E-sports were once a small niche of the video game community's dedicated minority, but have since eclipsed the confines of their genre, quickly becoming a force in the modern entertainment industry. 2019 should see the market reach a total revenue of 1 billion for the year, an almost 30% increase from 2018, about seven percent of the NFL's 13.6 billion, the league with the world's highest revenue.
"E-sports cannot be ignored. E-sports are a huge revenue generator… They're making so much money that the International Olympic Committee is taking significant notice of their potential." Said Alan Abrahamson, a member of the International Olympic Committee's press committee, and former columnist for NBC Olympics.
Traditional sports see potential in e-sports as well.
NFL franchise owners like Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets are buying teams in Overwatch, one of the biggest games in the industry, bringing the niche market closer to the sport-entertainment mainstream.
Growing pains are inevitable, however, so the leaders of e-sports' management must adapt to a new set of rules. The internet remains the primary platform for most facets of the scene, so media consumption remains complicated when compared to the viewership patterns of traditional sports.
"When you think about the percentage of a sports viewership that's between the ages of 18-30, most traditional sports are going to have that be about 20% of their audience, for us, that number is over 80%" Said Chris Hopper, head of e-sports at Riot Games – the company that makes League of Legends – in Los Angeles.
Traditional sports teams have been around for decades, with fanbases garnered over generations of viewership. E-sports do not yet have those patterns of fandom, according to Hopper. "For us given that A) we're a newer sport and B) we have a younger demographic, we're focused on trying to create their traffic and establish those customs of fandom that will allow us to have fans for decades."
Content is pushed out primarily on social media. Hopper explained that, unlike many traditional sports, e-sports use platforms like Twitter and Instagram for more than just highlight reels, focusing instead on interviews and funny or interesting cultural moments to appeal to the millenial and Gen-Z audience.
While e-sports share similarities with traditional sports in tournament and league structure, teams are mostly conglomerations of players from across the world rather than being connected through a city, or physical location.
The Olympics see a problem with this lack of organization, according to Abrahamson. "The fact that there's no readily accessible club or league structure for young people to follow in the same way that there is for basketball, volleyball, or any number of Olympic sports, is a significant challenge for e-sports."
Some games have a semblance of this kind of unilateral structure, like Overwatch and League of Legends where the company itself hosts the main league, but the idea of an international federation which sorts players and teams by nation remains absent from the platform. And having the true home team still matters for a lot of people.
"Whether it's the place you grow up or the place you currently live, most fandom studies point to [a geographical anchor] being the most significant driver of how you pick a team in a sport," said Hopper.
He also cited the economic benefits of a linked geographical location, as local companies could participate in the sponsorship market. "The Southern California Honda dealer probably isn't going to want to sponsor a team that has a nationwide appeal – but someone that's tagged to L.A is a more interesting play, because they anticipate speaking to a higher percentage of potential customers."
Some games are already implementing the geographic link. Overwatch launched its OWL league, where teams are tied to cities around the country. The L.A. Valiant, Overwatch's Southern California team, hosts viewing parties in various event halls and bars throughout Los Angeles.
USC itself has e-sports teams, and competes in the intercollegiate league with schools across California. Most of the games are primarily for online viewing, but they sometimes host live viewings and LANs ( gaming events where people come together to play various games) for popular games like League of Legends and Overwatch.
Jonathan Kay, 21, a junior at USC participated in the e-sports club on campus playing Hearthstone, a competitive virtual card game, and saw potential for a live viewership scene. "If you have a professional team and host those live events, they can be a lot of fun and make a lot of money so yeah go for it."
In regards to L.A, the physical atmosphere that drives traditional sports may not yet be there. "There's definitely kind of emerged a cohort of industry professionals and fans who are more engaged in the e-sports because it is physically here, but that's almost more because the entire league is here rather than just a team," said Hopper.
But this mecca of industry could create a desire for a thriving, fan based community. Games like Overwatch and League of Legends may drive the online community into the physical world which could begin an entirely new competitive social scene within the Los Angeles area.