With the new year now in full swing, expectations have never been higher within the digital media ecosystem. Great things are upon us all. From the commercialization of VR/AR technology to the rapid and perpetual evolution of the digital-first economy, 2016 is set to be an extraordinary year in terms of its accelerating pace, disruptive potential, and overall degree of innovation.
One area in particular that has amassed significant attention to date is the evolution of eSports. Once considered a subculture of sorts and more a tertiary market in terms of its widespread appeal, this industry has surged in recent years and established an emergent viability that is now on par with many of the mainstay organizations one might associate with professional sports. The industry's robust global following alone is enough to turn heads. Moreover, its role in pioneering the use of live streaming as a mechanism to disseminate content while circumventing the traditional media gatekeepers compounds the notion that this phenomenon will only continue to gain momentum as its accessibility broadens.
While most people can agree on the massive potential that eSports bring to the table, its characterization as a "sport" is the subject of a much more contentious dispute, and one that seems to separate the fans from the skeptics within the burgeoning industry. Do eSports truly fall under the banner of what can be considered a "sport"? And as such, can the gamers themselves really be considered athletes? It is a valid question to be sure and one that I was not entirely certain of until fairly recently, but the short answer is "yes."
During my time at CES, I was fortunate enough to spectate ELeague's "Road to Vegas Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Championship." It was my first in-person experience with an eSports competition, and believe me when I tell you that it bore all the components of a traditional sport. Teamwork, creativity, highlight-reel plays, triumph, and defeat were all inherent components of this event. Above all, it was entertaining. Wildly.
However, I couldn't help but notice that there was a noticeable discrepancy between myself and the more seasoned members of the audience in terms of how we processed and followed the action. There were times when I felt completely out of the loop, despite the announcer's best efforts to keep me apprised on pertinent updates throughout. Still, the colorful narration wasn't sufficient in preventing key moments from going completely over my head. This is not surprising given my limited experience with gaming. I might have stood half a chance of keeping up with the pace if the ELeague had been hosting a Tony Hawk Pro Skater or NFL Blitz tournament for N-64, but those days are long dead and gone.
Regardless of my shortcomings, this experience highlighted an important segment that the industry will need to cater to as these leagues continue their push toward the mainstream—the nongamers. While it is estimated that there are 134 million eSports viewers worldwide, future growth will eventually become reliant on the industry's ability to attract new fans from beyond its core target market and indoctrinate these unfamiliar consumers into this culture. It is my belief that simple changes—such as tweaking aspects of the presentation of the event to provide the audience with a more encompassing and holistic perspective of the action—will likely take place over time and go a long way in streamlining the audience's ease of consumption. Furthermore, the expected rise of eSports-focused programing that features news, commentary, and analysis (the "SportsCenter" equivalent) will play an instrumental role in solidifying the general public's awareness and comprehension. Whether this takes place in 2016 or in the years that follow remains unclear. However, the coming of age for the industry is already under way, and I am excited to watch it evolve and grow as a form of mainstream entertainment. In fact, it might be appropriate to say that the mainstream era of eSports is already here. All of us—especially marketers—should take note. Immediately.