Esports are at an Inflection of Digital Media and Modern Culture

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Last Friday Red Herring attended the ESL One esports event in Cologne, Germany. Thousands packed out the city’s Lanxess Arena, roaring whenever an impressive kill was made during the three-day Counter Strike: Global Offensive (that’s CS:GO to the uninitiated) tournament.

Each matchup, pitting players from all corners of the globe, was accompanied by frenetic commentary and a breathless multiscreen setup that would have made U2 blush. It was an astonishing sight.

There are several conclusions to be made from ESL One Cologne. First, esports is a strikingly globalized phenomenon. Aside from one fluttering Brazilian flag, and a bunch of three drunk Ukrainians draped in their yellow-and-blue national standard, there was little in the way of national regalia on show. Fans base their appeal on values, brands and particular stars rather than local pride.

To fans of ‘traditional’ sports like soccer, football and basketball, that might seem strange. But consider the forum: esports are played at home, on computers hooked up to the web–where you’re likelier to play someone in a studio apartment in Seoul than your next door neighbor.

As the market matures–and it is doing so at a frightening pace–a schism is approaching between those who want to market esports on this utopian, borderless appeal and those, especially in the US, who want to revert to city-based franchises. The conclusion will be interesting to watch, from a sociological, as well as business, standpoint.

Second, esports could do with more female fans. Standing outside the arena one evening Red Herring counted three women among hundreds of young men. As much as organizers like to espouse the trend’s universal appeal, it is clear that very few women–far fewer than traditional sports–are becoming interested in esports. Leaders are missing a trick, and should reach out better.

Esports’ fandom, however, is undeniable. This September ESL One arrives at the Barclays Center in New York City. If Cologne is a benchmark then the atmosphere should easily top that at the average Brooklyn Nets game. The global esports market will reach $1.23 billion by 2019. Its global audience is set to increase 50% to 300m in the same time.

It is this last metric that is the most interesting. Esports is soon to experience a host of fundamental changes. First, there is the creeping incursion of virtual reality (VR) into the gaming market. Insiders have told Red Herring there is no chance of gamers switching suddenly from static, keyboard-based entertainment to the physically demanding experience a VR tournament would surely present. But surely there will be some considerable effect.

It might be felt in the live events sphere. If VR becomes ubiquitous, then where is the point of so many season highlights like ESL One? Likewise, as broadcasting rights switch from traditional casts to online platforms (major players like YouTube and Facebook are making considerable advances towards esports), the potential for a wholesale shakeup is massive.

None of which means esports will lose popularity. But as a benchmark for modern culture, entertainment and media it is a fantastic case study–as well as an entertaining look at the future of sport consumption. It is time to set aside the skepticism: esports are here to stay.