Esports are riding a wave of hype, but next year could determine whether they make the leap from novelty to mainstream success.



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“It’s an exciting time,” said Patrick Perez, senior advisor with TDG Research. “Next year there are going to be some changes that could accelerate esports.”

Perez, who previously worked as director of digital platforms for Ultimate Fighting Championship, sees parallels between UFC and esports. UFC didn’t become a huge deal until it received prominent coverage from Fox Sports.

Similarly, Disney (DIS)-owned ESPN has committed to growing esports in broadcast deals signed this year with Overwatch League and “League of Legends.”

“Fox Sports brought UFC to a mass audience and ESPN is doing the same thing with esports,” he said.

‘Ninja’ Nabs Cover Of ESPN Magazine

In a sign of how far the sport has come, professional esports player Tyler “Ninja” Blevins is featured on the cover of the latest issue of ESPN Magazine, out Friday. That’s a first for a major sports magazine.

“That’s putting esports in the mainstream in front of a mass audience,” Perez said. “You are going to see more stars. Tyler Blevins won’t be the only one. You are going to see more esports players emerge and become stars in their own right.”

One of the keys to making esports a mainstream hit is getting audiences interested in the players, creating story lines, building anticipation ahead of big matches, and providing better explanations of game play, Perez said.

“They will have to get viewers invested in the sport,” Perez said. “Esports has had a tough time doing that, but they’re getting better.”

$1.6 Billion In Sales In 2021

Esports are competitive, professional video gaming tournaments staged before an audience, online or in person.

This year, professional video gaming revenue will reach $905 million worldwide, TDG estimates. It’s on track to top $1.6 billion in 2021, TDG said. Revenue includes media rights, advertising, sponsorships, merchandise, tickets and game publisher fees.

Research firm Newzoo has similar revenue estimates pointing to the rapid growth of esports. It says North America will account for 38% of the nascent sport’s revenue this year.

Newzoo estimates the global audience for professional video gaming will reach 395 million in 2018, up 18% year over year. That number includes 173 million hardcore enthusiasts and 222 million occasional viewers.

Overwatch, NBA 2K Leagues Finish Inaugural Seasons

This year, some video game publishers created professional leagues for their games while others launched big-money tournaments.

Activision Blizzard (ATVI) debuted its 12-team Overwatch League. Take-Two Interactive Software (TTWO) started its 17-team NBA 2K League. Operating as city-based leagues, the two mirror traditional professional sports franchises.

Overwatch League and NBA 2K League had modest starts in their inaugural seasons this year. Analysts will be looking for improved audience numbers and engagement in their second seasons.

Both are adding new teams in their next seasons. Earlier this month, Activision announced that eight new teams will join the league, bringing the roster to 20 teams for the 2019 season. Last month, the NBA 2K League announced that it will expand to 21 teams in its second season next year.

In May, Epic Games pledged $100 million for prize pools for tournaments featuring its “Fortnite Battle Royale” game. The game is in its first season running 2018-2019.

In August, mobile game developer Supercell launched its first major foray into professional esports with the creation of the Clash Royale League.

‘Call Of Duty’ Possibly Next Esport

Also, industry watchers believe Activision is planning an esport for its “Call of Duty” shooter game franchise.

The upstarts in esports join mainstay tournaments built around “League of Legends” from Tencent (TCEHY)-owned Riot Games, as well as “Dota 2” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” from Valve.

Advertisers and sponsors gravitate to professional video gaming because they offer a chance to reach younger audiences who have turned away from traditional media, Perez said.

“We’re on the verge of some major revolutions here in terms of the industry and the sport,” Perez said.

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