Published On: Tue, May 21st, 2019

The Growth of Esports in the United States

The esports industry is one of the world’s greatest economic success stories right now as global revenues are expected to surge past $1 billion this year. North America is the largest market, boasting annual revenue of $409.1 million, and the United States accounts for the vast majority of that.

The world’s top five richest esports franchises are all based in the U.S. and big American companies like Intel and Coca-Cola are sponsoring major tournaments. However, economic might has rarely turned into trophies thus far, and U.S. teams lag behind their Asian and European rivals when it comes to competitive gaming success.

photo Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

America is actually the birthplace of esports, as the first ever competitive gaming tournament took place at Stanford University in California back in October 1972. It saw 20 Spacewar players assemble around the university’s PDP-10 computer to compete for beer and a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. The U.S. continued to be the hub of the competitive gaming scene over the years, hosting Atari’s Space Invaders Championship in 1980, which attracted 10,000 gamers. It also saw the first Street Fighter tournament, Battle of the Bay, in California in 1996.

However, esports only really exploded in popularity in the last 10 years, with the advent of widespread broadband internet and streaming services like Twitch. In that time, South Korea, China and Scandinavia have really seized the initiative and established themselves as key regions for esports. The leading teams in those countries are hero worshipped by their peers and placed on pedestals, and the U.S. is not quite there yet.

The Big Three

The three main esports in terms of prize money, prestige and popularity among viewers are League of Legends (LoL), CS:GO and Dota 2. LoL is the undisputed king and the biggest annual event is the World Championship – the final attracted 205 million viewers in 2018, considerably more than even the Super Bowl.

A European team, Fnatic, won the inaugural World Championship in 2011 and since then Asian teams have dominated it. Taipei Assassins triumphed in 2012, and then South Korean teams won five years in a row from 2013 to 2017, before Chinese team Invictus defeated Fnatic in last year’s Grand Final.

The leading Dota 2 tournament is called The International and this is by far and away the richest event within esports thanks to developer Valve’s compendium model. The International 2018 carried a prize pool of $25.5 million, and it always generates a great deal of attention at leading esports news hubs like Unikrn. In 2018, The International was seized by a European team called OG, who walked off with a cool $11.2 million for finishing first, ahead of Chinese outfit PSG.LGD. In 2018, Team Liquid won it. They have a base in the U.S., but it was founded in Europe and the Dota 2 team is based there. Over the years, just one America team has won the International – Evil Geniuses in 2015.

CS:GO is the most popular first-person shooter within esports, and the second most viewed game in the world, behind only LoL. The biggest tournaments are the Majors. There have been 15 in total, and an American team has only won once, when Cloud9 clinched victory in Boston last year. Right now a Danish team, Astralis, is all but invincible, topping the world rankings by a considerable margin, vanquishing all and sundry in contemptuous fashion and cruising to the last two Majors.

Playing Catch Up

The U.S. esports scene clearly has some work to do if it is to bridge the gap. Yet there are signs that competitive gaming is beginning to permeate the mainstream more and more across the country.

In November 2018, the largest dedicated esports facility in North America flung its doors open for the first time. The Arlington Convention Center in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas now hosts Esports Stadium Arlington, a 100,000 sq. ft. gaming arena that can host up to 2,500 spectators. Arlington City Council invested $10 million in the project and it is leasing the stadium out to Esports Venues LLC for $250,000 per year.

Further esports arenas opened in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. and a $70 million complex in Houston will include an esports arena hosting Overwatch team Houston Outlaws. This shows that esports will become a lot more prevalent in the U.S. and it will be increasingly difficult for naysayers to write it off as a meritless leisure activity and ostracize the stars of competitive gaming.

Esports massively over-indexes with younger generations as they have grown up with the technology, so the scene is only going to grow in popularity. It is also a relatively new pursuit and it is becoming a lot more professional, organized and disciplined, with increasing amounts of money being pumped into it each year.

This should result in increasing numbers of young Americans viewing a career in competitive gaming as totally viable. The infrastructure in the U.S. lags behind other countries, but that should all change given the wealth of teams like Cloud9, Team SoloMid, Echo Fox and OpTic Gaming. Celebrities are steaming in and many professional U.S. sports franchises now have esports divisions, but they are still finding their feet. They will soon improve things like training and scouting, and this will all contribute to a much more dynamic scene.

Time to Shine

Based on prize money alone, all of the world’s 39 highest earning esports stars are Dota 2 players, thanks to the eye-watering sums The International dishes out. Americans UNiVeRsE, ppd and Fear are ranked ninth, 10th and 12th respectively in that list, but we should see more joining the upper echelons in the next year or two.

Epic Games is hell-bent on turning Fortnite into a leading esport and it has assigned $100 million in prize money for tournaments in 2019 alone, so it is on course to usurp Dota 2 as the richest esport. Right now nine of the top 10 highest earning players are American, so it should not be long before U.S. stars dominate the charts of the highest earning players in the world.

The gaming scene is dynamic and ever changing, with new titles being released each week. Developers are desperate to turn their games into esports in order to provide longevity, and many will succeed in the years ahead. If the increasingly professional and organized U.S. franchises can identify these games early and invest in talent, there is every reason to think that American teams could dominate competitive gaming in the years ahead due to the size of the population and the country’s economic strength.

The U.S. boasts more than twice as many Olympic medals as any other country and there is every reason to think it could be similarly successful within esports if it puts its mind to it.

Author: Carol Trehearn

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