Competitive Gaming: The Next Big Spectator Sport That You Probably Don’t Know About

In October of 2013, 19.2 million viewers tuned in live to watch the Red Sox clinch a World Series title, soundly routing the Cardinals in game six. That same month, 32 million viewers tuned in to watch SK Telecom T1 trounce Royal Club, 3 games to 0 to take home the Summoner’s Cup. Nearly all of us know that the first sport is baseball. Many fewer can identify the second as League of Legends, a competitive online multiplayer video game. And yet maybe we should.

Hundreds of millions of us play video games — but watching them is just as big a deal.

It’s the rise of eSports, and while overall in the U.S. it’s still more common for someone to sit down and take in an NFL or NBA game than it is to watch a series of League of Legends or DOTA 2, the time when the digital pros are on par may be nearer than we think.

Billions of Hours… and Growing

The League of Legends World Championship is a signature event, of course. Just as the Super Bowl sees five times as many viewers as a regular Monday Night Football game does, viewership spikes at the end of an eSports season.

But the internet isn’t just tuning in at the end of competitive seasons. The research firm IHS published a report this month looking at the rise of eSports viewing.

The internet, as a whole, watched 2.4 billion hours of live-streamed gameplay in 2013.

That’s a staggeringly high number. It’s about 274,000 solid years worth of content, total, all consumed in one calendar year. That, in and of itself, is amazing.

But what’s more amazing is that in 2012, it was just over half of that — 1.3 billion hours.

The IHS study doesn’t anticipate growth of 70% – 100% every year, but it does anticipate that by 2018, viewers worldwide will be consuming about 6.6 billion hours of live-streaming gameplay per year. That’s about 750,000 years’ worth of content watched — in a single year.

Going Pro

It’s becoming more and more common for someone firing up a game for a few hours of an evening to broadcast it as well, linking the stream for whoever might choose to have a peek.

But just as some of us clumsily shoot hoops in the driveway while others play for the NBA, live-streamers go pro too — and they can make a serious living from it.

Mashable profiled one such professional back in March — a 26-year-old man who started streaming for fun and eventually was able to quit his day job and go pro. Since 2011, he grew his audience from 2000-3000 viewers on any given day to an average of 15,000 daily, with occasional spikes as high as 25,000.

It’s not just about the games, he told Mashable, it’s about building a presence: “A lot of the ‘job’ of being a streamer is not just streaming, but also everything else around it — building themselves up as a personality. It’s stable if you have good regular content, if you’re smart about the decisions that you are making and you’re interacting and engaging with your community.”

He’s not alone.

If live-streamers are the pro sports of gaming, there’s room for the reality TV, too. Over on YouTube, the other sort of professional player-of-games can make a living: not by live-streaming, but by recording and narrating a playthrough called a Let’s Play (as in, “Let’s Play Super Mario Brothers!”).

The world’s most popular maker of Let’s Play videos, working under the name PewDiePie, has the world’s most popular YouTube channel, having surpassed Miley Cyrus and One Direction in the past year. And he makes between $140,000 and $1.4m per month doing it.

We are in the wrong business.

The Billion-Dollar Twitch

Against this background, Google’s rumored plan to spend $1 billion on Twitch starts to make perfect sense.

Though there are competing services, Twitch is the biggest platform for game live-streaming, both professional and hobbyist. The tech is not just for PC gamers (League of Legends, Starcraft II, and other games of their genres are played on PC) but now available for broadcasting from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as well.

The IHS report points out that the enormous growth in live streaming is directly connected to the enormous growth in Twitch: the service boasted 20 million unique viewers per month in 2012, and 45 million per month in 2013.

With growth that rapid and an international user base that large, it’s no wonder that YouTube — and by extension, Google — would like to bring that all in-house.

Twitch, meanwhile, wants to sell out not because they need the money, but because they need the resources, according to The Verge. For a sense of scale, at peak usage hours Twitch generates more internet traffic than Facebook or Amazon — neither exactly a small company.

What the company needs to succeed, thrive, and grow is not just money, which they could get from many sources, but, as The Verge put it, “a partner that can help it handle massive amounts of live and user-generated video on a global scale.”

In other words, in order to go from millions to billions, you need something like a Google backbone to help hold you up.

It’s Coming, Even If You Don’t Know It

In a sense, the United States is just now catching up to the rest of the world. Starcraft and its sequel Starcraft II have been professional spectator events in South Korea for many years, but for now they just show up in the odd bar in the U.S., the same way occasional venues here and there might show cricket matches.

But a digital, virtual, always-on, constantly-connected future seems to require a sport for its time. The specific games will come and go, as newer, shinier titles are developed to replace them. League of Legends will probably not last as long as basketball or soccer.

But after watching a few billion hours of online games, kids may start pretending to jungle like Bengi out out on the playground, instead of dunking like Shaq.

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