As Esports Grows, Traditional Sports Become More Intertwined

The Golden State Warriors, part of the NBA 2K League, are one of many NBA teams to get involved in esports
The Golden State Warriors, part of the NBA 2K League, are one of many NBA teams to get involved in esports / Mike Stobe/Getty Images

From the outside, the cultures around traditional sports and gaming might look different. Instead of pads and cleats, gamers wear headphones. Their drink of choice might be Mountain Dew or Red Bull, while most traditional athletes would opt for water or Gatorade. Athletes might suffer from a broken leg or a torn muscle, whereas gamers will complain about sore fingers and a lack of sleep.

Despite these differences, esports and traditional sports are not all that different. They are both competitions that require years of dedication and unmatched effort to become the best. Even though the best traditional athletes look different than the best gamers, members of both groups have given their all to get to where they are.

Ultimately, esports and traditional sports are most similar because they boil down to one idea: the person that I am watching do what I love is infinitely better than I could ever be at doing that thing. This is what draws people to both.

In fact, the esports and traditional sports scenes have more in common than many realize. Owners of traditional sports teams are buying into the esports game. Many athletes are avid gamers, and some are even moving into the streaming space. In the near future, League of Legends tournaments will probably be talked about in the same way that the four traditional sports are today.

While gaming has been around for a long time, the concept of esports is still relatively new. The first official esports tournament, called the Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics, was held back in 1972. Twenty-four players competed for an annual subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.

A lot has changed since then, with millions of dollars being poured into teams, companies and tournaments across the globe. The most recent edition of the Valorant Ignition Series took place in Japan and offered ¥5,000,000 (about $50,000) as a cash prize. 

While esports hasn’t caught up to the four major traditional sports in terms of revenue yet, it’s well on its way. According to statistics from NewZoo, 2019 was the first year that the esports industry surpassed $1 billion in global revenue. The revenue also had a year-on-year growth rate of around 25 percent between 2018-2019, which is higher than any traditional sports league.

The forecast for future growth is even more exciting for potential investors. According to Forbes, if the global esports industry were to maintain its current level of growth, which is uncertain because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could total nearly $2.5 billion in revenue by 2022. That would put it in the stratosphere of some popular sports in the world, such as Formula 1.

The growth has been tremendous, not only in terms of dollars, but popularity. One man on the forefront of the esports boom was Bryce Blum, a founding partner at ESG Law, the world’s first esports-dedicated law firm. He explained that when he first started, the esports scene was very different than it is today.

“I was starting to practice law in 2013 when it was the beginning of the emergence of esports as a real business opportunity,” Blum said. “It was the launch of DLCs and Twitch and the beginning of selling out stadiums. All this fun stuff that we take for granted now was just really beginning to happen at the time.”

With this growth in popularity and the legitimization of esports as a business, Blum knew that it was only a matter of time before competitive gamers would try to monetize their unique skill set. He says he wrote the first standard player contract and the first standard endorsement deal. It was the first time that gaming started to look like the traditional sports.

Esports has continued to model itself after traditional sports, especially in terms of ownership structure. Many owners of traditional sports teams have bought into, or even created their own, esports franchises in anticipation of the continued growth of gaming. 

“It’s important to note that sports team owners are a unique breed in many ways,” Blum said. “A team is an asset that, for the most part, is not something you justify from an ROI perspective. There’s a healthy amount of vanity to it, there’s a fandom element to it...These are billionaires who want cool toys.”

One group that has made the leap from traditional sports to esports is the Golden State Warriors. They created the Golden Guardians, a League of Legends team, and Warriors Gaming Squad, an NBA 2K League team. 

Because the ownership group is the same, there is some overlap between the Guardians, WGS, and the actual Warriors, according to the organization’s head of esports, Hunter Leigh.

Leigh, who has been with the Warriors since 2017, explained how a symbiotic relationship exists between the three teams.

“There’s a lot of overlap with the teams’ coaching staffs because a lot of the, ‘Hey, how do I get somebody ready for a game?’ stuff is the same, regardless of what sport you’re playing,” Leigh said. “But with the players it’s more tangential. You know some of the guys are gamers and that’s been an increased opportunity for a little bit of overlap between the worlds...They learn from us and we learn from them. There are a lot of similarities.”

The Warriors are certainly not the only professional sports franchise to take part in this esports gold rush. The New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, New York Mets, and Philadelphia Flyers are just a few who have made investments in the Overwatch League. Soccer teams from across the pond, such as Paris Saint-Germain from France and FC Schalke 04 from Germany, have gotten in on the action as well, buying ownership stakes in League of Legends teams and/or signing professional FIFA players.

Leigh also explained that the teams use each other as marketing tools to try and expand their respective audiences. Generally, there aren’t a lot of League of Legends fans who watch the NBA and vice versa, so the owners see room for huge potential growth.

“It’s not one-to-one for sure, but [the Guardians] are an extension for the Warriors,” Leigh said. “I think we both promote each other and support each other so it feels kind of like sister organizations. I think it’s helpful to both sides to have that kind of relationship and, you know, be interactive with each other.”

Officials across the sporting landscape have stated their intentions to use cross-contamination marketing based on fan affiliation to the traditional sports leagues to help grow esports leagues, such as the NBA 2K League and the eMLS Cup. At the inaugural 2K League draft, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that he considers the 2K League to be the “NBA’s fourth league,” on par with the G League and the WNBA. He believes that its expansion will not only be beneficial to the 2K League, but to the NBA, WNBA, and G League as well.

“We view this as the same way as those other leagues,” Silver said at the draft. “It’s something that we’re going to develop over a very long time, and we’re building this league as something that’s going to be around forever...We have the NBA, WNBA, and the G League. And now this is the fourth league in our family, and that’s exactly how we’re treating it.”

Esports and traditional sports will likely become even more intertwined in the years to come, as many young athletes have crossed over into the gaming world. Players like Josh Hart, Meyers Leonard, and Juju Smith-Schuster are equally well-known for their streaming as they are for their performances on the field. Smith-Schuster boasts more than 100,000 Twitch followers, while Leonard and Hart have competed with some of the best professional gamers in the world.

Some athletes even view gaming in the same way that they view sports, as something to get better at. Smith-Schuster, in his introduction video as a HyperX athlete, shared his desire to improve every time he picks up a controller.

“I play video games a lot, like so much now,” Smith-Schuster said. “Like I said, about six hours-a-day. It’s very competitive, so I try to get better at it each and every day, and just have fun.”

Both Blum and Leigh see the industry moving in this direction as well. They hope that, as athletes continue to game and promote gaming on social media, they will inspire an even younger generation to consider gaming a traditional sport.

“In 2050, when we list the biggest sports in the world, we’re going to start with soccer and the next thing we name is going to be a video game,” Blum said. “There’s a reality that most sports, soccer is the exception, are regionalized in some meaningful way...And so, the ceiling for this thing, because of the fact that it’s really popular everywhere, is a lot higher than most traditional sports.” 

Leigh added that, while he agrees that esports will naturally become more popular with the younger generation, it is up to powerful people in the esports industry to be aggressive with their growth. He wants the Guardians’ fan base to be equally as passionate as the Bleacher Creatures in Yankee Stadium or the Cameron Crazies at Duke.

“At the end of the day, I think esports are operating on the same base, primal instinct that sports is operating on,” Leigh said. “You strongly identify with your team, you have a tribal connection to them, and then ultimately, you’re there because you want to see some of the best players in the world. But I think that core feeling you get when you’re live, in-person at a sporting event and you see something that’s just amazing, or your team wins or loses or whatever, that depth of emotion is absolutely there in esports top-to-bottom.”