The rise of eSports has turned virtually unknown gamers into celebrities. Before they were making headlines and raking in millions of dollars, players like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins sat at the top of a niche market, known only by those that closely followed the nascent arena of eSports. While eSports have been around for close to 40 years, it wasn’t until recently that the celebrity status of gamers could be compared to that of more “mainstream” athletes. What sparked this change? Not only have sites like Twitch and Mixer given gamers a platform to build their own communities, but the popularity of individual games have given them an audience of viewers that are hungry for content.
The Fortnite Frenzy
The accelerated interest in eSports can largely be attributed to one game, in particular: Fortnite. In fact, Fortnite has practically given birth to a new era of gaming. Before 2018, Ninja and Tfue, who are now as close to household names as gamers can be, were streaming to a couple of thousand viewers each while playing H1Z1, PUBG, and Call of Duty. In the last two years, thanks to Fortnite’s popularity, Ninja has played with Drake in front of 635,000 viewers, appeared on The Ellen Show, and even flossed in Times Square to a lukewarm reaction. Additionally, eSports events like EVO are growing every year, giving players, such as repeat Mortal Combat champion Dominique “SonicFox” McLean, an ever-growing spotlight.
While there is no denying that gaming is turning the corner as far as being considered a “mainstream” sport, many still turn their nose up at the idea of 16-year-old Bugha winning $3 million in prize money at the first-ever Fortnite World Cup, a sum that surpasses both Tiger Woods’ $1.98 million Masters win and Djockavic’s $2.35 million Wimbleton victory. Everyone knows Tiger Woods, but far fewer are familiar with the name Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf. He took home a bigger check, but why doesn’t he get the same respect or recognition that major-sport athletes seem to effortlessly acquire?
I Don't Get No Respect!
Even if you’ve never watched cricket (it’s hard sport to follow), you can still appreciate the athleticism that it takes to play at a high level. With gaming, if you don’t understand the gameplay, it’s not as easy to appreciate. Instead of seeing Kevin Durant jump four feet in the air to grab a rebound or Odell Beckam Jr. catch a ball with one hand while being pushed out of bounds, you see a scrawny kid in a chair smashing buttons on a controller or keys on a keyboard. The level of skill required to play eSports at an elite level is the same as any other sport, but the barrier for entry is much higher from a viewer standpoint. Is this a simple hurdle that viewers can cruise over, or is it an impenetrable wall?
Wait And See
With eSports still in their infancy, there are a lot of questions that are unanswered. The staying power of the sport's most prominent figures is hotly debated. It’s possible that these players are only as popular as the game that they play. If (god forbid) Fortnite’s popularity fades to black, will the game’s content leaders do the same? Additionally, the prime competitive years of an eSports athlete seems to be much smaller than that of their traditional-sports counterparts. If your best competitive years are over once you leave your teens, how many players can realistically make a career out of gaming?
Right now, it seems that personality trumps skill when it comes to reaching celebrity status as a gamer. The players that make the most money are those who amass the largest viewership on Twitch. If you don’t grow your streaming community, you likely won’t survive. Only a handful of players can make it off of tournament money alone. As tournaments get bigger and the eSports community continues to grow, this may change. The future of eSports has its doubters, but so did the personal computer when it first came out. Unfortunately, only time will tell if eSports celebrities are a product of the moment or a window into eSport’s bright future.