If there are any doubts that computer games can become a mainstream spectator sport, then Jennifer Lopez and Stan Kroenke are not listening.
The superstar singer and Arsenal’s majority shareholder have both put money into eSports teams, as the gaming competitions with millions of followers worldwide aim for even greater public appeal. Lopez has bought into a team franchise for the new Overwatch League, in which teams from cities such as Seoul, San Francisco and London play Overwatch, a mass-participation shooting game. The global competition for the game, which launches in January, also includes the LA Gladiators, run by Kroenke, a serial sports entrepreneur.
Lopez and Kroenke are not alone. A host of top sport stars are investing in eSports franchises, including the Formula One driver Fernando Alonso and the former basketball player Magic Johnson. When the US-based SportsBusiness Journal released its annual list of the 50 most influential people, 10 were from eSports. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee has taken a big step towards recognising the pursuit as a sport, opening up the possibility that eSports could feature in the 2024 Paris Olympics two years after it makes its debut at the Asian Games.
The global eSports economy has grown by 34% year-on-year to $660m (£492m) and will reach $1.5bn by 2020, according to Newzoo, which provides market intelligence for eSports. It also estimates that eSports currently attracts an audience of 385 million people, the vast majority of whom follow the action online – via digital broadcast platforms like Twitch, which has more than 400m views a month. There are also sizeable audiences in the real world: the biggest eSports tournament, the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) in Katowice, Poland, attracts more than 100,000 fans over three days.
Sponsorship and advertising already account for the bulk of eSports revenue, at 38% and 22% of turnover respectively. Money flows into leagues, teams and players, but until this year interest has largely come from IT/computer-related brands like Intel and Logitech, or from fast-moving consumer goods – staple gamer fuel such as fizzy drinks and snacks.
However, the kinds of brands associated with more conventional sports also woke up to the market’s potential in 2017. There were high-profile bookings from prestige car manufacturers such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz, from fashion brands like Jack & Jones, and from Gillette. All were lured by a lucrative demographic: about eight in 10 eSports watchers are men in their mid-20s who have disposable income and generally shun traditional media.