Sports isn’t necessarily what it used to be. That’s not a knock at the Pirates. A losing season is nothing new there. It’s not a crack about the Steelers’ struggles or the Penguins’ pains. It’s a reality of a major change in the sports world — whether you pay attention to it or not. It’s esports, a deadly serious, high-stakes world of video games where games are big business. How big? A report from Reuters put the 2018 revenue for esports at $1.1 billion.
That might seem like nothing compared to Major League Baseball’s $10.3 billion for that same year, or the NFL’s $8.78 billion or the NHL’s $4.54 billion. But the big deal is that $1.1 billion is only about the people playing on pro teams. The minors in this case are every family room with an Xbox, every kid’s bedroom with a PlayStation and every pocket with a smartphone. Overall, the video game industry was a $43 billion cash cow in 2018 — dwarfing revenue from every major sport combined — and it’s preparing for a boss battle.
According to Variety, the industry could realistically top $300 billion in six years. That doesn’t seem like hyperbole when you look at the growth. Esports blossomed by 27% in 2018 and brand investment has tripled in three years.
For comparison, it has taken the NFL 100 years to get where it is, hockey 102 years and the MLB 150 years at bat. Esports are barely kindergarten- aged. In North America alone, esports are pulling in more money than anywhere else, about $409 million, and part of that money is calling Allegheny County home as the Pittsburgh Knights have taken up residence. The “team” has, at least. The players, because of the global and virtual nature of play, can be anywhere.
Schools like Gateway are fielding esports clubs, and local kids like Kiski Area junior Nick McGuire are the esports version of star quarterbacks. McGuire scored $50,000 with a 61st place finish in the Fortnite World Cup. But all of that is just evolving technology.
If you want to know the big difference between the big boys of professional physical sports and their digital little brother, it might be a lack of entitlement. Philadelphia just saw ground broken for Fusion Arena, one of the first venues to watch the big tournaments, like the recent Overwatch global event, live.
Comcast Spectator, which owns Philly’s Fusion Overwatch team, didn’t hold out for a deal where the city or the state paid for the 65,000-square-foot arena. The company is ponying up the $50 million itself. Esports might be new, but that kind of self- sufficiency is something the older sports don’t seem able to muster.