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For Twitch (And Others in eSports), the Next Challenge Is Getting Mom and Dad to Watch

"My parents were like, 'I don't know what I just saw, but it was so exciting.'"

Shutterstock / Goodluz

The global audience for video games streamed online on sites like Twitch is still growing fast, and a big chunk of that growth is widely attributed to eSports — competitive games organized and played at a professional level.

At the DICE Summit today in Las Vegas, Twitch COO Kevin Lin said he expects eSports to be “in five years, a top-three sport.” That is, he expects the combined worldwide viewership for competitive video games to approach that of soccer, cricket and basketball.

Lin was joined on the panel by Blizzard executive producer Chris Sigaty and Wargaming eSports director Mohamed Fadl, and the three were largely in agreement about the challenges ahead. Among them: Walking the line between virtual sports that are largely defined by the fans and finding ways to expose those sports to non-fans.

Eric Johnson

Sigaty described how his parents stumbled upon a live, pro-level Starcraft 2 match at Blizzard’s annual fan convention, BlizzCon, in November.

“They were wandering through, and they land in this spot — thousands of people gathered, watching these two players,” Sigaty said. “Everyone’s screaming and yelling. And my parents were like, ‘I don’t know what I just saw, but it was so exciting.'”

Some families are watching eSports together the same way they might watch the World Cup, Lin said, but the move into the living room is “still developing.”

The comparisons to traditional sports were a steady drumbeat throughout the panel. Moderator Joshua Gray — a creative producer at the American branch of European eSports league ESL — compared Twitch to the early days of radio-broadcasted baseball games.

But one of the biggest differences between “real” sports and eSports, of course, is that the games people play can and will change over time. In an interview with Re/code yesterday, Fadl said it’s inevitable that Wargaming’s current hit World of Tanks, as well as other popular eSports like League of Legends, will eventually be supplanted by newer competitive games — the same way few people still play the 1997 game Ultima Online.

“It will always have this position in the viewers mind, the ‘old-school games,'” Fadl said. “But it will change. The future will change. New games will come.”

Sigaty acknowledged that one of Blizzard’s biggest challenges is balancing the load of several distinct sport-like games, from the strategy game Starcraft 2 to the card-battling game Hearthstone to the upcoming League of Legends-esque game Heroes of the Storm.

Fadl was also critical, both in our interview and in the onstage panel, of the label “eSports.” Trying to stick the label to games and not let it be self-determined by the players and viewers is a recipe for failure, he said.

“I think it’s just the beginning, just the surface we’re scratching, and we don’t really understand it yet,” Fadl said. “The community drives it, and there’s a big danger if you try to control it. It will grow, but the question is, are we ready to be a part of it and drive it forward?”

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