HomeTechThe Rise of Esports and the Role of Live Streaming Services

The Rise of Esports and the Role of Live Streaming Services

The growth of esports

Fast forward to the year 2000, and the rise of competitive gaming hit another milestone with the release of the documentary ‘King of Kong’, which detailed the trials and tribulations of competitive gaming in the arcade era. Alongside the release of the Red Bull energy drink, which would eventually become a major sponsor of esports events.

The 90s also saw an increase in the popularity of PC games, and the world took notice with a game called Starcraft. The release of Starcraft led to the formation of a number of leagues and competitions, and the game was the first real game title that is still considered to be a major player in the industry today, mainly in the Korean scene but also including international presence.

Esports itself has been around for a number of years, but only until recently has it gained its recognition as a professional sport and a high-earning career. Competitive gaming started in the 90s, with what is considered the first competitive gaming event, a Nintendo tournament. The tournament was actually a marketing device put on by Nintendo to help promote interest in its product. However, without the competitive nature, what we currently know as esports would not exist.

The popularity of live streaming services

Live streaming services have been a popular platform for gaming fans to interact with the gaming community. The concept of live streaming gaming, in essence, started back in 1998 with the advent of gaming being broadcasted online, and simply the most recent couple of years has seen live streaming become the colossally successful phenomenon that it is today. The first live streaming service to truly come into the spotlight was TwitchTV, and it’s still widely popular. Twitch now contains a category specifically for esports, has its own independent esports association, and is an official partner of major competitive gaming associations such as ESL and DreamHack. YouTube has additionally seen high growth in recent years, and with the addition of YouTube gaming as well as the rise of competitiveness within the streaming industry, YouTube has seen these new gaming technologies to be a way of effectively competing with Twitch. Other smaller services have attempted to emulate these giants, frequently meeting with limited success, though in the near future Facebook and Microsoft try to challenge both YouTube and Twitch’s monopolies with their own services. The accessibility of live streaming has given an increase to a general interest in esports, as people can view these when having a casual session in their free time, and could often be exposed to these events while not even initially intending to do so. It also serves as a good platform to attract new viewers to the esports community, especially the younger demographic. With current generations being raised in an era of technology, live streaming esports could well be a staple of leisure entertainment for those in their 20s and 30s within the next 10-20 years. High accessibility also implies an increase in viewership, as discussed in the following section.

Benefits of Live Streaming for Esports

An example of this was the StarCraft II replay feature, which was often used by commentators to view a game from each player’s perspective, but was not practical for fans that were looking for a more passive viewing experience. Live streaming solves this problem by allowing games to be broadcasted in real-time without any file sharing, and with video on demand functionality, it means that fans can also watch previous matches or tournaments. This has been a huge driving factor in attracting casual viewers to gaming content, particularly when there are no spoilers and fans can watch a match as if it were live.

A benefit of live streaming in eSports is the increased accessibility for viewers. With professional gaming leagues predominantly taking place online, it is extremely easy for fans to miss out on matches when there are no scheduled broadcasts. Up until very recently, a typical recording or replay functionality built into a game client was often viewed as sufficient to allow players to follow matches that they had missed.

Live streaming platforms such as Twitch or YouTube Gaming are now pivotal for professional players and organizations looking to increase the accessibility, reach, and engagement of their audience as well as create potential monetization opportunities.

Live streamed content plays a fundamental role in the eSports ecosystem, and many games expose game state data via public APIs, which makes it easy to develop live stream content and add an overlay or second screen experience. An excellent example of this is Dota 2 which has a continuously growing audience for live streamed matches, in no small part due to the elegant web API provided by Valve.

Live streaming refers to user-generated content being transmitted and viewed in real-time over the internet. Live streaming services have gained popularity in recent years, providing an alternative platform for viewing video content. This is particularly prevalent in the realm of professional gaming and eSports. According to SuperData Research, the global audience for eSports gaming videos has grown to 226 million in 2015, with the industry generating $748 million in revenue.

