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Internet Trends 2017: It’s the end of sports as we know it?

This is part of a series focusing on data from Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends report.

Last year over 20,000 people crowded into the Staples Center in LA, and 43 million tuned in online, to watch one of the most anticipated finals of the year. No, it was not the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the 2016 League of Legends World Final.

League of Legends, if you don’t already know, is a multiplayer online battle arena video game in which players fight against teams and other users to destroy opponents’ defensive structures. After its initial release in 2009 it quickly became one of the most played strategy games of all time, surpassing 100 million monthly players in September 2016. League of Legends was first broadcasted well before this milestone, however; in 2012 OnGameNet (OGN), a South Korean cable television channel that airs primarily video game content, began televising League of Legend tournaments – making it the first major Korean tournament on TV.

League of Legends’ explosive growth, and foray into broadcasting, is indicative of the rising popularity of e-Sports at large. E-Sports – i.e. professional competition facilitated by electronic systems, in particular video games – totaled approximately 161 million monthly users in 2016 – a 40% Y/Y growth according to Meeker’s Internet trends 2017 report. The composition of these users is as you would expect: 79% are under 35, and of them only 29% of them are female.

What you would perhaps not expect, however, is the equivalent preference for e-Sports relative to traditional sports; that is, 27% of millennials reported a ‘significant preference’ for e-Sports and another 27% preferred traditional sports. Among non-millennials, however, division was not as balanced: 45% reported to be in favor of traditional sports compared to only 13% who reported to prefer e-Sports. But, with global awareness of e-Sports predicted to reach 1.3 billion this year (up from 1.1 billion in 2016), and the global number of e-Sports enthusiasts expected to grow by 50% by 2020, totaling 286 million, preferences could very well tilt towards e-Sports.

So what does this growing preference for e-Sports mean? (I.e. can we finally say goodbye to football and its copious concussions?) Many people say no; e-Sports cannot replace traditional sports because of their inherent differences – a primary one being that e-Sports simply does not require the athletic finesse of traditional sports.

John Skipper, ESPN president, certainly thinks so. “It’s not a sport — it’s a competition,” he asserted at Code/Media: New York in 2014. “Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports,” he concluded. In other words, Skipper seems to be suggesting ‘real’ sports are not in danger.

This critique, however, has not stopped ESPN, and other traditional sports teams, from partnering and investing in e-Sports. ESPN now has a “new online vertical covering the world of competitive gaming,” airing top games like Dota 2 and Counter-strike: Global Offensive in addition to League of Legends. Earlier this year the Miami Heat also invested in the e-Sports team Misfits, a “multigame e-sports organization”; the Philadelphia 76ers acquired the e-Sports teams Dignitas and Apex; and France, Spain, and the Netherlands have formed FIFA leagues with soccer clubs.

Media platforms – ever at the forefront of all things trendy and noteworthy – have also been investing in the e-Sports (virtual) arena. According to Meeker’s report, Facebook expanded its e-Sports relationship with an ESL streaming deal in May; the Italian Soccer Club AS Roma partnered with e-Sports Team Fnatic; and the NBA and Up with Take Two created the 2K e-Sports League. Further, Amazon’s acquisition of the game-streaming service Twitch, although raising many eyebrows at the time, is now viewed as a “strategic move to attract as many developers from the lucrative games market as it can.”

E-Sports are also surging at the collegiate level, with colleges creating varsity e-Sports programs and even offering players full scholarships. According to the National Association of Collegiate e-Sports (NACE), there are currently 34 varsity programs in the United States. However, Michael Brooks, executive director of NACE, expects this number to double by August.

This integration with gaming is a smart move, as it is currently the most engaging form of social media with users spending an average of 51 daily minutes on these platforms. The competition for users’ attention, however, remains fierce; for one, the Facebook ecosystem closely follows video gaming with an average of 50 daily minutes spent per user. Gaming, however, continues to find innovative ways to compete, with franchises like The Call of Duty recruiting A-list actors such as Kevin Spacey to voice characters, and by leveraging “gaming video content” — i.e. videos of video games, which SuperData estimated was worth $3.8 billion globally in 2015.

So, while e-Sports may not (yet) be a replacement for these traditional sports, the rise in broadcasted e-Sports games and partnerships with teams and media companies illustrates greater integration between virtual and traditional sports may be in store. Who knows, before long perhaps gamers will be able to virtually play alongside the Lakers in real-time.

Isabelle Styslinger is a Research Analyst at CCIA.


New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.