There’s a common misconception that esports exploded onto the scene out of nowhere. Competitive gaming leagues have existed for decades, and the growth of the genre through the 1990s and 2000s set the category on a path destined for huge scale, thanks in part to the rise of the many popular tournaments now core to the genre.

In their little-known early days, esports leagues, teams, players, and fans alike were fairly misunderstood outside of the gaming community. I’ve heard my fair share of questions like “How can playing video games be a job?” and “Why would anyone want to watch this?”

This lack of understanding limited esports’ perceived legitimacy, in turn limiting its ability to appeal to a mainstream audience—and by extension, to commercial partners.

When commercially ambitious esports leagues started to try to establish their own legitimacy in mainstream sports commerce, they gravitated to widely-accepted points of reference, molding themselves in the image of something that everyone could comprehend and be openly proud of: traditional sports like baseball, soccer, and football.

As a result, across the board we saw red, white, and blue logos emerge, along with time-honored tournament terminology and big, shiny trophy cups. We were introduced to Major League Gaming (MLG), which mimicked Major League Baseball (MLB) in name and appearance (the two have no association).

This approach has undeniably helped esports become profitable and legitimate as far as sports categories go. But it’s also altered the core of what historically made the culture of esports so unique.

The imitation strategy

Big, shiny trophy cups were one sign that video games were embracing mainstream sports culture.
Big, shiny trophy cups were one sign that video games were embracing mainstream sports culture.
Image: Reuters/Johanna Geron

Like MLG, gaming and esports brands started to lean on familiar Western sporting imagery and visuals. Since their inception, video games have never necessitated geographical or cultural associations, but instead have spawned borderless global communities.

By imitating Western sports leagues, established on the back of national pride and colonialism, esports effectively inherited a new set of norms, including in the development of fragmented gaming communities, which now mirror the world of traditional sports. Just as ice hockey fans have a separate identity from football fans, the Fortnite community is now distinct from the CS:GO one.

This approach and segregation between gaming communities did not exist in the early days. And it set the expectation that esports would develop in the image of its bat and ball cousins, rather than charting its own path.

This imitation strategy has been hugely successful on the commercial front: An estimated 1.57 billion people were reportedly aware of esports in 2019, with a 13.8% growth in the number of viewers through 2018, translating to 335 million viewers tuning in. By 2021, this was predicted to exceed 550 million, making esports one of the hottest new sponsorship opportunities for non-endemic brands.

But has this commercial success come at the expense of esports’ authenticity?

In recent months and years, we have seen divergent responses to this question by leading esports brands. On one side, several disruptive new entrants and revitalized incumbents—such as ESL Gaming Network and Blast—have recognized that esports is unique and unprecedented, and that it should act accordingly. Esports has boldly created a new genre of truly international brands that represent today’s passionate community of gamers as a global tribe, united in mindset rather than location.

On the other side, a new set of esports leagues, recently created for freshly minted game-titles like Overwatch League and Call of Duty League have doubled down on the Western sports model, diverting from the category norm of avoiding geographical allegiances. These leagues use city-based teams to increase esports’ appeal to an ever-wider audience via the common tactic in in traditional sports of building strong localized followings driven by territorial tribalism.

But with the unexpected development of the coronavirus pandemic, this question has become more or less moot.


Even for matches not yet canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, crowds are sparse.
Even for matches not yet canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, crowds are sparse.
Image: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko

While the world of mainstream sports reels with the impact of coronavirus cancelations, esports has demonstrated a resilience to global crises that definitively sets it apart. Although spectators are no longer allowed to attend tournaments, most major esports events will proceed with relatively painless adjustments to being fully virtual. And for tournaments like the already hugely popular League of Legends Global Championship finals (which garners more views than the Superbowl), brands will likely still be eager to break into the industry.

The popular League of Legends World Championship has garnered more viewers than the Super Bowl.
The popular League of Legends World Championship has garnered more viewers than the Super Bowl.
Image: Reuters/Johanna Geron

For any sport, it is vital that a game evolves with one thing in mind: serving the fans and communities who celebrate it. As an unprecedented number of sectors stutter and brace for still worse to come, gaming is seeing an uptick in players, and esports a surge in online viewership. While physical travel and contact are so greatly restricted, the inherently borderless nature of gaming may also come into play in a new way.

Mimicking the status quo and changing your profile for the sake of fitting in is sometimes necessary and prudent for growth. But there’s a potential lesson in here: that staying true to your innate traits and talents pays off, too.

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