Why would anyone watch someone else play a video game?
Like many business executives, I have noted the business of eSports and have been intrigued by the size and growth rate. ESports is hot right now! As a consumer, however, I didn’t get it. Why not just play?
I could see the business results, but I didn’t understand the appeal. This is a real challenge for those wanting to get involved in the eSports industry and its growth. If you’re going to be in any business, it’s vital to actually understand the consumer appeal. I call it “eating your own dog food”. If you can’t understand and appreciate your own product, how can you achieve true excellence in creating and selling it?
The Fortnite Effect
My eSports journey was an accident, just a lucky coincidence, but that’s how learning happens sometimes. I have a gamer in the family, my 12 year old son. Last year, he played Overwatch. All day. Every day. The game was engaging, but it just didn’t spark my interest.
One day early this year, however, things took a turn for the better. I noticed my son playing a new game. The game itself had the same general feel as Overwatch, commando combat and lots of shooting, but a couple of things caught my eye. The players were building strange structures in real time, climbing up, jumping off… AND shooting. Even better, every now and then somebody would bust out a dance routine in the middle of the fighting. I laughed, commandos with disco moves!
The game, as you have probably guessed by now, is called Fortnite. It became so popular so fast that its impact even reached Wall Street. Last Spring, investors sold off Activision, the parent company behind Overwatch, taking literally billions of dollars off its market cap. Gamers were leaving Overwatch for Fortnite at a shocking pace.
Well, how could I resist? I tried my hand, playing a few games of Fortnite with my son. It was fun! I had no skills, of course, so I wasn’t a very helpful teammate. Worse, my character only had one dance routine. Turns out you have to improve your skills to earn better dance moves. Aspiring to dance the Electro Shuffle, I asked my son, “Do you have any tips for me? How can I get better?” His answer: Watch some YouTube videos featuring expert players, who play while offering tips and commentary about what they’re doing and why.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but my son had just launched me into the world of eSports content.
He texted me a link, and I watched a player who goes by the nickname “Ninja” playing Fortnite. This Ninja guy played Fortnite like I had never seen Fortnite played. Wow, he is good! I payed attention, picked up a few ideas from the master Ninja, played a few games, got a little bit better, watched more videos from other expert players (I really like one called Daequan)… then had a moment of curiosity one day: What if these elite players met on the Fortnite battlefield? How awesome would that be?
A quick search and I found it. Ninja vs. Daequan. Turns out I’m not the only person who wanted to see a battle of the best. I watched a video of the two of them in a game, head to head. The way Fortnite works, it took awhile for them to meet, but meet they did, and what a battle! The camera and the mic were on Daequan in the video I watched, so I could see and hear his reactions as he dueled Ninja. He’s a cocky guy, but he was also openly admiring of his rival’s skills. Come on, Daequan, get him…
I was rooting. I had become a fan.
I just got eSports!
Firing Up Fans
In the end, Ninja pulled out some crazy moves, opened a glider, flew away, built a complex structure in a heartbeat, turned, fired from a LONG way away using a sniper rifle, and eliminated Daequan with a single shot. Wow! What a game! My guy lost, and I felt the disappointment that any fan feels when his team loses, but I also felt the exhilaration of having seen truly elite skills on display.
That’s what eSports is really about, and that’s why eSports fans love it. It’s exactly the same as watching LeBron James duel Kevin Durant in the NBA finals. They play the game of basketball to its absolute maximum potential, and that is exciting to watch. You probably root for one or the other, so there’s emotional power along with the display of elite skills. ESports just showcases different games. It’s the same dynamic, the same excitement, and the same emotional engagement.
Not Just for Teens
Now that I’m an actual eSports fan, I can see the business potential in much richer detail. As of yet, there aren’t that many games that are really good for watching. As game makers improve the quality of the spectator experience, eSports will naturally grow and attract new fans across all ages and demographics.
Some of the growth potential in eSports will come from the accessibility of videogaming. We all played basketball at one point, whether competitively or just in PE class. But the day inevitably came when we weren’t good enough physically — not tall enough or fast enough or in good enough shape, and our NBA dreams ended. Even Michael Jordan got too old for the NBA eventually. ESports can be different, less dependent on physical athleticism. Anyone can pick up a controller and give it a try. Anyone can aspire to greatness. Young or old, short or tall, fast or slow, video games give everyone a shot at greatness.
The revenue streams we see in professional sports are all there for eSports — advertising, sponsorships, ticket sales, broadcast/streaming rights, merchandise, etc. We’re already seeing college eSports teams forming and competing, for example at Maryville University in St. Louis, so eSports is moving closer to the world of school sports and the big money of the NCAA. Nothing is off-limits; the business opportunities are enormous.
The eSports phenomenon is only going to get bigger. How much and how fast? I won’t be surprised at all if eSports surpasses today’s live sports in my lifetime.