As esports continue to rise in popularity, the comparison between competitive gaming and traditional sports continues to strengthen. The two share many similarities such as their competitive nature and world-class talent, leaving the difference in physicality to be the most prominent variable. Player salaries are generally quite large, sponsors have found themselves on jerseys, and viewership is in the tens of millions, so it’s safe to say esports are following in the footsteps of their more established and traditional counterparts. Even as esports walk the same path as physical sports, it’s hard to tell what heights they will reach and when they will get there. But with the trajectory they are moving, will esports ever be as popular as traditional sports?
Diving into this question can be difficult as how big something is depends on how it is defined, but there are a few different metrics that can be compared and discussed. For starters, viewership is widely considered to be a metric by which popularity and public demand can be determined. There’s no doubt traditional sports such as football and soccer have millions of viewers year after year and have solidified themselves as some of the most popular sports in the world. In 2021, the United States saw one of the biggest years for the National Football League over the last 6 years in terms of viewership. The league pulled in an average of 17.1 million viewers per game according to ESPN, which was a 10 percent increase from 2020’s numbers. The total number of NFL viewers for the year is estimated to be 141 million, which is far above Esports viewership for the same year. According to Syracuse University, Esports was projected to garner a total of 84 million viewers in 2021, which pales in comparison to the NFL, but is 5 million more than Major League Baseball and 11 million more than the National Basketball Association.
Source: Syracuse University
The interesting part about esports finding a spot on the sport-viewership list is how it shifts the scope of the comparison. On one hand, esports are more popular in terms of views than all but one traditional sport in the United States, but on the other hand, esports includes all of the professional video games played which isn’t a one-to-one comparison like basketball versus football would be. So as it stands, individual esports don’t truly compete with individual sports for viewers, but the industry as a whole is no doubt in the conversation.
Another metric to compare the size of esports to the size of traditional sports is the revenue generated by each. Both industries are multifaceted with in-person and online viewership, advertisements, merchandise, and many other pieces contributing to the money they bring in. For 2022, the Esports industry is expected to accumulate roughly $300 million dollars in the United States alone according to Insider Intelligence, and its major players such as Faze Clan, TSM, and Cloud 9 were worth $305 million, $410 million, and $350 million respectively in 2020.
Source: LoL Esports
The numbers are impressive, but once again, they aren’t even in the same ballpark as traditional sports in the US. Statista reported that the collective sports industry for US sports accumulated over $73 billion in 2019, making it quite a few times larger than esports for revenue. While that isn’t too surprising considering how deeply rooted US sports are within the country’s culture, the gap between the two totals is eye opening. It seems that merely sharing many pathways for revenue isn’t enough for esports to keep up. And while it doesn’t mean that esports are performing poorly in any way, it highlights just how much the tenure of traditional sports gives them the upper hand.
Currently, esports aren’t as big as traditional sports and they are a bit behind in some respects, but what the future holds may be a different story. Esports have seen tremendous growth over the last few years and the difference between the first Space Invaders competition in 1980 and the 2021 League of Legends World Championship is almost unfathomable. Prize pools have reached multiple millions of dollars and tournaments that were once in the hundreds for attendees have grown into thousands in person and millions watching online. Organizations within the space are becoming well-known entities, athletes and celebrities are investing in teams, and kids are participating in esports at young ages as well, which shows how cultures around the world are becoming more acquainted. There was a point in time where even the biggest sports like soccer and football were much less popular and were nothing more than a fun game to play with friends. Of course they took a long time to reach the level they are at currently, but with the way the esports industry has been evolving, who’s to say it won’t do the same?
Going back to the two metrics used to compare esports and traditional sports, viewership and revenue projections for the next few years suggest the industry is showing no signs of slowing down. Newzoo predicts that the Compound Annual Growth Rate for global esports viewership will be 7.7% between 2019 and 2024, meaning both the number of occasional viewers and dedicated esports enthusiasts will rise. The number of casual viewers is expected to be roughly 291.6 million people by 2024 and 285.7 million enthusiasts for the same year. With the growth trend we’ve seen over the last few years, the global viewership total could be over 570 million people in two year’s time.
On the side of revenue, the numbers are equally as convincing. Newzoo predicts a whopping $1.6 billion in Esports revenue globally by 2024. Avenues such as sponsorships, streaming, and digital revenue streams are expected to be among the biggest factors, with a projected value of $641 million, $25.1 million, and $32.3 million respectively.
Even with multiple years of promising growth, esports will still trail behind traditional sports for the time being. Quite simply, some traditional sports are far better known around the world than many esports and have been popular for so long that they are generally respected to a greater extent than their electronic counterparts. However, Esports are showing an upward trend as a whole and are expected to do so for the foreseeable future. Because of this, the possibility of esports reaching a similar level as traditional sports seems more like a “when” than an “if”. It’s hard to say whether esports will surpass traditional sports as time goes on, but the one thing for certain is that they are earning their seat at the table.
Chase Mulonas is a 23 year old living in Grand Rapids, MI. Video games, Esports, and all forms of media are the things he is most passionate about and he is actively working to make a full-time career out of the combination of the two. In his free time he enjoys playing games with friends, collecting vinyl records, and watching professional esports.