It started innocently enough. A few years ago, I bought my son, who was at that point 7 years old, his first Xbox gaming system. Now, as a progressive parent, I knew that the other kids in his class would have the game system as well, so it only seemed fair that he stay in line with them. Plus, gaming systems were different than the ones I grew up on; with internet connections and access to other programming and the web, it was really more like a computer than anything.
At first, I only bought him games that were age-appropriate; sports games, some other fun titles. It wasn’t too long before he had seen ad and previews for other games, and when his friends started asking for and receiving games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto, I was soon to hear the same ask from my son.
I am not sure I approve of these games for kids at 10 years old, but I guess we are exposing our children to everything early these days. So, I relented and bought him the games, but I played alongside him, so I could pass along some moral judgment on what was unacceptable behavior in the game (great parenting, right?)
It was only a matter of time before I noticed two small shifts in my son’s behavior. First, he wasn’t all that keen on getting new games, and when he did get them, he seemed to be completing them in only a matter of days. As someone who grew up in the Super Mario generation, the idea of being able to finish that game without excruciating levels of frustration seemed completely foreign.
I asked my son how he was finishing these games so quickly; he said that if he got stuck somewhere, he just went on YouTube and watched someone who had filmed the solution. What a crock, I thought; so now I am paying $80 a game just for my kid to cheat his way to the end. Screw that…he can pay for his own games out of his allowance from now on.
The next change is the one that was a game changer, especially for someone like me who has been in the gambling industry for over 15 years. Now, instead of playing games, my son seemed to be only watching people playing these games on YouTube and on a new streaming site, Twitch. These players provided commentary which was one part vulgar, one part humor, and based on the views they were getting for these channels, it was clear that they were also making some money while recording their gameplay.
When I asked my son about these videos, and why he like to watch, his answer sent shockwaves right to my brain. “Well, Dad, it’s like you watching the NBA. These guys are professional video game players.” Holy crap. He was right, these guys were indeed playing and recording their videos and then being paid through the site’s advertising revenue. But it was more than that; these kids were entering tournaments and winning cash for being on the winning team at the end of a match.
The eSports concept has been around for a long time. I mean, I remember making bets with my friend on the outcomes of our NHL 93 battles on Sega Genesis, and I am sure people were betting on their video game matches further back than that. Then ESPN got into the market by producing and broadcasting the Madden NFL Challenge, a made-for-TV production pitting the best Madden players in the world against one another, finally reaching a champion who won a cash prize.
How is this any different from gambling, you may ask? Well, I am having a hard time trying to determine the difference. First off, these games are playing in the same manner as any tournament; there are teams or individuals playing in brackets until there is only one left, and that is the winner of the grand prize. So, from a purely “is it gambling?” perspective, it is very much in the gray area. These are not house vs. player games like the traditional casino games, so they don’t fall into that category. They are more like poker in that vein; they are peer-to-peer games that are only played on a common system. Finally, the question of skill enters play here; is the game being won by the player or players with the most talent? The answer is usually yes in this case; there are no random number generators creating scenarios for these players. So, for the time being, these events seem to be classified as legal.
Knowing that the gaming industry is fickle, the people behind the eSports movement accelerated that marketing and distribution to try to bring scale to the industry before any regulation could stop it. One thing about eSports that is very different than the rest of the gaming world is the sheer number of people who want to watch these pros play games like DOTA 2 live. Yes, people like watching poker live as well, but there isn’t all that much action to follow over the course of a tournament that can last multiple days. ESports, on the other hand, was built for the Twitch-generation; games don’t last more than a couple of hours and are easily consumed in streaming content form.
Not only are eSports popular amongst millennials who stream the content, but there is a huge following for the land-based tour that has been created. Yes, you read that right; there are live events where you can go and watch these teams compete on a big screen. How many people would attend these events is what is truly staggering. My son asked me to take him to the event recently held in Toronto, but when I went to look for tickets, it had already sold out….the hockey arena. More than 18,000 people paid to watch the tour stop in Toronto. That adds up to significant business outside of the games themselves. Advertisers are lining up to spend money inside games and arenas, and the most recent International, the largest eSports event in the world that takes place in China, gave away 16 million in prizes alone.
First, there are casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere that are removing poker rooms or other areas of their casino and replacing them with eSports lounges, where players will be able to play in competitions as well as being able to gamble on events happening around the globe.
Furthermore, you don’t need to look any further than the pool of potential players that eSports can draw from. Most of the traditional gambling requires you to be a certain age to play, and with poker, we may start playing a little earlier around the kitchen table. By contrast, eSports counts on people playing the video games that are the most popular in the world; I can tell you that kids as young as 10 are playing these games (and probably younger), and video games are going nowhere but up in popularity. Adding in the new VR component will only make the player base even stronger, and as the industry grows from a real-money perspective, you can expect to see many smaller, local tours popping up across the country and the world.
So…will I be grooming my son to be a professional video game player? Hell no. He will learn to be as well-rounded as they come. But I will definitely encourage him to start his own Twitch channel and learn to be as funny as his dad when he is playing his Xbox…who knows, maybe his followers will pay for his college education.
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