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Visualized: The Esports Journey to Mainstream

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esports journey to mainstream

Visualized: The Esports Journey to Mainstream

Although esports might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, its origins can be traced all the way back to the 1970s.

It was only in the past decade however, that a wave of technological innovation transformed the entire industry from an underground niche into a billion-dollar mainstream phenomenon.

Today, the nascent esports industry competes with some of the biggest sports leagues in the U.S., while global tech giants hastily invest billions of dollars to make their mark in what many consider to be the future of sports and entertainment.

How did it evolve into the industry we know today—and more importantly, will it maintain its furious pace of growth?

The History of Esports

Electronic sports (or esports), are organized, multiplayer video game competitions commonly played by professional gamers. Since its inception, the industry has continued to exceed expectations and reach new milestones every decade.

Note: The timeline of events are an abridged version of major achievements in the industry.

1970s: The Birth of Esports

The earliest known video game competition—the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics—took place in 1972 at Stanford University. The winner of the event received an annual subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.

While it was a modest first prize for the industry, it would set a foundation for future prize pools in the millions of dollars.

1980s: More Gaming Options

The 1980s ushered in better consoles for esports. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) took graphics, controls, gameplay, and video game accessibility to the next level.

Five years later, the Sega Genesis console was released in the U.S. and Japan to compete with Nintendo—which held a 95% market monopoly at the time.

1990s: The First Tournaments

Nintendo increased its commitment to esports by hosting the Nintendo World Championships. After touring 30 cities in the U.S., the finals challenged players to games like Super Mario Bros. and Tetris, with a 40-inch TV awarded to the winner.

Developers and gaming entrepreneurs created a flurry of leagues, including QuakeCon in 1996, followed by both the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) and the Professional Gamers League (PGL) in 1997.

In just a few years, these competitions helped esports gain significant traction.

2000s: The Explosion of Esports

Esports fully burst into the mainstream with Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch for $970 million in 2014. The live video game streaming site gave esports a platform to reach previously unthinkable heights, with popular games like League of Legends (LoL) and Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota) receiving millions of views.

In 2019, Google followed suit with its Stadia streaming service. The cloud-based video game platform aims to eliminate the need for hardware, allowing Google to aggressively compete in the esports space.

A Snapshot of Esports Today

The increasing involvement of developers and global tech giants has not only increased the audience size of esports—it has also led to bigger prize pools, and larger scale competitions across the world.

  • Demographics: 50% of esports viewership now comes from Asia.
  • Engagement: 6 billion hours were dedicated to watching esports in 2018, and will continue to grow to 9 billion by 2021.
  • Buy-in: The price of one of the 12 Overwatch League teams for sale in 2017 was $20 million.
  • Incentives: The Fortnite competition prize pool for the 2018 season was $100 million—equal to the entire esports prize pool in 2017.

It’s clear that esports continues to attract rapidly growing audiences at an unprecedented rate. However, there are still significant barriers inhibiting the industry from reaching its full potential.

The Future of esports

In order to maintain its furious pace of growth, the esports industry must first address five key challenges:

  • Diversity of game genres: The industry will need to produce more game genres in order to appeal to a wider audience outside of its current player base.
  • Geographic expansion of leagues: esports will need to expand to national, regional, and global levels if it wants to tap into bigger advertising budgets. However, while esports gains attention from global media, local events are more difficult to organize.
  • Regulation of competitions: With multimillion-dollar prize pools at stake, new rules and regulations are needed to combat cheating and match fixing.
  • Ownership of media rights: Content rights have not been a focus for publishers, as fan-generated content has served as free advertising for their games.
  • Media alignment: Traditional media brands are still reluctant to associate themselves with esports, as prejudices against competitive gaming still exist. For example, gaming culture is viewed as a harmful distraction, rather than a legitimate sport.

In less than 50 years, esports has evolved into a dominant form of entertainment today, eclipsing film and music industries by a wide margin. With an increasingly mainstream audience, the industry’s popularity and profitability shows no signs of slowing down—despite the challenges it faces.

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Bitcoin is Near All-Time Highs and the Mainstream Doesn’t Care…Yet

As bitcoin charges towards all-time highs, search interest is relatively low. How much attention has bitcoin’s recent rally gotten?

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Bitcoin Near All-Time Highs vs. Search Interest

Just about every financial asset saw a huge drop in March, but few have had the spectacular recovery that bitcoin has had since then.