Increased accessibility for viewers

A primary reason for the rise of esports has been the trend of playing video games competitively among friends turning into a viable career for young adults. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of professional gamers do not have large salaries and are more akin to freelancers. Many pro players have used live streaming as a way to supplement their earnings, often citing that the revenue from streaming is a more stable source of income. Given that many pro players are reluctant to choose between streaming part-time or competing full time, the ability to earn money by doing both can increase the talent pool and level of competition in esports. This can be controversial when players choose to forgo attending a tournament in favor of streaming from home; however, it can be argued that players providing a high-quality stream with lots of insightful commentary can be more beneficial to the community as it reaches a larger audience.

Live-streaming is a relatively new and powerful technology and platform, and an integral part of the esports ecosystem. In the early days of esports, tournaments were only watched live at the event or most commonly viewed through demos and replays online. With the advent of live streaming, viewers can now watch events from anywhere in the world on their personal computers. Viewers can now tune in to the same stream as their favorite pro players to get a first-person view of the action. This is tremendously valuable to fans as it provides an opportunity to get insights on the game and individual players, and improve their own play at home. The ability for a fan to watch a pro player’s entire game from the pro’s perspective is a phenomenon unique to live streams and is not possible with traditional sports. Traditional sports will typically only show a few highlights of a pro player’s performance, and it is unlikely that a fan would be able to watch an entire game from the viewpoint of a top athlete.

Global reach and audience engagement

Esports has the potential to be a truly global activity. In the past, most top-level players were concentrated in Korea, China, and the USA due to the location of most servers and tournaments. However, the infrastructure of esports is evolving and improving rapidly. Online tournaments and leagues, server improvements, and vastly improved netcode have allowed players to compete from anywhere in the world. Live streaming provides a way for these players to be seen by their fans, making it easier to build a fanbase and derive a potential income from the game. With the growth of a more geographically diverse professional community, the nationalistic pride of individual countries will have the potential to drive more interest and viewership for specific esports titles. An increase in the number of international competitions held can also serve to increase the global appeal of specific titles. The League of Legends World Championship is an excellent example of an event with an extremely high level of global viewership and fan involvement. A fan’s ability to watch live or watch VoDs of these matches has a direct correlation with the growth and success of the tournament.

The potential global reach of esports is large and the audience is increasingly diverse. Live streaming can deliver esports to a global audience in a way that was impossible with traditional TV and spectator methods. The audience for gaming content extends well beyond paying spectators; it includes casual gamers and fans of the game concerned. Whereas in the past, the only opportunity to expose casual gamers to professional players was if they were playing in the same tournament or through chance encounters on a public server, gamers can now watch the top-level players and teams to learn by viewing replays on sites like Twitch or YouTube. This is great for the overall skill level of the gaming community, as the increased accessibility of professional content will drive casual gamers to improve at a faster rate. The end result is a larger player base that is capable of supporting a vibrant, healthy professional scene.

Monetization opportunities for players and organizers

With eventual participation in a major league owned by the developers of the game, or Valve in this instance, it is expected that there will be profit sharing and potential for player/staff salaries and earnings to reach levels which are on par with the average earnings ratio for esports professionals in that specific game.

The next best option for players is to try and secure a partnership with an org that has open pockets for investment and won’t mind funding several months before any type of return is shown. Currently, in this fashion, a site like Twitch can be used as leverage in negotiations with a potential sponsor by presenting statistics relating to viewership and followers, with comparisons made to other players, teams, or the global averages. An example of a successful situation would be Team SoloMid acquiring an investment from a major sports VC firm led by a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player, and the subsequent signing of their current Counterstrike lineup.

Some players have regular viewers with expendable incomes that will willingly donate over $100 at a time, knowing that it could potentially benefit the player or team by allowing them to buy more time to compete at their highest level. Often times, gear breaks and needs to be replaced, or a change in the roster could result in upheaval of payments in terms of contracts and other financial obligations. Knowing that there’s spare revenue is a comforting cushion in more stressful times.

