It was a Friday about a year ago, about 11 p.m. I’d crawled under the sheets, flipped on the television and started looking for some television-based pictures and noise to put me to sleep. This is standard fare in our house. We usually end up on the Big Bang Theory and I always remark to my wife that the Big Bangers only get to see DC products in the comic-book store because Marvel are marketing snobs.
On this night, however, the channel guide listed something called “eSports” on TBS.
Seeing eSports listed did two things. First, I hearkened back to the 2 a.m. viewings of whatever ESPN could afford to run in its infancy. If you count the rings in my trunk, you’ll know I’ve been here long enough to have seen ESPN launch. It included such grand events as lumberjack contests, weight lifting, bowling, hot-dog eating contests and other obscure events the network could afford. It eventually bought baseball, hockey, American football, AND THE REST OF THE SPORTING WORLD (more on the cost of that in a bit).
Aside from that, I also got so many feels.
Born into it
I grew up on the Ti-99, VIC-20 and Commodore 64; I’ve ground through the Atari 2600, the Intellivision, Colecovision, Sega Genesis, and just about every gaming console since. I and thousands of others like me WET DREAMED of a day making money playing Pitfall, Bomberman or ZAXXON. Our mothers and fathers would watch us play for hours, and lament why we weren’t doing something else to get our labor-hunting chops into better shape for a future nonsensical widget-based tool-and-die job.
And here I was, four decades later, laying in bed, staring at a listing for eSports.
I changed the channel to watch it. Sure enough, here were people who could have been my sons and daughters. They were cheering, happy, joyful. They wore eSports gear and had favorite players and ate popcorn.
I drew in my breath – and then wept openly.
OK. Not really. Mentally. I mean, THEY’RE MAKING REAL MONEY DOING THE VERY THING OUR PARENTS SAID WE WOULD GO BLIND DOING.
That was the other thing.
Anyway, I couldn’t write about it then. Too soon. However, some recent events coupled with a more balanced approach to where professional sports may be going, however, have let me fully form that notional luggage and write this treatise. Let’s unpack it together.
I think too much about this stuff
First, as of this writing, Competitive Pro Gaming is a $1.2 billion industry. If that number’s accurate (it’s probably more), then it’s already a ninth of the National Football League total revenue (minus the peripheral monies taken in for professional football wagering; it goes WAY north with those). There’s real money to be had, and I suppose William Hill and others have wagering on eSports (I haven’t checked but if they have wagering on the darts, certainly there’s wagering on DOTA).
Second, plenty of video games can be played to make money. The event that pushed me to write this? Learning there’s an Overwatch league! It’s huge and it already has big mama drama.
Third, this is a grassroots effort that comes from a generation born into a strong gaming infrastructure and wanting to compete on a grand scale. True, EA Sports has always had a tournament for its Madden football game. However, that always felt forced and very specific to the Madden crowd (I used to be one of them). Madden never felt like there was a sea change like the one for pro gaming.
An Overwatch league? A DOTA league? Halo? Call of Duty?
Sea change. The numbers prove it.
Every generation has its folly. Baseball was king until the mid-1980s when American football rose up as a viable product and conquered America’s living rooms and made America’s pastime a last time. Where the NFL surged; so, too, did college football and baseball fell somewhere below that in ratings and revenue. NBA surged huge in the 1990s, lapsed around Y2K and has surged again. Hockey has always been regional but had a pretty good run in the 1990s. Soccer (football) is king everywhere but the United States.
Cricket, Rugby and Lacrosse are quite regionalized. No one knows about Bandy-Wickey or Bubble the Justice any more, save kitschy clever web-based remembrances. We’d probably welcome back Sparrow Mumbling, but only after 10 p.m. and on Pay-Per-View.
Games like football, baseball and basketball rose up during the 1890s and the Industrial Age. Millions of Americans forged steel, spun garments, built automobiles, mined coal and toiled over thousands of factory and industry jobs. That toil meant sweat, strength, long hours, and ‘bringing your lunch pail’ to work. Radios broadcast games at home and at work, through World Wars and depression. Many were drawn to the sports as a respite away from grueling labor and, with football (college much more popular than pro), the attraction of smashing heads and violence didn’t hurt after toughing it out over hot steel or unruly riveting.
It is that generations have their folly, and our interest waxes and wanes. Some report that there are shorter attention spans and the audience is changing. Some sports just die, or evolve into something completely different. All of that matters as this generation seizes upon the moment.
The kids are all right
All of professionalized athletics had a tremendous run, but then along came Pong, the Information Age, the Internet to muck it up.
Globalization also stepped in to move steel, textile and other jobs far away. Services, data entry and other jobs rose. Newer generations were finding themselves inside more than out. A TV still pushed one-way entertainment with no repercussions in our faces.
The Internet made way for two-way communication. And games. Play by Mail games. BBS games. Sharing. It all started something where we could talk to one another, share our passions for things and respond back in ways we could never do before, including television, which we could even ignore because BBS WAS MORE FUN. As the complexity and interactivity of games rose, so did involvement in their creation, management and administration. The gaming community formed.
Most recently – perhaps just in the past five years — something else happened: kids today know they don’t HAVE to go play little league, Pop Warner or some other organized athletic activity to satiate a competitive itch.
Further, they don’t want to go (he he). Their parents want them to go because they were forced to go by their parents. They could only frame the moment with their own experiences.
Really, they want to play Just Cause, Garry’s Mod, Wolfenstein, Battlefield and Mario Kart. They don’t want (or need) to be screamed down by someone who’s bitter because he never got to play single-A ball to get their competitive jones crunched. Instead, they can scream someone down via headset mic for bouncing up and down too much in the multiplayer Halo battle.
