What Are Esports, and Why Do People Watch Them?

In the next few years, competitive gaming will become a multi-billion dollar industry, and it could even come to the 2024 Paris Olympics. But what are Esports, and why are people watching gaming tournaments instead of football games?

Esports Can Be Any Form of Competitive Gaming

From the outside, the world of competitive gaming looks like it’s built around large-scale tournaments, with a strong focus on team-based games such as Fortnite, Counter-Strike, or Overwatch. These tournaments are typically held in large arenas (sometimes dedicated gaming arenas), schools, nerdy arcades, and bars. They’re usually livestreamed via Twitch or YouTube, or broadcasted by a major network such as ESPN or the BBC.

But that’s just the outside view. Like the bottom of an iceberg, the largest sect of the competitive gaming community is hidden from view. There are thousands of small (not necessarily amateur) competitive gaming communities. Some of them focus on digital card games like Hearthstone, others play fighters like Mortal Kombat and Smash Brothers, and an even smaller group of gamers focuses on “speedruns”–how fast you can complete a single player game. Some of these competitive gamers livestream their games on Twitch or Youtube, while others simply communicate over Discord, a chat software.

Due to the variety of competitive games on the market and the accessibility of livestreaming, it’s difficult to comprehend or define Esports accurately. But one thing’s for sure: Esports are similar to “regular” sports.

Yes, Esports are Like “Real” Sports

Most people see a clear distinction between gaming and athletics. We think of gaming as an unhealthy, antisocial habit—the opposite of sports. But unless you solely define sports as “something that happens outside,” it’s hard to find serious differences between “real” sports and Esports.

Like “real” athletes, competitive gamers have to practice regularly to keep in tip-top shape. They develop muscles related to their chosen sport and have to use good posture to avoid injury (carpal tunnel and arthritis). Surprisingly, some professional gamers stick to strict diets and exercise regiments to keep their body working at peak efficiency.

A gamer controls a real soccer game with his Xbox controller.

The world of Esports is also incredibly social. Like football fans, Esport fans develop close friendships with one another, even if gaming is the only thing that they have in common. And because gaming is based around the internet, many of these friendships occur in spite of social, economic, or physical boundaries.

Not to mention, competitive gaming generates a ton of money. Business Insider predicts that the competitive gaming market will be worth $1.5 billion by 2020, and that doesn’t include the money from competitive gaming hardware, like computers and gaming keyboards. Sure, most NFL teams are worth twice as much as the entire Esports market, but that gap is sure to narrow over time.

Do you have to accept competitive gaming as a “real” sport? Not really. There’s a good chance that the general public will always create a distinction between athletic sports and Esports, even though competitive gaming may make a splash at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Hell, the Olympic Committee has recognized chess as a sport for two decades, and people still don’t think of chess as a sport.

Competitive Gaming Appeals to All Ages

We tend to think of video games as something for children, which isn’t entirely untrue. But the biggest games of the last decade, like Minecraft and DOTA, have been successful because they appeal to all ages. Competitive gaming and traditional sports are successful for the same reason.

According to an ESPN survey, most top-tier competitive gamers are in their 20s. And according to this same survey, the best football, basketball, hockey, and baseball players are also in their 20s.

Of course, we’re talking about the best of the best. It’s not uncommon for a traditional athlete to shine as a teenager, or well into their 30s or 40s. And as the National Federation of High School Associations continues to develop Esports teams in High Schools, more kids and adults will find themselves involved in the competitive gaming scene.

A team of kids playing soccer

Think of it like baseball. A young baseball fan may keep up with the famous players, buy merchandise, and casually (or seriously) participate in baseball through a school program. An older baseball fan may play with friends, keep up with a team, or take on the role of a coach, host, sponsor, or baseball businessperson.

In the end, one age group is useless without the other. Without adult gamers, young gamers have nowhere to compete, and no monetary incentive to practice gaming. But without young gamers, adults have nothing to watch, invest their time into, or make money off of.

Why Not Just Play the Game Yourself?

There’s nothing worse than sitting on a couch and watching your best friend play a game. That’s why the eternal question surrounding Esports (and streamed gameplay in general) is “why don’t you play the game instead of watching somebody else play it?”

Of course, this leads to another question. “Why watch a football game when you can go out and play football?” It’s impossible to find a solid, all-encompassing answer. Maybe you aren’t in a position to play a sport, or perhaps you like to see how professional players perform. Maybe there isn’t a reason. Maybe you just like to watch sports.

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