Considering the stated situation with Twitch, many languages of the platform have evolved standard monetization options for gamers, whether they’re streaming some numbers of the ESL Pro League or simply working their way up the ranks by competing in the food chain of Counter-Strike. The most frequently used system is fan donations that are used to supplement the player or team’s salaries. Donation alerts have become an unofficial standard for players that are more experienced with streaming. Often times, it is the most direct form of support coming straight from the viewer, knowing their contribution in the form of fan donations is making an impact.

Impact of Live Streaming on Esports Industry

Live streaming services have created an exceptional amount of new job opportunities for people looking to work within the professional gaming industry. Prior to live streaming, there were few jobs available for even the most talented players and very little money was involved in professional gaming. In 2008, Alexander Garfield, owner of Evil Geniuses, commented on the fact that he had top players from his WarCraft III division working part-time at fast food restaurants and had to push them to go to university to get a ‘real’ career. Today, many gamers are able to support themselves financially purely by competing in a professional gaming environment. With the increase in sponsorship and advertising in the industry, there are more salaried teams and players than ever before. For those not talented enough to compete at a professional level, there are still many opportunities to work within the industry. In an interview with onGamers, TwitchTV’s eSports manager John Howell said that the majority of well-known shoutcasters and commentators are earning a full-time income and that there is a high demand for people with media and graphics skills who want to work for a gaming organization.

Ranadeep and Prabhu highlighted the fact that eSports fans often had trouble keeping up with a tournament due to it being hard to find when and where VODs of the matches would be available and the lack of accessibility players had when competing in international tournaments with games hosted on servers in a foreign country. Live streaming services have solved these problems as viewers are given instant access to matches being played in online leagues or tournaments from anywhere in the world. With the introduction of mobile device applications for live streaming services, viewers are able to keep track of and watch matches while they are away from their computer.

Live streaming services have had a significant impact on the way in which eSports is presented to the viewing public. In the past, an eSports fan would either go to the extent of attending live events or would have to view the matches on a live TV broadcast or, more recently, on video-on-demand services most commonly provided by the company who created the game being played. Without offering a direct comparison of volume/quality of content, live streaming services have become the main platform for viewing eSports at home and have changed the way casual and serious fans follow the sport.

Changing dynamics of esports tournaments

Finally, a global competition has the potential to become a definitive esports product. With online tournaments restricted by high pings and poor server support between nations, an offline global league is the only way to determine a true world champion.

The tournament’s scheduling and global reach are two vital yet often overlooked components. Sufficient spacing between important matches and a set playing time for a team creates anticipation for the viewer and allows for effective promotion of matches. Viewing teams struggle to juggle full-time work/study and gaming commitment, so the opportunity to reschedule a match to a more viewer-friendly time can be the difference between a good match and a great match. The ability to plan matches in advance is also crucial for media and fans alike. A matchup schedule is a powerful news tool and creates fan anticipation. High viewership is guaranteed if the matchup has been effectively promoted and both teams provide access to the fans.

An ideal tournament model would see a 50-50 split of 128 team open entry and pre-qualified team entry. Teams that did not manage to maintain a place within the professional league or those that were unsuccessful in qualifying relegation matches would still have something to play for within the open entry format. The battle to be crowned the best open entry team and the small possibility of facing a professional team in the early rounds is a highly marketable product and has the potential to attract a large online viewership.

Changing dynamics of esports tournaments are categorized into two parts. Firstly, through market research and experience gained through successfully running and promoting esports competitions, the tournament has the potential to become self-sustainable. This would be achieved through improved methodology and understanding of the esports audience, resulting in a higher proportion of the target audience attending the event.

