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Esports market expanding as competitions internationalize, broadcast live

The large crowd at the finals of the esports competition "EVO 2018" cheer for the players on stage, right, in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Aug. 5, 2018. (Mainichi)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When video game characters displayed on a giant screen landed an impressive punch or kick, some 10,000 people packed into the arena of a casino hotel here let out a collective, "Whoa!"

Meanwhile, on the stage where the spotlight was pointed, players dressed in T-shirts and jeans or shorts gripped their controllers. From their sips of water to their deep breaths, nothing escaped the gaze of the audience fixed on their every move.

The crowds had turned out for the world's largest esports competition, "EVO 2018," held Aug. 3-5 in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the western United States. Roughly 7,400 players gathered from 68 countries and regions to control the video game characters. At last year's competition, Japan's "Tokido," known as the "pro gamer who graduated from the University of Tokyo," had 4.75 million viewers tuned in on streaming sites and other platforms to see the final he won in the "Street Fighter V" event.

Two professional esports players, far left, battle it out on stage during the finals of the esports competition "EVO 2018" while surrounded by a large audience, in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Aug. 5, 2018. (Mainichi)

Tickets for the finals held on Aug. 5, which ranged from approximately 60 to 115 dollars, or about 6,600-12,000 yen, were completely sold out. The overwhelming majority of audience members were men in their 20s and 30s.

Nam Pham, a 29-year-old aerospace engineer, explained that watching the competition live was more exciting, and said that audience members felt like they were part of the game. When asked about the International Olympic Committee (IOC) considering adopting esports as part of the Olympic Games, he confirmed that those in his generation, who grew up playing video games, would definitely be excited.

An international tournament for the game "Dota 2" held in Seattle, Washington, on the west coast of the United States, offered a total of more than 25 million dollars, or 2.7 billion yen, in prizes. There are also professional leagues for some games where players make over 50,000 dollars (about 5.5 million yen) annually. Special competition venues have cropped up all around the country, and there are already over 60 universities that offer scholarships to talented players.

Business related to esports is also booming thanks to the passionate support of young people. The Walt Disney Co. purchased the rights to broadcast the esports league for the popular title "Overwatch" in July, and the competition that month that attracted over 20,000 people was broadcast on a Disney-affiliated sports channel during prime time (7 p.m. to 11 p.m.) for the very first time. American financial giant Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2022, the number of viewers of esports competitions will exceed 276 million worldwide, matching the scale of viewership of the American professional football league, the NFL.

The market for esports is also expanding in China, which is home to the largest population of gamers in the world. According to a Chinese private think tank, the Chinese domestic market for esports surpassed 5 billion yuan, or some 80 billion yen, during the 2017 calendar year. The number of players and fans is estimated to be around 250 million people.

Two commentators discuss a match displayed on a large screen during the finals of the esports competition "EVO 2018" in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Aug. 5, 2018. (Mainichi)

"Arena of Valor," a smartphone war game released in 2015 by major Chinese internet company Tencent Holdings Ltd. currently occupies the top share in the Chinese esports world. The game involves controlling the actions of generals and others from Chinese history, and in August, the first international competition was held in Beijing, furthering efforts to internationalize the game.

"Strategy games are very popular in China. We have the ancient (military treatise) 'The Art of War,' and Chinese people tend to place a lot of importance on planning and strategy," explained popular Chinese esports industry commentator, 32-year-old Hai Tao. "With such a large population of gamers, the esports market in China will surely grow rapidly."

However, at the same time, societal issues like addiction to video and online games, known as "gaming disorder," are growing more serious among young people in China. The issue has gathered even more attention after being labeled a "problem with no solution" by the Chinese media after repeated reports of abuse in facilities meant to rehabilitate patients with gaming addictions.

With assistance from the Chinese government, the Electronic Sports Branch of the China Communication Industry was founded in August 2017 to tackle the issue. Director Hu Zheng, 42, pointed out, "While the market sees rapid growth, there are also problems that arise at the same time with internet addiction or games that include violence or pornography," and expressed the position that the organization will make efforts toward making the industry more wholesome.

(Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, Los Angeles Bureau, and Joji Uramatsu, China General Bureau)

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