I know what many of you are thinking: video games are not a sport. They are meant for children, something that our parents bought us when we were young to keep us out of their hair just long enough for them to relax.
Boy, did my parents have the wrong idea. Our first PlayStation caused more fights among three young boys than they ever could have imagined.
In today’s world, however, seeing video games through the “it’s just a game” lens is hopelessly naïve and outdated.
Sure, video games started out as a fun way to play with friends when the Atari and Pong were released in 1972. But it wasn’t long after that it awoke a competitive spirit in kids (and adults) and ignited the race for even better systems. The standup arcade games appeared in restaurants and malls around the world, computers entered the home where games like Doom dominated, and a console war broke out from which three industry titans emerged: Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox.
The meteoric rise of video games brought with it the rise of competitive gaming. The first competitions began in the early 70s and grew more and more popular until first being televised in 1982. Once the internet became accessible for so many families, the gaming industry took off. Today, there are an estimated 2.7 billion gamers across the globe - that’s 35% of the world population. The potential growth of esports seems limitless.
For the longest time, you could not convince me that playing video games competitively was a sport. It didn’t make sense to a kid that grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football. Then one day it all clicked. I had to look at gaming as if it were any other sport. Video games have a specific set of rules, happen in a competitive field of play, and have players, teams, coaches, and an infrastructure to make it all happen. Nowadays, they even have broadcasters and huge audiences that watch. Sounds like a sport to me.
And it’s not like esports haven’t garnered the attention of traditional sports. NBA owners and the popular basketball video game franchise 2K partnered to form 23 teams in the NBA 2K League. Formula 1 held virtual races with its drivers during the pandemic when real-world racing was impossible. The League of Legends World Championship even garnered a larger audience than the Super Bowl (100+ million).
What may be most promising about esports is the money that surrounds the industry. The gaming industry is worth $139 billion a year. That’s more than the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB combined. Esports leagues and competitions alone earned over $1 billion in revenue last year and is expected to grow more than 400% by 2027. Some of the biggest competitions’ prize pools are worth more than $30 million (the 2020 Masters Tournament only had an $11.5 million purse). The biggest gamers are earning an estimated $20 million a year. China even just broke ground on a nearly $900 million esports center to be the global hub of gaming. It’s remarkable.
I’d have quite the internal conflict trying to tell my kid to get off the video games and go outside if I thought he or she might pay for my retirement one day.
We’ll probably never see the day where someone confuses a professional gamer for a professional football player. The physical attributes aren’t quite the same. But a lot of the mental acuity required to be great is shared between the two. There will probably come a time where a greater number of people will admire a professional gamer than they do a traditional athlete. And I don’t think that day is too far from now.
The world of esports is just beginning to take off, and there’s no telling how far it could go, but now is the time to get in on the ground floor. As a kid, I never thought that someone could earn a living playing video games, but that’s a real dream for millions of children across the world. And who’s to tell them that they can’t. Esports is shaping up to be the biggest disruptor in sports and those that don’t get with the times might be left behind. Game over.
-By Eric Joiner