Influence on sponsorship and advertising

One of the critical components of the esports industry is the relationship between different organizations and teams with brands that can sponsor them. In traditional sports, if a team or organization is well established in their sport, they can expect to receive a significant amount of their revenue through lucrative sponsorship deals. With the rise of esports, this relationship between brands and esports organizations is becoming easier to develop due to the global audience that esports now brings in. Brands are now able to engage with a much younger audience through esports than what is possible with most traditional sports. This is particularly attractive to brands as it can help them build a long-term customer base with a younger demographic. In 2016, it was estimated that the esports industry generated $493 million in revenue from sponsorship deals, with this number growing at a rapid pace over the past few years. An example of the fruitful sponsorship environment in esports is that between North American esports organization Team Solomid and Chinese smartphone company OnePlus. In April 2019, it was reported that the partnership between TSM and OnePlus had resulted in a ROI of $14 million for the smartphone company. This never would have happened if not for the high visibility of esports and particularly in the case of TSM, a strong presence in the most popular competitive game in the world right now, League of Legends.

Evolution of esports broadcasting

To undergo a change to live streaming, where previously recorded files would be uploaded and streamed later, all of a sudden consumer servers are required, causing higher costs. This could potentially lead to a decline in e-sports coverage to the public, returning to the state it was before the live streaming era. Though with development in consumer-based servers, e-sports organizations could potentially squeeze into the niche of tying their content to higher-profile e-sports events. This would give amateurs a chance at creating a fanbase and exposing sponsors to host smaller events.

The live streaming broadcasting of e-sports has long been a struggle. Video games themselves have had a large online community before their time as an e-sport. Developers have been creating content for gamers to watch and even compete in for years. Live streaming services such as are the new form of televised e-sports. It can be very difficult to get a timeslot if many other e-sports events are to take place, as they will all be fighting for the same online audience. This could potentially spread viewership thinly across the board of events, with little viewership for each. Although it can be free to access, without advertising revenue to support it, it could lead to poor production quality with few transactions of value taking place.

Challenges and Future Trends

E-sports, over the years, has grown into a worldwide spectacle that has the potential to attract a larger following than most physical sports. Professional gaming is currently in its “Wild West” phase, where the landscape is undefined, volatile, and ripe for innovation. The catalyst for this explosive growth in wannabe gamers. With the burgeoning of streaming services and many competitive games going the free-to-play or lower price route, gamers have more and easier access to competitive gaming than ever before. Technological advancements have brought change to e-sports in multiple ways. One can argue that it was modern broadband Internet that laid the ground for e-sports from 2000 and beyond. The rise of the Internet made it much easier for players to find information on their chosen games, and with the creation of VoIP services such as TeamSpeak and Discord, it has never been easier for players to communicate with one another. Many recent games have had competitive scenes forced upon them through developer support. The advent of game streaming has also given e-sports a major shot in the arm. With Twitch, the various YouTubers and eSports organizations providing on-demand game content, fans can watch and learn from the best, and the accessibility of professional gaming matches has reached an all-time high. With mobile Internet technology on the rise, competitive gaming will be more in reach than ever. More data has been created in the past two years than in the entirety of human history, and data is valuable. This is especially true for professional gaming, where patterns of play can be analyzed and players can seek out possible ways to improve based on their own statistical data. With the API from a game like League of Legends, a player can use data analysis websites to track their in-game statistics, compare them directly to professional players, and determine what they need to improve. Data from professional gaming matches themselves serve as practice material for up-and-coming teams and background information that fans can use to get a better understanding of the game they love. A good example of this would be the recent attempt to introduce big data and statistics into professional Super Smash Bros. by the Cataclysm tournament series, which hired statistician Tafo to analyze playstyles data from top players. This data would allow character specialists to adapt their playstyles by comparing their statistics to successful players of that character, among other things. In the future, it can be assumed that data analysis will be an even bigger part of eSports. With the introduction of coaching staffs for professional teams, data analysts will be used to maximize player efficiency, and scouts for professional gaming teams will want to seek out the best available talent by studying statistics of up-and-coming players.

Technological advancements and infrastructure

In order to ensure the continued globalization of esports and inclusion in traditional media sports, it is of extreme importance to eradicate such issues. This will be far easier with the continued support and interest from major celebrity figures, which will come about with increased mainstream exposure.

