Could e-sports become more popular than football?

The number of people who watch e-sports is approximately the same as those who watch NHL hockey and its popularity is continuing to grow. The chief executive of gaming and entertainment firm Unikrn Rahul Sood believes that by 2017 it will be as popular as the NFL. Should the world’s most popular game, football, be worried about a virtual pretender to its crown?

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Since the advent of online gaming and competitive multiplayer competition, e-sports have experienced rapid growth to the extent that major broadcasters are beginning to take note. E-sports are regularly streamed online via services like Twitch, but TV stations in the US, Norway and East Asia have also broadcast events live.

It wasn’t long ago that playing video games in your spare time, apart from mainstream titles like FIFA and Call of Duty, could be the subject of ridicule and playing video games competitive largely unheard of amongst the public. However, that perception is steadily changing. The highest earning e-sport competitors have made in excess of $1 million simply from playing games, while the US government now recognises players as “professional athletes” in order to streamline the visa process and allow overseas gamers to compete in American tournaments.

However, financial rewards aren’t the only driving force behind the growth of e-sports, particularly when only the most successful can claim it as a full-time career.

Instead, the popularity of e-sports from a competitor’s viewpoint is more often than not fuelled by a love of playing video games throughout childhood. The diverse range of video games available, catering to different age groups and played at various difficulty levels means that as a form of entertainment it is hugely accessible. Fighting games like Street Fighter, strategy titles such as StarCraft and sports games like FIFA all have e-sports scenes, giving competitions broad appeal.

Unlike the majority of real sports, e-sports also enable players to play against each other unburdened by spectators or even an opponent. Online gaming allows players to hone their skills in private, making it much easier to enter as a novice than physical sports and with more and more young people being exposed to gaming at a young age, mobile devices could fuel the next generation of competitive e-sport players.

Already the industry has come a long way in the past ten years or so, making celebrities out of its players and those associated with tournaments. John Bain, AKA TotalBiscuit, made a name for himself commentating on LAN tournaments and StarCraft events and now his YouTube channel has more than two million subscribers.

However, sports can only continue to exist with supporters, and this is where e-sports have made great strides. However, even with its recent popularity growth, some viewers are likely to struggle to understand the appeal of watching someone else play a video game.

Jimmy Shelton, of the Verge, explained that his love of e-sports stems from a love of watching a skilful individual – much like in any other sport.

“I pride myself in my own video game skills — my first-person shooter skills, specifically. I'm better than my friends and my co-workers,” he explained. “Professional gamers are superhuman, just like LeBron James and Sidney Crosby are superhuman — consistently capable of performing feats that seem impossible. There's one main difference with e-sports, though: most viewers understand what's happening in basketball and hockey. Even just visually, video games can be dauntingly complicated.”

Although e-sports are now watched by thousands, it’s unlikely that it will ever surpass football’s popularity - played by an estimated 250 million people and watched by somewhere between 3.3 and 3.5 billion fans.

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If it is to continue its growth, however, it will have to continue to erode any remaining stigma associated with playing video games competitively. Ultimately, while many are being converted, e-sports still have a long way to go to convince people that it’s worthwhile watching other people playing video games.