eSports to Become Most Watched Sport in the World

Liz Alton

Could eSports be on their way to becoming bigger than the NFL, Major League Baseball, or other sports? Industry analysts think it’s not only possible, it’s inevitable. 

Let’s take a look at a few sports and their current viewership. Consider the NFL: According to Sports Illustrated, the average NFL game has over 15.8 million viewers. Approximately 103.4 million people turned out to watch the Super Bowl in 2018, CNN reports. And the 2017 League of Legends Championship drew 106 million viewers globally.

When considered against the global powerhouse of FIFA soccer, the numbers are a little more sobering. For example, it’s estimated that half the world tuned in to see some of the 2018 World Cup—that equals over 3 billion viewers.

The eSports version—the FIFA eWorld Cup 2018—captured 29 million views across three platforms, representing a record viewership. Critically, that represents a growth of 400%. At that rate, eSports could soon be vying for a much larger audience.

Predictions: How eSports Will Grow

Goldman Sachs estimates that the global monthly audience for eSports will reach 167 million people, which is larger than both the NHL and Major League Baseball. They go on to say, “We estimate the total online population is over 3.65 billion people globally, to go along with 2.2 billion gamers, but eSports viewers represent just 5% of the online population TAM, which suggests that there should be plenty more runway for audience growth. By 2022, we estimate the eSports audience will reach 276 million, similar in size to the NFL today.”

Other analysts are even more bullish about the long-term potential for the global eSports audience. One Qualitance analyst notes, “The answer is yes. eSports is on the [fast track] to being the biggest sport on the planet. Also, this promises to disrupt everything we know about pro sports, how we spend our leisure time and beyond.”

Researchers at Syracuse University agree, citing, “By 2020, Activate suggests that 70 million people will watch a single eSports final, which is higher than the viewership for U.S. professional baseball, soccer, and hockey finals. By that time, consumers will watch 3 billion hours of eSports, which accounts for 10% of all sports viewing.”

Understanding the Contributing Factors

The explosive growth of eSports, expected to top a billion dollars in revenue in 2019, is reflected in these optimistic projections. A number of factors suggest that growth of eSports may in fact eventually overcome traditional professional sports leagues.

The first factor has to do with technology. Streaming platforms such as Twitch and Steam make it easy for both individual players and eSports leagues to broadcast events to global audiences. There are no expensive fees or other challenges associated with working with traditional broadcasters that football or baseball deal with, for example. The ability to tap into a global audience, including Asia’s extremely active eSports fans, promises the possibilities of a wider reach.

There are also the media connections and the money invested in making eSports grow. One estimate suggests $3.3 billion in venture capital was invested in eSports between 2013 and 2018. Twitch, one of the leading streaming platforms, was purchased for nearly $1 billion in 2014 by Amazon. Amazon’s underlying premise has been disrupting industries and is likely to put significant financial, partnership, and advertising revenues behind eSports’ continued growth. That’s just one example of the media factors in play that crisscross the industry. 

Audience is the other key to explaining the explosive growth—and future potential—of eSports. As one source notes, the audience for video games and the competitive teams driving eSports skews younger. With an audience between 18 and 34—and younger as well, with a widening appeal to the post-30 gamer crowd—there’s significant potential. As the competitive leagues make key moves to build their fan bases, including building relationships with specific geographic locations and aggressively building their marketing and advertising, that’s going to continue to drive an upswing in participation.

With brand investments driving over 80% of the billion dollars in projected revenues of the eSports industry, that investment base will continue to grow through sponsorships, product development, advertising, and influencer marketing deals. In an age where athlete scandals and other issues have sometimes made brand relationships with traditional sports more complex, that may further open the door for long-term partnerships. There’s also a natural intersection between eSports and high-growth technology brands.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know if eSports will eclipse the NFL in the United States or FIFA worldwide. But one thing’s for certain: The numbers show a rapid audience growth trajectory that’s hard to ignore. With the technology, partnerships, and audience dynamics in place, eSports is poised to be a critical industry in the entertainment space in years ahead. And maybe a decade from now, an eSports final competition will have the same advertising and media cache as the Super Bowl. In fact, in sheer numbers, it’s already close.

Liz Alton is a B2B technology and digital marketing writer and content strategist. She has worked with a variety of brands including Google, Twitter, Adobe, Oracle, and HP, and written for publications including Forbes. She is a regular contributor to Connected, Connection’s official blog.