Video-gamers can hold big tournaments without infecting anyone, attracting millions of viewing fans.
It may seem surprising that fans might be satisfied by watching a virtual version of their sport. Yet video games have been quietly becoming more like traditional sports for some time. Covid-19, by keeping athletes indoors, has given a boost to “e-sports” - not just virtual versions of old sports, but entirely new online games, played competitively by professionals and watched by tens of millions of people, reports the Economist.
Video games, now played often by perhaps a quarter of the world’s population, are no longer just entertainment. Many games are more like something between a sport and a social network. And games have thrived under lockdown. The number of players logged into Steam, a popular gaming platform on PCs, reached record highs in late March, with 25m players logged in at one time. Nintendo’s share price increased by 45% in the month from March 16th. Twitch saw its traffic jump by 50% from March to April.
Over the past decade the business model of games has changed radically. Revenue used to come from selling blockbuster single-player games, such as “Grand Theft Auto”, on disks. Now the biggest-grossing games, such as “Fortnite” or “League of Legends”, are given away free and updated constantly, with money made from in-game purchases. They are more social, more competitive and arguably more addictive. Some of them are becoming cultural phenomena in their own right. Executives hope they can persuade more people to watch them, buy gear and cheer teams as they do with traditional sports.
Take “League of Legends”, perhaps the biggest e-sport in the world. It was launched in 2009 by Riot Games, an American firm now owned by Tencent, China’s biggest tech firm. It is a complex strategy game, in which teams of five players command “heroes” in a battle to defeat each other. As many people play it regularly as play tennis; at any one time, 8m people may be online. It also supports a professional game that is, at least in terms of the number of players earning a living from it, also larger than tennis.
The final of the League of Legends World Championship last year was watched live by 44m people. By comparison the Super Bowl, America’s biggest live sporting event, was watched by roughly twice that.
Twelve professional leagues now span all regions of the globe except Africa, with 120 franchised teams and perhaps 1,000 professional players. Whereas tennis stars in the world’s top 200 often struggle to make a living, “League of Legends” players in America are guaranteed a minimum salary of $75,000. There, players are entitled to the same visas that other foreign athletes can get. The average salary is closer to $400,000, says Chris Greeley of Riot Games. Lee Sang-hyeok, a Korean star, known by his tag “Faker”, may be the highest-paid sportsman in his country.
Last year Epic Games, the publisher of “Fortnite”, launched a “World Cup”. Anyone could apply to play: 40m did so. The finals filled 19,000 seats of the Arthur Ashe stadium in New York and $30m of prize money was dished out to the winners.
If anything checks the rise of e-sports competing with football or basketball for the world’s attention, though, it may be that video games move too fast. “League of Legends” has been going for a decade; “Counter-Strike” is almost two decades old. That is an aeon for a video game still to be played. But compared with sports that were codified in the 19th century, it is short. The Overwatch League has struggled over the past year as some of its players have switched to “Valorant”, a new shooting game, or from playing in teams to streaming live on YouTube. In the end, there may simply be too many games to try.