Just a few years ago, almost no one had heard of esports. It was a niche hobby enjoyed by computer gaming enthusiasts who came together to compete against each other for little more than bragging rights. From the 1990s and through the 2000s, organisers continued to work on growing their events.
In the last five years or so, that effort has paid off. During the last half a decade, esports have gone from a niche hobby to a mainstream form of competition that’s aired on television.
In Europe alone, esports viewership increased from 79 million in 2018 to 92 million in 2020. Globally, less than 400 million were watching in 2019, while nearly 500 million will stream games in 2021.
In addition to this, Newzoo has calculated that online video game streaming in general (in addition to organised esports competitions) will surpass 700 million this year. This figure is expected to reach almost 1 billion by the end of 2024, the same number of people that watch Formula 1 each year and the Summer Olympic Games every four.
But how much bigger can esports get?
It’s difficult to understand how big the esports industry could grow until you understand how big it already is. The commercial opportunities that esports create should not be underestimated. Video game publishers like Ubisoft use these competitions to help promote their products; for them, esports have become a major part of their marketing activities.
For other companies, the large audiences that esports attract also present a great opportunity for them to get a large amount of exposure for their brands. That’s why multi-million dollar deals have been signed between esports organisers and global brands like Red Bull, Intel, and Acer.
For players, the ever-increasing flow of money into esports benefits them too. The prizes that are awarded to those that compete successfully in major tournaments have been growing year-on-year for over a decade now. Some of the biggest prizes in history have run into the tens of millions of dollars, with some of the largest being awarded at Dota 2 and League of Legends events. This is usually shared amongst the different teams, but those that win can usually expect to receive seven figures.
The entire esports industry surpassed $1 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow around 10% in 2021. However, this is a fraction of the money that many traditional sports leagues make. The NFL, which is the most valuable sports league in the world, generated $16 billion in 2019. In the same year, Formula 1 made $2 billion and the English Premier League brought in over $6 billion.
Given that esports are significantly younger than these well-established leagues, it isn’t really possible to make like-for-like comparisons. Yet, despite this, esports as an industry is generating half that of the world’s most prestigious motorsport competition with little sign of slowing its growth, and so it would be foolish to discount esports’ potential.
The Demographic Shift
In 2019, a study revealed that 32% of those aged under 24 watched esports. However, of those aged between 55 and 64, that dropped to just 6%. The median age of viewers is 28, while nearly 40% of all fans fall within the 25-34 age range.
In the US, the average baseball viewer is 57 and the average NFL viewer is 50. In the UK, the average age of a football fan is somewhere between 40 and 50.
However, fans of traditional sports weren’t always this old. In the late 1960s, the average age of a fan visiting Old Trafford was reportedly around 18 but by 2008, this had risen to 40.
People often retain their allegiances for their entire lives, so it’s likely the esports fans in their 20s today will remain interested well into their 40s and 50s. At the same time, more 20-year-olds will come in behind them, increasing the size of the fanbase for competitive video gaming.
With that in mind, it seems reasonable to assume esports could grow to be just as big as traditional sports are today.