Robbie Short

On October 29th, the Staples Center in Los Angeles hosted the League of Legends World Championship finals. League of Legends is an internationally popular “multiplayer online battle arena” game which pits two teams of five against each other, each with the goal of invading the enemy team’s base and destroying their “nexus”. Passionate fans from all corners of the globe jumped at the chance to nab their seat at the biggest night in esports. As a result, the venue was sold out within an hour of the tickets becoming available.

That may sound impressive, but the figures for physical attendance on the day of the match pale in comparison to the number of viewers who watched from behind their keyboard. With a peak concurrent viewership of 14.7 million individuals and a staggering total of 43 million unique views throughout the night, professional gaming has arrived and is here to stay.

League of Legends has been taking the world by storm since it was released by Riot Games in 2009. Its massive success has brought the spectacle of esports to the mainstream media. Noticing that this was an entertainment medium ripe for monetization, investors like Mark Cuban and Russian billionaire Alister Usmanov have begun to flock to this burgeoning industry. As its trajectory converges with that of traditional sports — the question arises — will esports conform to the mold set before it, or will it redefine the entire industry in its own image?

There is no doubt that the commercialization of esports will bring radical change to the professional gaming scene. However, the jury is still out on whether or not the surrounding community welcomes these changes. Many fans see lucrative business deals and increased commercialization as a sign that the world is finally taking esports seriously, while others are concerned that corporatization will allow for the exploitation of a medium that is not yet fully understood.

Aaron Rathbun DIV ‘13 is one such concerned gamer. He is an alum of the Yale Divinity School, is the founder of Elm City Esports, a New Haven organization that works with local nonprofit organizations to host esports events. Its ultimate goal is to use the money raised to help send underprivileged youth from New Haven to summer camp. Rathbun describes it as a “mashup” of two of his greatest passions: working with impoverished teens and esports.

Rathbun is deeply troubled by the many avenues for exploitation of professional gamers. He notes that the majority of rising stars in these games are young and often naive when it comes to corporate intentions. “I think they’re especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of by savvy companies that see the gargantuan opportunities to make money in this new esports economy,” he said.

When compared the rest of the industry, esports are still in an incipient state. Professional athletes have access to countless resources with which to protect themselves from the abusive practices of league commissions and their sponsors. Player unions and specialized legal teams safeguard athletes from potential manipulation. Meanwhile, efforts to unionize in the world of esports have been faint, and the number of lawyers well versed in the nuances of the professional gaming scene is slim.

“Whether it’s team organizations and owners, corporate sponsors, gambling outlets or even the game developers who host events themselves,” Rathbun cautioned, “there are already many stories of commercial interests tainting the otherwise fun and competitive side of the scene.” The stories he’s talking about usually come out of South Korea, where esports is already a mainstream form of entertainment and the online handles of top players are household names. But even as nationally recognized celebrities, these players have no recourse for fighting back when professional leagues refuse to pay them adequate salaries and sponsors con them into signing disadvantageous contracts.

That being said, Rathbun remains optimistic for the future. “I think that in the same way that traditional sports have spawned an entire industry of agents, attorneys, and other services for the scene,” he continued, “there will need to be these types of professionals servicing the esports community.”

Creating an environment for players which protects them and yet does not stunt the growth of the industry is a tall order. Up until now, few have been willing to sacrifice the time necessary to do so. The hope among some members of the community is that as salaries and profit margins go up, the stakes will be too high for the players to neglect their need for representation and legal assistance.

To those who are the most enthusiastic for the continued rise of a global esports economy, the answer to these fears is to let the wave of commercialization run its course. “As money is funneled into esports, we will see it become increasingly similar to more traditional sports in the United States,” says Yale freshman and former nationally ranked League of Legends player, Nick Crosson ‘20. He is on the side of those who are welcoming the transition of esports from a niche community to the global market.

“There are a lot of traditional models pushing on that of esports right now. People with very deep pockets want to see it look more like the NBA or the NFL, because they know that these models can turn a hefty profit,” Crosson said. This may sound dreary to those who are apprehensive about corporate interests, but Crosson is not worried. He believes that aspects of the model that conventional sports run on can be vital to the stability of a budding industry like esports.

Currently, the 10 teams that duke it out throughout the 11-month season are not fixed. That means that teams at the bottom of the table face the chance of relegation, and teams outside of the league can compete to take these open spots. The trouble is that profits generated by teams outside of the league are chump change compared to those within it. A big enough drop in the standings could cost a team nearly everything, which is discouraging to those interested in investing. By establishing a set number of permanent teams and implementing a draft for the best new players, investors can sleep easy knowing that their team isn’t going anywhere.

While esports can learn plenty from other sports, what excites Crosson is how it can shake up the status quo. “What’s incredible about esports is that it is not limited in the ways that conventional sports are. Sold out stadiums are nice, but the true power of esports is in the fact that anyone with a laptop can hop online and stream their favorite team from the comfort of their bed.” And he’s not wrong.

Newzoo, a research firm that specializes in online gaming, predicts that esports will produce nearly $700 million in 2017. The vast majority of it will come from advertising and sponsorship deals. In addition, the internet has the unique ability to assign relevant ads to each individual viewer. This makes esports live streams the perfect place for companies to engage with the market of young consumers. Crosson firmly believes that esports is destined to be a multibillion dollar industry in the near future. He also contends that along with all of this money, the players and fans that make up the community of esports will also acquire the proper tools to determine its future.

The very idea that hundreds of millions of individuals are interested in watching others play video games at a professional level is still foreign to the majority of Americans. And yet, each year professional gaming gets closer to becoming the norm. Even those who are in tune with gaming culture continue to be astonished by its rise to prominence. “It feels like a really distant future,” said Eryk Banatt ’17, the co-founder and president of a Super Smash Bros club on campus, “but I could definitely see, in around 10-15 years, that esports has become so popular that every high school student has a team in their school.” From there, he believes that colleges may start to recruit top players into varsity esports programs. This would be followed by professional leagues snatching up the very best players in the country, and around the world, to compete at the highest level. He describes his outlook on the future of esports as “conservative” — the timeline might be a whole lot shorter. In any case, it is clear that with all of the coming success, virtual reality may very well become the reality.

Contact Daniel Dager at daniel.dager@yale.edu .