Over spring break, I had the pleasure of traveling to Boston to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was founded in 2006 by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and CEO of Kraft Analytics Jessica Gelman. The intention was to educate both sports industry employees and aspiring employees about the impact of technology and statistics in the sports world. I attended hoping to learn more about the intricacies of analytics in the basketball world and to network with individuals in the sports industry. While I was successful in doing both, I found that one of the biggest takeaways from the conference was recognizing the rapidly growing world of eSports, or competitive online gaming communities. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference boasted multiple panels, keynote speakers and workshops where attendees were able to become immersed in eSports.
When I first heard of the idea of eSports, my concern was that video games are not sports. While I still believe this is true, my eyes have been opened to the market that eSports possesses. The most popular eSport, League of Legends, is becoming one of the most-watched competitive events in the world. The League of Legends World Championship has been held each year since 2011, with three of them held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Last year, the event garnered 43 million viewers, more than the College Football Playoff Championship game between Clemson and Alabama.
As for media coverage, the world of eSports gained momentum in 2014 when ESPN began streaming coverage of eSport events. Now, the sports media giant has dedicated a portion of its website to this new sector of the sports world. While at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I learned that the Philadelphia 76ers recently purchased Team Dignitas, an eSports team. The idea that a major North American professional sports organization would associate with gaming blew my mind at first, but as time has passed, I realize the immense investment potential that eSports possesses.
While we currently see athletes such as LeBron James and Tom Brady make hundreds of millions of dollars from salary and endorsements, gamers in the eSports community are beginning to see the same number of zeroes at the end of the paycheck. The League of Legends World Championship doled out almost $3 million dollars to the winning team last year, with second place getting $1 million and third and fourth places receiving half a million.
The attractiveness of eSports to the average consumer comes from the roots of why people watch other sports. I’m sure there are many reasons for fans of football, basketball and baseball to watch, but for the most part I would say it intrigues us as humans because the people we watch accomplish incredible athletic feats. While eSports competitors are not a necessarily athletes, they do incredible things. Whats more is that the video games being played in these competitions are complex and strategic. Hardcore fans of traditional sports watch to figure out the schemes of their favorite team or the strategy that an opposing coach can come up with. With League of Legends, for example, the strategy and complexity trumps that of any traditional sport with the amount of playable characters, roles and abilities.
All that being said, there exists a massive market for eSports that has only been barely tapped into in recent years. Everything that people consume in regard to the more popular sports such as media coverage, fantasy, betting, streaming, competing and even commentating exists in the world of eSports. While it will take some time for people to get used to the fact that people who sit behind a screen and play video games might make millions of dollars and be considered athletes, that day is coming, so we might as well get used to it.