Up more than 300% from the March lows, bitcoin is within $1,000 of its all-time high ($19,891) established three years ago. While 2017’s run-up saw a huge surge in Google searches, interest this time around is less than a quarter of what it was back then.

This graphic overlays bitcoin’s price changes against Google search interest for “bitcoin” between 2017-Nov 2020, showing the muted relative search interest for its recent rally. Despite Google search interest being low, it is turning upwards, potentially hinting at a rise to cap off 2020.

Nobody’s Searching? Maybe Bitcoin is Already Mainstream

Bitcoin’s mainstream attention in 2017 was exceptional, and was likely the first time many people had even heard about the digital asset.

After doing all of their Google research back then, it’s possible that the general population is now well aware of the cryptocurrency and doesn’t need to search up the basics again. Add to this that bitcoin is now easily purchasable through popular services like Robinhood and Paypal, and you have fewer people who need Google to figure out the intricacies of bitcoin wallets and transactions.

While people might not be searching for information on bitcoin, the media has certainly picked up on its movement over the past year. Mainstream coverage regarding the cryptocurrency is currently at a relative all-time high for the past 12 months.

Mainstream Media Mentions of Bitcoin

Even if current mainstream coverage isn’t far from previous peaks, it’s still likely that people are seeing an increase in bitcoin content in their news feeds following the recent surge.

This rally is also attracting increased talk on social media sites like Twitter. That said, while there has been a rise in the volume of bitcoin-related tweets in November 2020, numbers are still quite low compared to the amount of tweets in 2017.

Tweets mentioning Bitcoin

Daily tweet volume reached above 60,000 recently, but is still far from the +100,000 daily tweets that were being sent at the top of 2017’s bull run.

Where in the World is Google Search Interest for Bitcoin?

Even if worldwide search interest isn’t as high as it was in 2017, there is one country where bitcoin is being googled more now: Nigeria.

Since 2015, the Nigerian Naira has lost more than 50% of its value against the U.S. dollar. This, coupled with the country’s high share of unbanked citizens means that alternative currencies and payment methods have steadily risen in popularity and utility.

Nigeria Bitcoin Google Search Trends

FinTech startups like Chipper Cash are providing Nigeria and other African nations with no-fee P2P payment services, along with the ability to trade bitcoin. The service is also beta testing the buying and selling of fractional shares of popular U.S. stocks.

Started up in 2018, Chipper Cash’s monthly payment values are now over $100 million, and the company has attracted investment from top VC funds like Bezos Expeditions as they provide a valuable service in an emerging market.

If Bitcoin is Mainstream, Where Does It Go From Here?

While bitcoin is proving itself to be a useful medium of exchange around the world, it’s still primarily a speculative asset. As 2020 saw massive increases in money supply across the board, bitcoin reacted best compared to other speculative assets, with its ascent to $19,000 almost completely uninterrupted since the $10,000 price area.

Time will tell if 2017 is set to repeat itself, or if bitcoin is getting ready to set new all-time highs going into 2021.

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50 Years of Gaming History, by Revenue Stream (1970-2020)

Visualizing 50 years of gaming history, from the first wave of arcades and home consoles to a tsunami of mobile gaming.

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Game-Revenue-Timeline---Shareable-Updated

50 Years of Gaming History, by Revenue Stream (1970-2020)

View a more detailed version of the above by clicking here

Every year it feels like the gaming industry sees the same stories—record sales, unfathomable market reach, and questions of how much higher the market can go.

We’re already far past the point of gaming being the biggest earning media sector, with an estimated $165 billion revenue generated in 2020.

But as our graphic above helps illustrate, it’s important to break down shifting growth within the market. Research from Pelham Smithers shows that while the tidal wave of gaming has only continued to swell, the driving factors have shifted over the course of gaming history.

1970–1983: The Pre-Crash Era

At first, there was Atari.

Early prototypes of video games were developed in labs in the 1960s, but it was Atari’s release of Pong in 1972 that helped to kickstart the industry.

The arcade table-tennis game was a sensation, drawing in consumers eager to play and companies that started to produce their own knock-off versions. Likewise, it was Atari that sold a home console version of Pong in 1975, and eventually its own Atari 2600 home console in 1977, which would become the first console to sell more than a million units.

In short order, the arcade market began to plateau. After dwindling due to a glut of Pong clones, the release of Space Invaders in 1978 reinvigorated the market.

Arcade machines started to be installed everywhere, and new franchises like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong drove further growth. By 1982, arcades were already generating more money than both the pop music industry and the box office.

