By the end of this week, four teams will advance to determine a champion after an intense multi-week competition. Their names will look familiar — UConn, Miami and Oregon — and monetary stakes are high, to the tune of $500,000.
But they aren't playing basketball. They're battling with video game controllers in the growing arena of competitive video gaming, whose increasing popularity has attracted the attention of big names in tech and media, from Electronic Arts to ESPN to Yahoo.
‘We have the early markers of what will ultimately make eSports mainstream,” says Joost van Dreunen, CEO of SuperData Research, which gathers data on the global games market.
But it could require a generational shift before competitive video gaming — known to many as "eSports" — formally becomes mainstream entertainment.
On April 3, the "Heroic Four" will be determined in Heroes of the Dorm, a competitive video game tournament hosted by Blizzard Entertainment, based on its action game Heroes of the Storm.
For the second year, teams representing colleges from across the U.S., including the University of Connecticut and Arizona State University, are playing for glory and more than $500,000 in scholarships and prizes, including a free ride through school for the winning team.
Fans watch the action online on ESPN, Twitch and YouTube, and they can even join tournament pools, where the winner with the most accurate bracket snags $10,000.
It’s the latest example of competitive video gaming’s increased following, as younger fans gravitate towardeSports. The market is valued at $747 million, according to SuperData, and is expected to more than double to $1.9 billion in three years.
The rising audience — SuperData estimates it at 134 million as of last year — is pushing video game publishers and cable networks to create competitive video game experiences and explore broadcasting options.
The eSports market is young. Whalen Rozelle, Director of eSports at Riot Games — makers of the hit competitive game League of Legends — says it's still in “our pre-teen phase,” with plenty of room to grow.
“The industry still hasn’t really figured out 'is every game an eSport? Are there a few games that are an eSport?' It’s still very fractured,” Rozelle said.
Riot's League of Legends helped spawn eSports. The real-time strategy game — players control a character with special powers and work with teammates to infiltrate an opponent’s base and destroy a key structure— attracts more than 67 million players a month. Two years after the game's launch in 2009, Riot Games hosted its first World Championship Series in Sweden.
About the same time, the streaming service Twitch emerged. It served as a home for video game players to broadcast their virtual exploits online. Twitch took off in 2013 after receiving prominent placement on Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4. In 2014, Amazon acquired Twitch for $970 million.
“Amazon valuing Twitch at $1 billion got everybody excited,” says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.
Since then, interest in competitive video game playing has surged. ESPN has gradually beefed up its presence, broadcasting events such as The International Dota 2 Championships, which boasted a prize pool last year of $18 million, prior to the ongoing Heroes of the Dorm tournament. In January, ESPN launched an editorial site for coverage of eSports.
Yahoo followed soon after, launching its own eSports site and hiring editors and reporters to cover competitive gaming events. “We are setting out to be the premier destination for eSports fans and the community,” says Bob Condor, vice president of Yahoo Sports Media.
Meanwhile, broadcast networks including The CW and TBS have entered the fray with their own primetime specials devoted to competitive play.
More games makers are getting involved, too. Last year, Microsoft announced a World Championship focused on its hit action game Halo. Video game publishers Activision and Electronic Arts introduced their own divisions focused on leveraging the growing eSports market.
“This is a long term play for Electronic Arts,” says EA chief operating officer Peter Moore, who will run the company’s Competitive Gaming Division. “This is not going to explode out of the blocks this year."
He expects competitive video gaming to compete with traditional mediums like sports and TV channels in the future.
Last week, EA hosted the FIFA Interactive World Cup in New York, where 32 world-class players compete in the publisher’s soccer video game FIFA 16.
“The idea of watching people play video games would seem at first to be boring,” says Moore. “But with over 130 million people now who have viewed a tournament either online or in person last year, it’s clearly catching fire with primarily young males, but also females as well.”
Rozelle says the landscape is “dramatically different” from four years ago. When Riot Games first tried to secure Staples Center for a League of Legends tournament, it worked hard to explain to venue operators why fans were willing to pay to watch people play a video game. That changed after tickets for the event sold out in one hour.
This year’s League of Legends World Championships will take place in several cities and venues, including New York’s Madison Square Garden and The Chicago Theatre.
Before going mainstream, there are some obstacles to overcome, including bolstering the viewing experience.
Wedbush's Pachter compares it to poker, where the televised version didn’t take off until a piece of glass was added to tables so viewers at home could see what cards were in players’ hands.
“That’s makes it interesting and exciting because we have kind of an inside view and we know what’s going on,” says Pachter.
Another key factor: time. Baird analyst Colin Sebastian says there’s a “generational aspect” to eSports, where the market grows as its audience gets older.
Rozelle of Riot Games thinks competitive video gaming is roughly 10-15 years away from hosting the future stars of entertainment and sport. “There’s a generation of sports fans growing with eSports as their primary sport of choice. They’re not dipping in and watching basketball, hockey or football. This is a generation that really focused in on this as their sport.”
Follow Brett Molina on Twitter: @brettmolina23.