The Rising Popularity of Esports

illustrations Sheku Nafisi

I was sitting down for breakfast a few weeks ago when my father entered the room and said:

“So Bridgette is getting a re-work, hey?”

I looked up from my heaping bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and stammered out, “uh… what?”

My father, looking very proud of himself once again, said, “You know, Bridgette. She’s getting a re-work in that game you play. There’re actually quite a few changes coming in the next patch.”

Now, the character in question is from a game called Overwatch. It’s a game about a ragtag group of heroes and villains trying to save or destroy the world. Why my old man knew anything about the game was baffling. He hadn’t picked up a video game controller since my older brother demolished him in NHL 2004 back in the day. 

Still confused, I asked, “you’re right… but why are you right? How do you even know that?”

“Oh, it just came up in my newsfeed” he replied. “I knew you played, so I watched some videos about it. Did you know they’re playing in Rogers Arena next year?”

When I woke up earlier that morning, I had no idea I would be having such an odd conversation. I had so many questions: Who is this guy pretending to be my father that cares about video games? How did video games end up in his news feed? Why does he know about the Overwatch League?

These answers gradually became clear, but the crazy thing was that he was actually interested in watching esports. The same man that reads books about bitcoin and watches golf for fun is taking an interest in professional video games.

And he isn’t the only one.

A typical esports event is laid out in a very similar fashion to a regular sporting event. A crowd fills an arena, and the players take the stage. There is a massive TV in the arena’s center that is streaming video from each of the players’ computers. The contestants play the game for all of the audience to see, taking on whatever challenges the game in question may present. And just like a regular sport, these players are the best in the world. It quickly becomes apparent that these athletes can pull off more than any ordinary person could, and it makes for phenomenal entertainment.

The audience loves it.

According to Goldman Sachs in 2018, esports had more viewers than Major League Baseball. By 2022 they expect the viewership to rival the National Football League.

If the viewership numbers don’t impress, maybe the money will. According to Newzoo, an esports analytics company, the market is supposed to exceed a billion dollars by the time 2019 is over. This marks a 26.7% growth from 2018.

Overwatch is one of the few games that fall under the esports umbrella, and it has seen significant growth. Season one of the Overwatch League dished out three million USD, and season two bumped up to five million USD. Season three numbers have yet to be released, but judging by how the league itself is preparing for next year, it could be a big one.

Another way the Overwatch League is setting itself apart is by compensating the players tremendously. Unlike the majority of esport leagues, the Overwatch League introduced a salary minimum for their players at fifty thousand USD with a guaranteed three-year contract. Teams are also required to give at least half of the prize money to the players if they win in the finals. The 2019 grand finals were worth three and a half million. For a team of ten people, that’s another 175 thousand USD per player. An excellent incentive. This is all in addition to players receiving housing, health insurance, and retirement savings. Considering how most of these players are 20-22 years old, the retirement savings makes for a very caring move from the league.

The local team, the Vancouver Titans, all make roughly 100 thousand USD per year. These players are all from South Korea, so this is equivalent to 116’675’000 Won.

By the end of their three-year contract, the Titans will have amassed nearly 300 thousand USD on salary alone. Apart from food and perhaps a phone bill, most of that is pocketed. If most of that money is saved, these players should have enough to outright purchase an apartment in Seoul, South Korea (one of the most expensive housing markets in the world).

The players can also freely get sponsorships and endorsement deals to supplement their income. The Vancouver Titans even had collectible Slurpee cups at Circle K for a limited time this year.

And it’s just getting bigger. Esports are

expanding into new markets and demographics.

Not only are esports being advertised around town, but local bars like The Pint or Tap and Barrel were playing the live matches during the finals as well. Sports bar broadcasts could draw more interest from people who weren’t aware of esports.

Two players from the winning team of the 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals even appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Both Matthew “Super” Delisi and Jay “Sinatraa” Wong from the San Fransisco Shock were welcomed to the stage and got to show off their trophy.

Although the terminology was kept fairly basic for mainstream audiences, the players went into great detail about their practice routines and daily life. They compared their training to a normal sport. They spend a certain amount of time per week in practice with their team. The difference is that instead of working out to hone their solo performances, they practice their aim and movement mechanics instead.

Super brought up that he was not legally allowed to sign his first contract without a guardian. He had to convince his father that esports was a viable career. He recalled, “I explained to him what esports was, and the first thing he did was look up esports, and he finds a Forbes article about the growth of esports.” Once his father figured out it was a big thing, he signed, and they were off to the races.

On a more personal note, I can understand why many people would be quick to dismiss watching Overwatch. You don’t understand the rules. The announcers might be saying things you don’t follow. Maybe the colours and effects are too much to take in.

And you know what? That’s completely reasonable.

I grew up playing baseball. I loved watching baseball because I got to see players throw pitches that I could only dream of throwing. My friends didn’t play baseball and often said it wasn’t a sport because some professional baseball players had beer guts. They believed that those players shouldn’t even be considered athletes. I was still fascinated because it was the most skillful tier of play in my favourite sport. Overwatch resonates the same way with me.

I’ll be the first to admit, I am terrible at Overwatch. It’s a fun game to play with friends, but I constantly make mistakes. Watching professional Overwatch brings me back to watching baseball for the first time. Players showcase their skills in ways you never thought of, and this makes you appreciate and understand the game on a deeper level because of it.

Now, I may not have a future in professional gaming, but I think it’s interesting that my father followed the same conclusions that Super’s father had. Maybe one day, I’ll find myself sitting down for breakfast with my kids, making them uncomfortable due to my overwhelming knowledge about a game they like. It was a cool bonding experience with my dad. I would love to be able to have that same experience with my own children.

I don’t foresee Overwatch substituting the tradition of sitting around the living room watching Canucks games, drinking beer, and talking about our weeks. Still, I am excited to see what the future holds for Overwatch and how it might set the stage for other esports to be played in Vancouver.