1985–2000: The Tech Advancement Race

Unfortunately, the gaming industry grew too quickly to maintain.

Eager to capitalize on a growing home console market, Atari licensed extremely high budget ports of Pac-Man and a game adaptation of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. They were rushed to market, released in poor quality, and cost the company millions in returns and more in brand damage.

As other companies also looked to capitalize on the market, many other poor attempts at games and consoles caused a downturn across the industry. At the same time, personal computers were becoming the new flavor of gaming, especially with the release of the Commodore 64 in 1982.

It was a sign of what was to define this era of gaming history: a technological race. In the coming years, Nintendo would release the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) home console in 1985 (released in Japan as the Famicom), prioritizing high quality games and consistent marketing to recapture the wary market.

On the backs of games like Duck Hunt, Excitebike, and the introduction of Mario in Super Mario Bros, the massive success of the NES revived the console market.

Estimated Total Console Sales by Manufacturer (1970-2020)

ManufacturerHome Console salesHandheld Console SalesTotal Sales
Nintendo318 M430 M754 M
Sony445 M90 M535 M
Microsoft149 M-149 M
Sega64-67 M14 M81 M
Atari31 M1 M32 M
Hudson Soft/NEC10 M-10 M
Bandai-3.5 M3.5 M

Source: Wikipedia

Nintendo looked to continue its dominance in the field, with the release of the Game Boy handheld and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. At the same time, other competitors stepped in to beat them at their own game.

In 1988, arcade company Sega entered the fray with the Sega Mega Drive console (released as the Genesis in North America) and then later the Game Gear handheld, putting its marketing emphasis on processing power.

Electronics maker Sony released the PlayStation in 1994, which used CD-ROMs instead of cartridges to enhance storage capacity for individual games. It became the first console in history to sell more than 100 million units, and the focus on software formats would carry on with the PlayStation 2 (DVDs) and PlayStation 3 (Blu-rays).

Even Microsoft recognized the importance of gaming on PCs and developed the DirectX API to assist in game programming. That “X” branding would make its way to the company’s entry into the console market, the Xbox.

2001–Present: The Online Boom

It was the rise of the internet and mobile, however, that grew the gaming industry from tens of billions to hundreds of billions in revenue.

A primer was the viability of subscription and freemium services. In 2001, Microsoft launched the Xbox Live online gaming platform for a monthly subscription fee, giving players access to multiplayer matchmaking and voice chat services, quickly becoming a must-have for consumers.

Meanwhile on PCs, Blizzard was tapping into the Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) subscription market with the 2004 release of World of Warcraft, which saw a peak of more than 14 million monthly paying subscribers.

All the while, companies saw a future in mobile gaming that they were struggling to tap into. Nintendo continued to hold onto the handheld market with updated Game Boy consoles, and Nokia and BlackBerry tried their hands at integrating game apps into their phones.

But it was Apple’s iPhone that solidified the transition of gaming to a mobile platform. The company’s release of the App Store for its smartphones (followed closely by Google’s own store for Android devices) paved the way for app developers to create free, paid, and pay-per-feature games catered to a mass market.

Now, everyone has their eyes on that growing $85 billion mobile slice of the gaming market, and game companies are starting to heavily consolidate.

Major Gaming Acquisitions Since 2014

DateAcquirerTarget and SectorDeal Value (US$)
Apr. 2014FacebookOculus - VR$3 Billion
Aug. 2014AmazonTwitch - Streaming$970 Million
Nov. 2014MicrosoftMojang - Games$2.5 Billion
Feb. 2016Activision BlizzardKing - Games$5.9 Billion
Jun. 2016TencentSupercell - Games$8.6 Billion
Feb. 2020Embracer GroupSaber Interactive - Games$525 Million
Sep. 2020MicrosoftZeniMax Media - Games$7.5 Billion
Nov. 2020Take-Two InteractiveCodemasters - Games$994 Million

Console makers like Microsoft and Sony are launching cloud-based subscription services even while they continue to develop new consoles. Meanwhile, Amazon and Google are launching their own services that work on multiple devices, mobile included.

After seeing the success that games like Pokémon Go had on smartphones—reaching more than $1 billion in yearly revenue—and Grand Theft Auto V’s record breaking haul of $1 billion in just three days, companies are targeting as much of the market as they can.

And with the proliferation of smartphones, social media games, and streaming services, they’re on the right track. There are more than 2.7 billion gamers worldwide in 2020, and how they choose to spend their money will continue to shape gaming history as we know it.

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