But esports, as the universe of spectator-friendly competitive gaming has come to be known, has grown rapidly in recent years. Tournament prize pools now rival those for some of the biggest events in traditional sports, and global audiences for some big gaming events have surpassed 100 million viewers, driven largely by esports' exploding popularity in Asia.
The biggest gaming tournaments are often set up similarly to a traditional sporting match. Two or more individuals or teams compete against each other, with announcers providing running commentary and analysis to audiences watching live at the tournament venue, as well as the thousands or millions of people streaming video of the match on their home computers or on TV.
The lion’s share of esports revenue comes from corporate sponsorships, according to industry analysis firm Newzoo, with ticket sales, merchandising and broadcasting rights bringing in additional revenue. Newzoo estimates that esports will generate $345 million in revenue in North America this year, in addition to more than half a billion dollars in revenue overseas.
In terms of revenue, however, North American esports is still small relative to heavy hitters like the NFL and MLB, which each brought in over $10 billion in 2017, according to reporting by Bloomberg News and Forbes.
But since there’s no overarching “national video game league” the way there is for, say, football or baseball, a better point of comparison might involve total prize pools for esports and traditional sporting events. Competitive gaming tends to revolve around individual tournaments, which number into the thousands each year. The largest of those can offer prize pools running well into the tens of millions of dollars.
The just-completed international DOTA 2 championship, for instance, boasted a total purse of over $25 million, with the majority of that total contributed by individual gamers purchasing in-game items. That adds up to a considerably bigger purse than the ones available for, say, the Daytona 500 ($15.5 million) or the U.S. Open golf tournament ($12 million). And it’s several multiples of the total prize pool available to Tour de France competitors, who must cycle more than 2,000 miles over a period of three weeks to claim their share of the winnings.
In terms of viewership, the big esports events post even more impressive numbers. The 2017 League of Legends world championship, held in Beijing, drew a peak of over 106 million viewers, over 98 percent of whom watched from within China, according to industry analyst Esports Charts. That’s roughly on par with the audience for the 2018 Super Bowl.
This year’s total DOTA 2 championship audience was roughly the same size as the total number tuning into the Kentucky Derby, and considerably larger than the peak Wimbledon, Daytona 500, U.S. Open or Tour de France audiences.
Again, most viewers of these big gaming tournaments are based in China, underscoring the global dimension of competitive gaming. Newzoo estimates that by 2021 esports will be a $1.7 billion industry worldwide.
Given esports' popularity among younger Americans, growth appears to be a given here as well. A 2018 Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll found, for instance, that 58 percent of 14- to 21-year-olds said they watched live or recorded video of people playing competitive video games, with a similar percentage reporting that they played such games themselves. Among adults overall, just 16 percent said they watched competitive video gaming.
While it remains to be seen whether competitive gaming will ever be bigger than the NFL in revenue, the two are running neck-and-neck on a potentially even more important metric: popularity among younger fans. The Post poll found that 38 percent of young Americans identified as fans of esports or competitive gaming, similar to the 40 percent who said they were fans of the NFL.