Make no mistake, eSports has arrived.
With multi-million dollar prizes, hundreds of millions of fans and a push to make it an Olympic event, the once niche sport is now impossible to ignore.
By 2020, games industry researcher Newzoo predicts the global audience for eSports will approach 580m, with the industry worth more than $1.5 billion.
More than half of eSports fans in America, Britain, France and Germany now consider competitive gaming a sport. More than two-thirds believe it will soon become mainstream.
The soon is particularly poignant.
Many people still hold out-dated stereotypes of competitive gamers – the staying in, the lack of a social life – perceptions that are perhaps the biggest barrier for eSports breaking into the mainstream.
For Neville Upton, CEO of UK eSports company Gfinity, the immediate focus is changing these outdated beliefs.
“This year we are starting to see more people aware of eSports,” he said.
“But there is still a lot of work to do in explaining the complexity of competitive gaming and the player agility to a broader audience.
“Therefore, out-dated stereotypes of gamers and the scene are immediate hurdles when speaking to the media and public about what eSports are, about why they are so popular to more than 385 million people around the world, and about how the industry is expected to be worth more than $1.5 billion dollars by 2020.”
So, what are today’s eSports players actually like? Are they vastly different from the out-dated stereotypes many hold?
Tristan Jones, or Pulsar as he’s known in-game, plays Rocket League for eSports team Endpoint. From talking to him, it’s painfully clear he’s not a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’.
“Many players think that this means having to play the game for hours on end and although this is partially true,” he said.
“The biggest challenge is making sure you get quality practice, which means playing in tournaments. In the UK, Gfinity’s Elite Series is the best platform to help you overcome the challenge of transitioning from a regular player to a pro, as it hosts daily tournaments with a prize pool, and the chance to be signed by an eSports team, like in my case.”
Rather than staying in and playing games all day, every day, Jones paints a picture of a much more balanced life – although, as is the case with every job, the odd late night can be expected.
“I still have all of my studies and lectures to get to, but I need to also play at least 3-5 hours a day to maintain/improve my skill,” he said.
“A typical day for consists of waking up at around about 11am and going to sleep during the early hours of the morning 2am-3am. In-between sleeping and waking up, I typically concentrate my game training hours in the afternoons whilst my friends and family are at work, so that I can keep my evenings free to spend time with them.”
A large part of why eSports is becoming more accessible is down to the developers themselves.
While League of Legends, DOTA and CS Go have long been staples of the eSports community, more mainstream offerings, holding wider appeal, are now available.
FIFA 18, Gran Turismo, Overwatch and Call of Duty are just some of the titles that heavily cater towards eSports – with some of the world’s best players competing for millions in prize money.
Many top football teams have even signed players to represent their respective clubs on FIFA 18 or PES 2018.
But as Ubisoft’s eSports director François-Xavier Deniele explains, finding the right balance between satisfying professional players and mobilising the causal gamers can be tricky.
Especially when their flagship eSports title, Rainbow 6: Siege, boasts a user base of more than 20 million players – a majority of which are non professional.
“For me, there is two strategies,” he explained.
“The first one is about having the right competition for pro players – the best of the best.
“The second is looking at local championships for non professionals who want to play and have fun – who are at a good level but not putting in eight hours every day. So, we’ve created these tournaments when you can play as a non pro and try to win some cash prizes and goodies. It’s about every level, like soccer.”
For the elite players, there are more international tournaments than ever before – from the upcoming FIFA eWorld Cup, where 32 of the best FIFA 18 players will battle it out next year, to the Rainbow 6: Siege finals in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The latter title has also partnered with the ESL in the UK – with the first season penned for January 2018.
So, what do those closest to the industry believe will happen to eSports the next few years? According to Upton, a ‘revolution’ is coming.
“There will be a revolution in sports & entertainment where we will see eSports viewership grow, as the young fanbase shifts their attention from watching films and traditional sporting events, to include time watching and participating in eSports,” he explained.
“We are already seeing this happen where American millennial males are more interested in eSports over ice hockey and “America’s Pastime,” baseball. With that, there will come mainstream recognition of teams and players, including a few whose profile may transcend the eSports scene and into popular culture.”
This is a view echoed by Jones: “At the moment the public, and especially the older generation, don’t view eSports and its pro gamers in the same way as they view the traditional sport that they see on TV,” he said. “Hopefully this will change in the coming months and years.
He added: “We are already seeing stadiums and arenas such as Gfinity’s Fulham Arena full of fans cheering on their favourite pro gaming team or player.
“On top of this there are huge audiences of people watching on streaming platforms such as Twitch, and more recently BBC Three, Sky and BT Sports where the Gfinity Elite Series is broadcast.”