All about the Benjamins
The biggest factor in the PC’s dominance of eSports is undoubtedly advertising—or in the case of consoles, a lack thereof. Console accessory-maker MadCatz, for instance, is a big supporter of the console-based fighting-game community, but other advertisers interested in sponsoring competitive Halo or Call of Duty tournaments are few and far between. Some niche joystick manufacturers advertise at fighting-game tournaments, but big companies that might be interested in adopting a major sponsorship role are hard to find.
Contrast that with PC gaming, where any given eSports stream is bound to feature advertisements from Kingston, Logitech, Tritton, Turtle Beach, Alienware, Razer, and a litany of other PC accessories and component manufacturers.
These companies have been supporting the professional PC gaming scene for more than a decade. Now the sport has grown large enough to reach an international audience of hundreds of thousands, and is attracting big-time sponsors that even television networks would envy: Dr. Pepper, Red Bull, and Bic, as well as big-budget video games like Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. And with that kind of mainstream sponsorship, competitive PC gaming must be approaching the same level as the NBA or NFL, right?
Nope! Not even close. Those ball games are national pastimes that will likely always be part of the cultural zeitgeist. However, when you look at the numbers behind our national pastimes, there is evidence that eSports are starting to become a threat.
For example, the NBC Sports Network is reportedly satisfied with pulling an average viewership of 139,000 people for its airing of a Major League Soccer game between the Philadelphia Union and the Columbus Crew in April. (Back in 2011, MLS games aired on Fox averaged just 68,000 viewers.) By contrast, the online livestream League of Legend’s April 28 matchup between teams Curse and Vulcan consistently pulled 250,000 simultaneous viewers.
There are mitigating factors, of course. MLS games often compete with each other and have to share eyeballs, so no single MLS game (or network) gives a detailed picture of MLS viewership. Still, competitive PC games have unique strengths that make them well-suited for broadcasting. There’s no need for an expensive stadium or giant TV crews traveling to cover away games, for example—the games can be filmed in a studio or even played completely online.
So while even the most popular PC eSports aren’t quite as popular as major league sports, the fact that we can begin to compare them is incredibly significant. It’s also important to remember that League of Legends and StarCraft 2 viewership numbers don’t include the sort of channel surfers that bolster the viewership of traditional sporting events. Every eSports viewer is an avid fan who sought out these games intentionally.
Competitive PC games aren’t yet big enough to reap the benefits of TV broadcasts—at least, not outside of South Korea. But what they lack in mainstream exposure, they gain in viral energy. The ubiquitous nature of the PC allows competive PC gaming streams to spread quickly and effectively on social media services like Twitter and Facebook, thus attracting fans worldwide.
That’s good news for fans of competitive gaming, and optimism abounds in the eSports world about its growth potential. The costs are low compared to those for traditional sports (no multimillion dollar salaries here), and it’s easy to attract a worldwide audience. As Asia continues to grow as a global economic power, and as advertisers continue to flock to livestream broadcasts, it seems inevitable that the worldwide popularity of professional gaming will keep growing too.
And as it grows, the PC will be at the vanguard. The only remaining question is whether console gaming will ever get its act together. Social features such as live-streaming integration are set to play a major role in Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 4. If console game developers take advantage of the feature, we could see renewed competition between the PC and the console in the years ahead. The PC will probably come out on top—sorry, Sony—but either way, the players and the fans will win.