A more recent example of the issue revolves around the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the various scandals involving gambling using in-game items, which were then thrown by players for financial gain. Steps were taken at the developer level to counteract these issues, leading to bans for multiple professional players.

Top of the list of infrastructure improvements is a move towards dedicated servers for competitive games, as opposed to peer-to-peer connections. Peer-to-peer connections leave the game vulnerable to manipulation and cheating, where dedicated servers significantly reduce this risk. Cheating is a significant issue in esports, in particular with widespread drug use, match-fixing, and in-game sabotage.

As the popularity of esports continues to develop, so too does the need for improved technological infrastructure. In order for the sport to maintain integrity and keep up with growing demands, it is essential that the technology providing the platform for these games continues to evolve in line with the needs of the players, teams, and industry as a whole.

Maintaining fair competition and integrity

With esports evolving in broadcasting into a near-live spectator sport, it is important for developers and organizers to safeguard the sport’s integrity and prevent cheating. Fair play will be a part of the sport itself – Sundance DiGiovanni, CEO of Major League Gaming, said that “The mental agility, split-second decision making, and hand-eye coordination of our players make them some of the best professional athletes in the world. Because of this, we hold our players to the same high standards of integrity and fair play that are found in pro sports leagues.” With increasing pressure to win and the monetary incentive of tournament prize pools, players are more likely to engage in match-fixing and doping, especially since the monetary value of virtual items won through tournament victory can be converted to cash. A particularly high-profile example of match fixing occurred in 2010 with the Brood War Starleague, with 11 players arrested for receiving money to fix matches. Any form of cheating can undermine the viewing experience of spectators, as the legitimacy of a competition will be called into question, and Impact Gaming owner Todd Betzold noted that “losing a core group of fans can be detrimental to a developing esport.” Cheating also damages the image of a game, and with the success of an esport being tied to the popularity of a game, developers have an investment in preventing their titles from being sullied by cheating. High-level SC2 player Nick Wu also added that maintaining the integrity of competition is key in convincing the athletic community of esports’ legitimacy as a sport.

Integration of virtual reality and augmented reality

An interview-based study conducted with esports players and industry professionals found a generally positive perception of the potential for VR and AR-based gaming environments and an interest in the possibilities it presents. Respondents indicated that a VR or AR-based game would be a refreshing change from the current standard and also agreed that it would be more immersive and easier to captivate an audience with. When asked about the potential for a competitive gaming environment and if VR or AR games could be considered for professional-level competition, respondents were more hesitant. The primary concern raised was the issue of motion sickness, something that affects a significant portion of the population in VR environments. A game that causes motion sickness is hardly suitable for competition, and the potential for nausea from motion sickness to affect players was a major deterrent. Other concerns raised were the comparative cost and space requirements of VR and AR systems and the fact that a VR game may be too immersive and thus lack spectator appeal. A common theme was the idea that VR and AR-based games should be considered as a separate entity to current esports, rather than a replacement. This notion was also echoed by a Reddit community which pointed out that an AR overlay of a MOBA game giving information on the game state could be an effective tool for enhancing player performance but should be targeted to spectators as well. Overall, while there was interest and potential for success with VR and AR games, it was felt that there are too many obstacles to simply transplant today’s esports into a virtual reality.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology has made amazing strides in recent years. Researchers and developers are particularly interested in the possibility of integrating VR and AR technologies to create immersive-based gaming environments. It has been suggested that the next logical step in the evolution of online gaming is to create a fully immersive virtual reality-based version of a game that is overlaid with complex, context-sensitive augmentations of the user’s physical environment. These environments could be based on the actual real-world environment of the players or could be taking place in completely virtual settings; both options are an area of research interest. With the continually decreasing price of VR and AR systems, it is speculated that the use of these technologies may become commonplace in the future. But do VR and AR-based environments have a place in the world of online competitive gaming, and how does this concern esports?

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