It’s been touted as “the biggest thing you’ve never heard of” and “the future of professional sports” but despite its meteoric rise in popularity across the world, eSports and its following in South Africa remains very niche.
For those who have been living under the much clichéd rock of ignorance, eSports or competitive gaming, is a phenomenon that has rocked the planet over the past few years, creating a multibillion dollar industry, turning several unknown gamers into international celebrities and forming a legion of ravenous, content-hungry fans in the process.
This appetite for gaming content has turned Twitch.tv (the number one source for streamed gaming content) into the 4th busiest website in the world - no wonder Amazon decided to buy it for nearly 1 billion dollars.
Across the globe, fans of eSports are cramming into massive football stadiums and streaming en masse to watch the world’s best players compete for millions of dollars in cash.
It seems ridiculous, then, that an industry that has become so huge so quickly can remain a secret to most people here in Mzansi. Surely everyone would know about eSports, or at the very least it would be inevitable that eSports would be huge here soon, just like every other first world “fad”.
One only has to look at the lines at the opening of Burger King, Starbucks or Krispy Kreme to realise we are infatuated with first world - and in particular American – culture, so why has eSports not exploded with the same enthusiasm?
To be honest, it’s the way eSports is being sold to the public. It doesn’t take too much work to find content in several notable South African publications discussing the topic of eSports with a variety of industry experts and notable figures in the local eSports community.
It also doesn’t take long to realise the narrative of all these publications is exactly the same. Either that eSports needs to be recognised as a legitimate sport, or the lucrative prize pools on offer. Predictably, each article will mention prize pools such as the Dota2 International at over $20million, or the fact that players spend 8-10 hours every day training and honing their skills.
We’ll be told again and again how much money these players earn and how similar eSports is to more traditionally recognised sports. We’ll be told this so often that one would be forgiven for believing that this is all eSports has to offer - that huge prize money and hard-working players is what makes eSports the phenomenon it is overseas.
And that’s why eSports, in all honesty, is not as popular in South Africa. The fact is that despite dozens of exceptionally talented individuals spending an inordinate amount of time training and analysing their games, contracted to well managed teams with strong corporate identities and playing in several million rand cash prize local tournaments each year, the viewership numbers for these tournaments are dreadful. For brands to invest millions only to get a few hundred viewers is not good for the growth of the industry.
The obvious risk is that potential future investors, who may have been enticed by the promise of eSports in a developing market such as South Africa, may be scared off if big brands with deep pockets can only secure such meagre viewership.
So - what is missing?
Entertainment. The missing piece. What the “E” in eSports should stand for.
Stop trying to sell eSports on the cash pools or on the fact that it’s a legitimate sport. Neither of those factors make me want to watch it.
Imagine I was trying to sell you on the idea of rugby. I’m a passionate supporter of rugby, but - for whatever reason - you’ve never heard of it.
What if I told you that the players work really hard and train for 8-10 hours a day?
What if I told you that rugby has all the characteristics of a “real” sport and should be considered as one?
What if I told you that this weekend there’s a big rugby tournament where the prize pool is going to be a million rand?
Do ANY of these factors make you excited to watch rugby? Well, then why do we try to sell eSports the same way? Surely I should be trying to sell eSports, or rugby for that matter, based on its entertainment value.
Imagine I collected 30 of the most massive, muscular individuals on the planet and got them to scrum, tackle and basically rip each other apart to escort a small payload to the objective which lies deep within enemy territory – that sounds a hell of a lot more entertaining.
In the end, does it matter if eSports are ever recognised as “legitimate” sports, like some rubber stamp or certificate of authenticity will change anything about what makes eSports the phenomenon that it is?
To grow the popularity of eSports in South Africa, event producers and content creators need to ask themselves one question: Is it entertaining? Because that’s what eSports stands for.
Gareth Woods is a stand-up comedian, musician and gaming enthusiast hailing from Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheGarethWoods.