This week was a big one for esports around the world, but especially in North America. No longer relegated to the fringes of ESPN, last Sunday’s Fortnite World Cup in Queenshas solidified the sport’s widespread cultural appeal and legitimacy. You may not play esports or even like esports, but you can no longer ignore the phenomenon.
Team Sentinel member Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf took home the $3 million Fortnite championship after defeating 99 other opponents. To put into context how big his prize was, Tiger Woods’ purse at the 2019 Masters was $2.07 million. Oh, and Giersdorf is only 16 years old.
Clearly, the $100 million in prizes provided by publisher Epic Games’ for the first year of Fortnite tournaments has made a strong statement about the validity to the sport as a whole. That a video game competition could be popular enough to sell out — although not completely fill — Arthur Ashe Stadium, the home of the U.S. Open, is another important benchmark.
Some critics have lambasted esports as nothing more than product marketing. But while esports athletes may not have to run, jump or throw, their training regimens are intense. Kyle Giersdorf practices for six hours a day. And researchers are only just starting to investigate the cognitive abilities required by elite esports athletes.
But no matter what your opinion on esports, a generation is growing up with video game competitions as the norm. While a contingency of wide-eyed kids still hope to become the next LeBron James or Lionel Messi, a significant number too hope to become the next Turner “Tfue” Tenney or Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
The same people who finance more traditional professional sports leagues are paying attention. In 2017, Activision Blizzard founded the Overwatch League, a city-based league akin to the NFL with investment groupsdropping $20 million for a city franchise. Both the Kraft Group and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, owners of the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, respectively, paid to join the league. Fortnite champion Giersdorf is a part of esports team Sentinel, which currently is a joint venture with Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (although the two entities have recently jumped into a legal dispute.)
Other sports teams, such as the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, have also invested in professional gaming. Unsurprisingly, these investments and partnerships are pulling the worlds of esports and traditional professional sports closer and closer together. Esports organization Complexity, which is partially owned by the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has created anelaborate training facility that provides its gaming competitors with the same access to professional care that football players have — no potential advantage is too small.
Some of the more random elements of Fortnite may make it less fun for some players concerned about fair play, but its popularity and success has shown a wider audience that esports can work as a professional sport, with the same production values and even bigger prizes as other sporting events. While esports still has a long way to go before it reaches the mainstream heights of soccer or basketball, its growth in the last ten years has been meteoric — like completely selling out Madison Square Garden or the Bird’s Nest in Beijing levels of impact.
Epic Games has already announced that Fortnite esports will be coming back in the form of the new Fortnite Championship Series. Details are slim, but it’s likely that more than $100 million will be offered throughout the upcoming competitive circuit. And with over two million people watching Sunday’s grand finals event across all internet streams, there’s clearly enough interest to warrant such a massive financial investment. The bar has been raised, and it’s likely that other popular esports like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will try and outdo Epic Games.
It’s hard to say how long any of the above-mentioned games will stick around as competitive titles. Unlike traditional sports, esports use high-octane competitions to convince people to download specific games and try them for themselves. In this way, there is a very clear marketing element to the sport that doesn’t exist with football or baseball. The business calculus is different. If the scene around a game dies, so does that particular esport.
But there are plenty of games that could fill the void were Fortnite, or any other of the big games, to fall out of favor. Plus, the video game industry is huge and will only continue to grow. Many questions about the future of esports remain, but its athletes and fans aren’t going anywhere. There’s no turning back now.
Imad Khan is a freelance video game, esports, technology, and automotive reporter based in New York. He's had bylines at ESPN, The Washington Post, Tom's Guide and Men's Health Magazine.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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