By Tucker Pennington
The top 20 most viewed broadcasts of 2017 included a variety of events, from the Grammys to the presidential inauguration, but sports continued to dominate television screens across the United States. Fifteen of those broadcasts consisted of the World Series, the College Football Playoff National Championship and a myriad of NFL games.
Since television took over the U.S., sports have dominated broadcasts. But in 2017, the Nielsen ratings for sports broadcasts were comparable to another event: the 2017 Intel Extreme Masters, an esports tournament that garnered 46 million unique viewers.
Esports are not a new development in the realm of video games. Since the 1980s, tournaments for games like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man have been held in an attempt to determine who can get the high score, with the winner usually being awarded by being included in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The increase of arcades around the world fueled competitions between players during the 1990s. Though it was the rise of broadband internet and the prevalence of internet cafés—which originated in South Korea as gaming centers known as PC Bangs—where competitive online gaming laid its foundation. Tournaments for real-time strategy games like “StarCraft” and “Warcraft III” and first-person shooters like “Counter-Strike” could be hosted with ease, allowing for corporate sponsors and tournament prize money.
With this foundation, esports tournaments have become global events. At the international level, countries such as Canada, France, Turkey and the Philippines have recognized professional gamers as athletes. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee concluded in October 2017 that esports could be considered a sporting activity with possible inclusion in future Olympics.
However, the IOC isn’t the only organization that’s adding to the validity of pro gaming. In 2016, the National Association of Collegiate Esports established itself as a way for students to competitively play against other schools on the collegiate level.
Starting with a handful of colleges, the NACE has expanded to over 50 members across various conferences. The NACE also benefits from not being associated with the NCAA, allowing for varsity players to be paid in tournament prizes in addition to an average of $7,600 in scholarships they can earn, according to NACE estimations. This flexible approach to collegiate sports has led to massive growth and interest in college athletics from students who would normally ignore their university’s teams.
The 2017 Intel Extreme Masters wasn’t an anomaly. The 46 million unique viewers watched professional teams represent Taiwan, South Korea and the European Union in many of the games that led to esports’ surge in popularity: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void and League of Legends, which was inspired by Warcraft III. Statistics from the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University predict that by 2020, esports will have the most viewers in the U.S. other than the NFL. With corporate sponsors, Olympic considerations and a flourishing collegiate scene, the question isn’t if esports will become popular. It’s when.