Virtus.pro wanted revenge after a brutal esports bout. The Russian-based team was bested by its Dutch rival Astralis during a thrilling last-minute comeback in January’s Major Grand Final, which attracted 4.6 million viewers. Now the two five-member teams were facing off again in what was billed “Clash for Cash: The Rematch.” Up for grabs was $250,000 in prize money, national recognition and the chance to claim dominance in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a first-person shooter video game in which players use virtual bombs and high-powered guns to mow down their opponents.
The June rematch was broadcast on TBS and video streaming platforms Twitch, YouTube and ELEAGUE Live Game Command. It was a bloody, violent best-of-three showdown. When the dust cleared, Astralis once again claimed victory, much to the delight of the cheering, sold-out crowd.
Long known for traditional sports like baseball, basketball and golf, Turner Broadcasting, along with partner IMG, recently launched ELEAGUE, an esports tournament brand with live event coverage. It’s yet another indicator of how video gaming, or esports, is rapidly becoming a mainstream phenomenon, with high-profile sponsorship deals, sold-out arenas, screaming fans and worldwide superstars—some barely out of high school—competing for millions of dollars in cash prizes.
It turns out all those kids who filled arcades back in the 1980s and dreamed of playing video games for a living were actually onto something.
Since Turner Broadcasting and IMG launched ELEAGUE in 2015, the league has cut deals with several game publishers, including Valve (“Counter-Strike: Global Offensive”) and Capcom (“Street Fighter”), in order to host nationally televised tournaments featuring the popular games.
Most of the tournaments take place at the state-of-the-art G FUEL ELEAGUE Arena at Turner Studios in Atlanta. Gamma Labs, the Long Island company behind G FUEL energy drink, signed a $2 million agreement with ELEAGUE in January that included naming rights to the 250-seat esports arena.
These big-dollar deals are expected to get bigger as esports garners more fans—most notably in the coveted 16 to 34 (mostly male) demographic—and advertisers take notice. While the numbers are a bit of a moving target, SuperData, which provides data on the gaming industry, valued the global esports market at $612 million in a 2015 report, with an audience of 134 million and growing.
More recently, Newzoo, a market research firm specializing in digital gaming, says there are 148 million “esports enthusiasts” around the globe, and projects the industry to produce more than $1 billion in revenue by 2019.
While the NFL remains the most popular spectator sport, viewership for esports competitions, especially when you include the online audience, often outpace that of professional baseball, basketball and hockey. Moreover, esports events organized by League of Legends have sold out big arenas like the Staples Center in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York. And Seattle’s KeyArena hosts The International Dota 2 Championship, the most lucrative esports tournament in the world. Last year, the purse for the event was $20,770,460. The Masters, by comparison, is $10 million.
Naysayers who complain its ludicrous to call video gaming a sport are missing the point, says Christina Alejandre, general manager of ELEAGUE and vice president of esports for Turner Sports.
“Everyone has to remember, esports is still a niche sport. But it’s a very large niche with a very bright growth trajectory and a global reach,” she says. “As we continue to capture the live event experience and tell the stories of the gamers and teams, we believe the audience will continue to expand. I think the possibilities are endless.”
In a male-dominated industry, Alejandre is a bit of a pioneer. She has more than 15 years of experience in video games and new media, having previously worked for companies like ESL, Turbine and Warner Bros.
“I’ve been an avid gamer my whole life, dating back to the Atari games,” she says. “I’m very fortunate to have spent my entire career in an industry I’m so passionate about. One of the best things about esports is anyone can play them. Esports is one of the only sports out there where there is a level playing field for both men and women at the outset.”