eSports is huge – and getting bigger. We should be taking it much more seriously.

By Adam Tinworth

As the world continues to enjoy the sight of 22 people fighting over a ball in the World Cup, despite the unexpectedly early exit of Germany, in another part of the sports world, the biggest and most successful players are getting excited about a digital hamster in a ball.

No, I’m not joking. Here he is:

Hammond is a teeny, tiny murder rodent in the hit game Overwatch (and, terrifyingly, he’s not the first killer hamster in gaming…), and some people are making an awful lot of money playing it. The minimum salary for a starting professional - often a teenager - is $50,000 per annum, with health insurance. And it goes up from there. While we may not yet have the millionaires in shorts we see as many international football teams, the rewards are substantial.

What’s concerning is that this massive industry is growing and building huge culture around it - and the mainstream isn’t paying nearly enough attention to it — yet.

The latest hotness in the gaming world is Fortnite, as parents of children in their teen or pre-teen years will know, and it is about to launch its own esports league. The prize pot is likely to be a staggering $100m.

The fastest growing category of sports in the world

A generation is growing up weaned on games like Minecraft, Fortnite et al, and who see them as spectator activities, just as much as they do participative activities. Many, rather famously, do both at once - playing games while watching others also playing.

The professional eSports leagues are just part of that. We looked at them back at NEXT15, and the market has only grown since then. To give you some idea of the scale, well:

Hundreds of millions of people watch competitive gaming, known as eSports, and in the U.S. already outnumber NHL viewers, according to a March report by Bernstein Research. By 2020, eSports is expected to be the second-most-watched sport after the NFL.

It’s called eSports because each game is a sport in its own right. And one interesting quirk is that the big teams often field squads in lots of other games. It’s as if, say, Manchester United also played rugby, tennis and American football, not just football.

The dark side of eSports

However, it has its problems. And, just as with any explosive area of growth online, we should pay attention to these problems, and consider potential fixes.

For examples, many players have been forced out of leagues for racist and homophobic behaviour, and it’s arguable that fascist and homophobic language are close to endemic is sections of gaming culture. It’s still a male-dominated, adrenaline driven culture in many of the key games that find their way into eSports - and the sorts of games chosen contribute to that.

There’s a dearth of female esports professionals - and there’s no good biological reason for that - and a huge gender disparity in pay.

The youth of many of the key competitors mean that they pick up unfortunate culture elements that hopefully they’ll mature out of — but in the meantime they remain influential figures on the young. And it’s arguable that what they’re promoting isn’t actually that healthy. Many people will rush to point out that unlike “real” sports the physical demand are not high. But where do you put the line? Would that eliminate motor sports? Would it eliminate chess?

No, more worrying is the addictive risk: gaming is now officially classified as an addictive disorder:

The World Health Organization was putting its finishing touches on the eleventh edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) when it released a draft back in December. The early version of the document, which medical professionals will use like its predecessors as a baseline for classifying and defining diseases, included a condition for the first time in the ICD's history: Video game addiction. Today, the WHO finalized ICD-11 and left the gaming disorder in, enshrining it in the medical reference standard.

Alternative views of gaming

Gaming tends to focus right now on a narrow field of violent, competitive sports. There’s more to gaming than that. Indie projects have long explored storytelling and therapeutic uses of games, and now they’re being developed to be educational, but not just in a “targeted at children” way:

Inspired by the BBC's Blue Planet II series, developer E-Line Media is making a video game that focuses on the scientists who are trying to understand our impact. It's called Beyond Blue and will put you in charge of a research team with stunning technology designed to unlock new insights about the sea. Your task is simply to gather information and learn what you can about these fast-changing, human-made threats to the sea.

But as with all things digital, it’s worth bearing in mind the value of the analogue, too. As Engagdget reported recently, the tech world has been using the good, old tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons to help co-workers bond and boost productivity.

Timm Woods is a professional dungeon master, who runs games for creative agencies and other businesses:

"It's easy and understandable for colleagues to miss out on making personal connections in a tech workplace," explains Woods. "You're busy all day in your particular space or cubicle, chatting on Slack with only select coworkers. But a tabletop game like D&D creates a new avenue of communication, with problem-solving elements that require good face-to-face collaboration."

If anything, gaming and esports feel like a massive test of our ability to not repeat the mistakes of the past. It’s too easy to dismiss esports as “not real sports” or “for geeks”. But it’s a huge cultural movement, bigger than many sports, which is generating brands, IP and major stars. There’s money, and attention and value to be had here.

But there are growing problems, too. Can we — this time — take the good and minimise the bad as we assimilate esports into the mainstream?