Competitive Gaming: How Human Stories Become Part of the Virtual Experience

With runway hits like Overwatch, Call of Duty and Fortnite, video games are officially out of our parents’ basement and into mainstream consciousness. With the newly announced $50 million gaming arena for the Philadelphia Fusion — and many more being built around the world — groups of spectators enjoy watching esports the same way NFL fans cheer on their favorite athletes and teams.

Esports have skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years, and 2019 is poised to continue this trend. But how did we get here? How did watching people play a “computer” game become nearly a billion dollar industry? The answer is also the biggest challenge for the new sport: humans.

Human Nature: The Evolution of Games

Long before we had PCs and gaming consoles, the idea of games, sports, and competition were how humans built community and camaraderie. It’s an easy way to gather with a group of any size and create shared meaning and experience; either via competition or towards a common goal.

As society advanced, competitive sports took on a new role. They gave the average person not only entertainment, but also something to aspire too; a goal to work towards. They encouraged people to work at their skills and push themselves to higher and higher standards. But not everyone can be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback or an Olympic curler. This is the unique space esports occupies. Video games can be played by EVERYONE.

“When played at a high competitive level, sport is an activity of demigods and heroes; virtual sport, however, humanizes sport by making it accessible to all of us. Anybody can have the experiences that were reserved for a few physically gifted individuals, the “chosen ones.” With eSport, we are witnessing the true democratization, humanization, and universalization of the sporting experience.”

 Antonio Sanchez Pato, in eSport: Towards a Hermeneutic of Virtual Sport

No longer is athletic prowess a detractor to making a living playing a sport professionally. Almost any person of any size, any age, any ethnicity, etc. can play a video game just as well as another. And with the broadening horizon of accessible controllers and hands free options, video games truly are available to nearly all humans. A Fortnite player in the United States can play with someone across the globe knowing they have the exact same access to practice, training and skill development.

But $50 million stadiums don’t need to exist everywhere for like minded fans to gather and watch a game like you do with The Big 3. Options are expanding with the advent of services like Twitch making game streaming a thing; people are watching their favorite players much like you’d watch your favorite football team on the screen. Audiences have their own hometown heroes in teams and players. This is also where the newest challenge lies for esports marketers. How do we bring humans together over a game where you have to have a screen involved and can’t afford to build a stadium?

Bring the Games into the Real World

Some marketers and teams are going the traditional route. Jerseys, pendants, T-shirts etc, all manner of apparel and sundries to show your team loyalty. Engaging with other fans in real time is a different matter. When you can’t turn around to high five the guy behind you after a big play, how do you keep the audience engaged and supportive? While dedicated arenas don’t exist in most cities, esports events are increasing in popularity. Whether it be a playoff bracket, spin-off event or a free standing tournament it’s becoming much easier to find in-person viewing options for your favorite video games; giving fans a chance to partake in the experience together.

Bring the Real World into the Games

Still others are adding a more traditional broadcast type feel to their streaming programs. Instead of straight streaming, they are now incorporating commentators giving play by plays and telling stories sent in from “at home” players about their experiences. Athlete profiles, team deep dives and more further showcase the people behind the screen. The same way ESPN might profile someone in a 30 by 30.

“These do not replace sports or the activities that inspire them, nor are they substitutes; they are new sports, a virtualization, as the motorcycle is to the bicycle, operating in another area of virtualization.” says Sanchez Pato.

Esports operate in a new unexplored space; borrowing humanizing pieces from traditional media but also forging a new path. Keep an eye on these teams, broadcasters and streamers for new ways to reach your audience. 2019 will be a big year of making new connections we haven’t seen before.