They can game online and sate that competitive need. They can then turn to their parents and show them this ESPN piece from two years ago that says prominence and dollar bills are both to be had in gaming (the parents have probably seen it to and, like me, realize, DAMMIT, I’M A GENERATION BEHIND!).
Kids can do crunches and jog for the fitness part on their time.
Case in point. I have friends who play Halo every Saturday night faithfully. They have done so for years, through almost every iteration of the game. I sense if their kids walked in and said, “Dad, I want to go on the professional Halo circuit,” there wouldn’t be a tirade. There’d be a powwow to see how they could get it done. Parents will still push for their offspring to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants (and should, frankly), but today eSports is a viable discussion as much as being a pro ball player. It’s no longer a screaming match in the living room.
Killing TV, killing cable
It is important to note that when cable killed the big three networks’ stranglehold over televised entertainment with “500 channels,” Internet did, and is doing, the same leg-hump to cable.
In fact, if we’re sitting in front of a television we almost always have a second screen (phone/tablet) or even a third screen (nearby laptop). Amplified distraction makes TV programmers nuts and with the “smart” televisions burgeoning in living rooms, there’s no stopping it.
The Internet changed so many behaviors and influence so much of how we entertain ourselves and draw information. There’s no need to sit and watch TV in the living room or be home for a show you could not miss.
Or have to watch it at all. A multitude of Internet sites exist for recaps, summaries, synopses and aggregation. I’ve never fully watched one episode of Games of Thrones, but I understand almost to the moment what’s happening, who’s dead and what’s next.
As a show of their power, eSports have their own television networks (Twitch, YouTube, et al) with billions of followers already generating millions in revenue. Meanwhile, if you believe the media reports and its layoffs over the past year, ESPN is struggling. Sports is still getting a number on broadcast television, but for how much longer?
None of eSports is possible without simultaneous advances in both gaming tech and network infrastructure. Faster processors, network routers, video game chips. And stronger caffeinated beverages. Everything top conquer lag and make the experience more realistic and real-time. Still, we’re here, it will continue to advance and this business will grow more sophisticated as it does.
The revenue numbers I cited earlier for eSports are noteworthy. Also noteworthy? eSports is a worldwide phenomenon that includes the United States, and it already has traction everywhere. Soccer’s never had traction in the states (and has a difficult time because the big three sports don’t want to share their wallet space). American football is loved, well, in America. Hockey is Canada’s sport (maybe Scandinavia’s, too). Baseball? U.S., some Central and South America, and Japan.
A sidenote: video games are the new conversation grease between athletes that golf used to be. In the past, athletes could always commune around golf. Many played in the off season at pro-ams, on their own or wherever, so they all had that commonality of experience. Hell, Al Michaels and others often talk about point-after tries and field goals slicing like they were hit with a bad 9-iron. Soon we’ll have a generation of announcers that describes something with a loot box reference or wonders if Half-Life 3 will ever appear.
Pwning one another is more chattable than a chip on to the green.
To what end?
It’s not that people won’t continue to want to play and love pro sports. On the contrary, events like UFC and others are thriving; they are unique and draw eyes. My thought is that it is the nominally interested 80 percent who fill the stands and bump the ratings who are going to leave the fanatic 20 percent base behind for something else.
There’s still a lot of money to be made in baseball, American football and basketball. Baseball claims revenues north of $8 billion, but I’ve never seen any evidence that when my generation dies out, baseball will carry on as strong (I happen to love it). American football also pulls billions, is looking overseas and has the most watched television program in the United States each year. Still, the league continues to battle issues with brain injuries, over-complicated rules (like, what IS a catch?), and its products being spread too thin (Thursday night football’s gotta go). Basketball is going through a renaissance and is looking at marrying itself to sports betting.
These businesses are figuring out how to reconfigure. eSports is only just emerging from its larval state.
There will still be over-40 league hoops leagues, beer-league softball games and Pop Warner football. Bills fans will still be able to leap from their travel trailers onto flaming folding tables. Kid and teens will still want to play Little League baseball and the lot — but for how much longer?
It’s not that those professional sports businesses don’t want to stay alive and won’t find ways to compete (and I applaud that; there are plenty of smart people making stacks of money who want it to go on), it’s that, at the end of the day, to a full generation of young adults and children, X is cooler than Y. In this case, Widowmaker popping Hanzo from 1,000 meters to score the team victory is, for many, cooler than a base hit to right in the top of the third. Maybe the professionally branded sports leagues buy the majority shares in Professional eSports leagues and fold them into the brand. How cool would a Premiere League eSports be? A La Liga for PlayerUnknown’s Battleground?
Or, does the opposite happen? Does interest in the pro sports wane so low that they become Sparrow Mumbling? Former NBA basketball player and politician Bill Bradley said, “Sports is a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and achieving against great odds. Athletes, in times of difficulty, can be important role models.” I believe that, too. Unfortunately, in the Information Age, the stories of overcoming obstacles come with a hearty serving of arguing about money, law troubles and a myriad other issues.
In the coming years, it will be interesting (at least for me) to watch how the game/sport evolves, where the cheats will come from, how it will be regulated across the globe and so on. I have invested THOUSANDS of hours consuming (via TV) professional sports, playing those sports and rooting for my favorite teams. I’m not quite ready to kick them out of bed yet.
But it only took one Friday night sitting in bed flipping channels to realize the future was here.
Where it all goes from here will be a fascinating journey.