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eSports: On Par With the NFL and NBA?

It typically takes around 50 years for a game to become a sport.

Adam Ziaja/Shutterstock

Most traditional sports haven’t always been considered true sports. When American football was invented in 1869, it was considered a game. It wasn’t until 1920 when the NFL was founded that the game of football was officially christened a sport. Basketball followed a similar path, as James Naismith invented the game in 1891, and the NBA was founded 55 years later. It typically takes around 50 years for a game to become a sport.

Today, people who grew up playing Pong now have children playing League of Legends and Call of Duty. History is repeating itself, as video games become electronic sports (or eSports).

Despite all of the interest in the emerging category, there is an ongoing debate as to whether eSports should be considered true “sports.”

Multiple factors have combined to become the engine that continues to drive the growing popularity of eSports, as the number of players jump from millions to billions. SuperData estimates that 134,000,000 people are already watching eSports, and the numbers will only continue to rise.

Yet despite all of the interest in the emerging category, there is an ongoing debate as to whether eSports should be considered true “sports.”

The debate

The debate over the legitimacy of eSports arguably reached its crescendo when ESPN president John Skipper declared that eSports were not a sport, but rather a competition. However, less than a year after uttering those words, ESPN took the plunge and entered the eSports arena.

Since then, the industry has seen a plethora of traditional sports entities invest in eSports. Turner Broadcasting announced that TBS will air eSports in prime time, while Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks invested in the fantasy eSports startup Unikrn, and the Kraft Family (owners of the New England Patriots) and Marc Lasry (co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks) invested in the mobile eSports platform Skillz.

Imagining a day when eSports competitions share the same stage as premier sporting events like the Super Bowl and March Madness is not far-fetched. The data backs it up.

Popularity in numbers

According to research from eMarketer, eSports now have a fan base equal to that of many traditional sports leagues, with total viewing hours forecast to reach 6.6 billion by 2018. In addition, 27 million viewers tuned in last year to watch the League of Legends Championship — more viewers than Game 5 of the NBA finals the same year, which peaked at 22 million. Not only is viewership comparable, but the cash prizes that professional eSports athletes compete for are also competitive with the profits that traditional pro athletes earn. The 2015 Dota 2 International paid out more than $18 million in prizes, which is almost twice as much as the golfers in the 2015 PGA championship were competing for.

Collegiate adoption

ESports are also now being treated like traditional sports by U.S. universities, which are increasingly awarding athletic scholarships to students based on their gaming skills. Chicago-based Robert Morris University has provided thousands of dollars in eSports scholarships for students, and established the first varsity eSports facility in North America. The University of Pikeville offered twenty eSports scholarships for the current year as part of its inaugural program, and CNN recently reported that many universities are evaluating their own potential varsity eSports scholarships and programs.

Growth of mobile

With 2.1 billion mobile gamers worldwide, the desire to play competitive games has never been greater. Until recently, eSports were only available to gamers competing on consoles or computers. However, the proliferation of mobile devices has provided unprecedented access to video games, which has also helped transform gaming from a hardcore niche activity into a mainstream phenomenon. So, while eSports have been around for years, mobile is taking the space to a whole new level that will allow it to continue to grow at a staggering rate.

Fantasy eSports and venture capital

With the emergence of daily fantasy sports, the online gaming world and the traditional sports world are converging at breakneck speeds. DraftKings, FanDuel, Unikrn and Vulcan, all venture-backed startups, recently entered the fantasy eSports space, which is a testament to the growing popularity of the category and its parity with traditional physical sports. Amazon recently purchased for close to a billion dollars, while Sequoia Capital led Vulcan’s $12 million series A round.

Putting the debate to rest

With hundreds of millions of fans and viewers, multimillion-dollar prize pools, major venture investment, and a growing number of eSports scholarships, eSports have officially arrived. Let’s finally put to rest any notion that eSports are not true sports, and instead recognize the birth of a new category of sports.

Andrew Paradise is the founder and CEO of Skillz, the worldwide leader in mobile eSports. Skills has raised more than $28 million in venture funding, and hosted more than 40 million eSports tournaments for players around the world. Paradise is a serial entrepreneur, having previously founded AisleBuyer, which was sold to Intuit in 2012, as well as Photrade, which was sold to MPA Inc. in 2009. A lifelong gamer, he first learned to program at age 7 by hacking a video game with a hex editor, and later writing his first game in Pascal. Reach him @andrewparadise.

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