The Rise of the eSports Economy

Competitive video gaming has existed for decades, as both amateur competitions between friends in suburban basements and professional level tournaments with large audiences and cash prizes. Now, gaming seems poised to take a major leap forward, gaining the legitimacy given to other organized competitions through the establishment of governing bodies and an expanding infrastructure catering to players and spectators alike. A recent local radio segment brought my attention to the rapid growth in collegiate eSports programs, revealing the breadth of interest and investment in the gaming economy.

Gaming Moves Beyond the Living Room

In his piece More Than Just Armchair Gamers, KCUR reporter Victor Wishna examines the recent explosion in eSports organizations, noting that “There was a time when the phrase ‘armchair quarterback’ was a put-down, but the armchair may be exactly where a new breed of competitor will be making a living or earning a scholarship.” eSports – or competitive video gaming – has exploded into mainstream prominence, with live tournaments playing to capacity crowds at traditional sporting venues. After years of primarily virtual competitions, eSports have left the internet and entered the physical arena.

The economy behind the eSports phenomenon is showing rapid growth – in fact, “the e-sports economy is expected to grow to $696 million this year, a 41 percent increase from 2016.” The first arena dedicated to eSports recently opened in Orange County, CA, and the company behind it plans to open a dozen more such venues across the country. eSports competitions have been broadcast on ESPN and a recent world championship sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles and was live-streamed by more than 32 million spectators.” There is clearly a broad audience for eSports competitions and the market has take notice, spurring the growth of an infrastructure that can support this burgeoning industry.

Collegiate eSports Go Varsity-Level

This growing trend is perhaps most apparent at the college level. Today’s young gamers have grown up in a society in which video games are less controversial and marginalized than in the past. As the internet age created a paradigm shift from solitary, single-player experiences to massive multi-player games, gamers became more social, interconnected, and competitive. No longer content to hold the top score at the local arcade, today’s young gamers seek public recognition, media attention, and substantial prizes. As more and more passionate, lifelong gamers enter college, they’re challenging the traditional definition of what constitutes a sport.

As ESPN Staff Writer Kieran Darcy explains, “college esports… is growing in leaps and bounds. So much so, in fact, that the NCAA has taken up the topic.” In recent meetings, NCAA leaders have debated integrating collegiate eSports into their purview, recognizing its enormous impact on campuses across the country. However, there are several hurdles that could stand in the way. For one, the distinction between amateur and professional is very blurry in the world of competitive gaming, and many students make considerable money on the gaming circuit, which sets them apart from collegiate athletes. Additionally, the world of eSports is highly male-dominated, raising questions about Title IX compliance.

The NCAA is clearly intrigued by the possibilities, but as they consider making eSports “official,” another governing body has already stepped in to fill the void. The National Association of College eSports (or NACE) was formed in 2016 in Kansas City, MO to “(develop) the structure and tools needed to advance collegiate esports in the varsity space.” At its founding, there were seven colleges and universities with varsity eSports programs – a number that has since grown to include 45 institutions and counting. NACE is “collaborating to lay the groundwork in areas such as: Eligibility, Path to Graduation, and Competition & Scholarships,” which points to a future of competitive gaming in which it is recognized alongside other college athletic programs.

The Future of eSports: Olympic Dreams

Competitive gaming doesn’t end at the university level, however. Grown-up gamers continue to compete and work the professional circuit, and they may have even greater victories to look forward to. As Wishna reports for KCUR, “e-sports will be added as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games, the world’s second-largest multi-sport showcase after the Olympics.” And the Olympics themselves aren’t far behind. Both South Korea and the UK have petitioned the International Olympic Committee to include eSporting events, which could happen as early as the 2024 Paris Olympiad.

As the eSports economy continues to grow and gain legitimacy, it will be fascinating to see how competitive gamers integrate themselves into the world of traditional sports. When innovation meets competition, new possibilities continue to make themselves known. If nothing else, the explosion in the popularity of eSports ensures that the world will be watching.

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