for its 15 million players, who enter tournaments of as few as two people or as many as 10,000 and win prizes based on their results. (Average entry fee: about $2.) Skillz says it matches players based on ability. Cash prizes are paid via check or PayPal, and occasionally a new car or paid vacation is up for grabs. There are also free contests without cash-value prizes.
Whether you play video games or haven’t picked up a controller or decades, there is a strong chance you have heard about esports. A business that is estimated to be worth almost $1.5 billion by 2020, with some players that are already competing for prize pools of up to $24 million, esports are also hard to understand, filled with jargon, and not exactly like the sports you typically associate with competition on a global scale. If you’re looking to watch it, understand it, or just get a better idea of what on earth it all means: this is your guide to esports.
Generally, the easiest definition is competitive gaming at a professional level. It only includes video games, but pretty much any game with a winner and a loser can be played as an esport, although the bigger the player base and the more support it has, the better the competition.
How that exactly works differs from game to game. The majority of popular esports are team-based games played in leagues or tournaments throughout the year, culminating in one final event. Some of those leagues or tournaments are region-specific, meaning that, for most of the year, European teams will only play other European teams, North American teams will only play other North American teams, and so on.
Some games are a head-to-head, one-on-one format, though. Fighting games such as Street Fighter V, for example, or Hearthstone, a card game where each player has a custom deck of cards that are played to defeat the opponent, without any team alongside them.
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