What Is Esports? (And What It Means for Business)

Welcome to our industry deep dive on all things esports. For more industry deep dives, business opportunities, and access to a community of 15k+ founders, builders, and operators, sign up for Trends today.

Highlights from this in-depth report:

  • Competitive esports are drawing more spectators than ever before
  • Funds are pouring into esports companies, with the 10 largest deals of 2021 totalling $367m+
  • College esports are just taking off; the space will provide opportunities in recruitment, coaching, and sponsorships
  • The rising importance of gamer health and wellness is driving demand for supplements, fitness, and mental health support in a highly underserved market
  • The esports event industry will present opportunities in gaming tourism, tech and media partnerships, and trade shows
  • The esports gambling industry is set to explode; cash is often not the chosen currency, and new betting formats are creating white space
  • Equipment sales are soaring, and we identify opportunities in the lucrative resale market, rental services, and gaming wearables
  • Brand partnerships account for ~59% of revenue among esports companies, and possibilities for customized in-game content and collaborations abound
  • There are a number of ways to enter the gamer merchandise market as demand for themed goods soar
  • Independent esports streamers provide new broadcasting opportunities and unique ways for brands to connect with millions of viewers daily 
  • The future of esports: We touch on ways to monetize viewers, leverage AR experiences, and the nonbinary gaming future

What is Esports?

Esports, or electronic sports, describes the world of competitive-level online gaming. Much like a traditional spectator sports (but nerdier), viewers tune in digitally or attend live multiplayer competitions, where professional gamers are pit against one another, often for cash prizes that can reach into the millions of dollars. 

Esports Market Size 

A chart that shows projected growth of the esports market from 1.12 billion ins 2021 to 3.57 billion in 2027
*2027 Figures projected. Source: Yahoo News

The esports market is booming. This emerging attraction already has a larger audience than American football and rugby combined and is predicted to generate more revenue than both the UEFA Champions League and Formula 1 in 2022.

In 2021 the League of Legends finals match had an average minute audience (AMA) of 30m+ and peaked at 73.8m concurrent viewers — a ~60% lift over 2020.

With prize pools of $40m+, esports stars can walk away from tournaments with more money than Wimbledon singles champions. 

The industry was valued at $1.1B in 2019, and is forecast to balloon at a 21.3% CAGR over between now and 2027.

The most watched esports are not traditional sports-related video games like Madden and FIFA; they are multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), real-time strategy (RTS), and first-person shooter (FPS) games. 

However, as the industry evolves, the line between sports and esports is becoming increasingly blurred: Traditional sports franchises are starting to embrace esports options, and the International Olympic Committee even staged a slate of 5 esports ahead of the 2021 Tokyo olympics. 

The most popular viewing platform is Twitch; but fans typically use multiple platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and even broadcast TV. This makes the exact viewership count for events difficult to quantify, but one thing is abundantly clear: Viewership is soaring.

A chart showing the growth of esports viewership in the US from 21.1 million in 2019 to a projected 31.4 million in 2023
People of any age who view 1+ times per month (*Projected) Source: Insider Intelligence

Esports fans tend to be deeply engaged, averaging 100 minutes of watch time per session. And the market isn’t just serving “hardcore gamers”: Only about half of viewers actually play the video game they are watching.

Gaming and esports are deeply integrated: Many fans become engaged in esports, the professional scene of gaming, via their own playing experience. Stars and fans can play both competitively and casually. 

Throughout this piece we touch on opportunities that focus on esports, but are integrated with the wider gaming space.

A diagram of the relationship between different players in the esports industry
Source: Nielsen

The Rise of Esports Companies 

Global funding for esports companies is exploding as investors scramble to grab a piece of the growing pie. The industry has seen hugely diverse investor backing — from athletes and sports tycoons to tech moguls and pop artists.

In 2019, Will Smith came to the party with a stake in Gen.G, then David Beckham-backed Guild became the first esports company to list on the London Stock Exchange.

The popular opinion is that this megatrend is still in its early innings. 

We spoke to Josh Chapman, co-founder of Konvoy Ventures, an early stage video game VC fund focusing on infrastructure technology (one of the few in the world to do so). 

“What drew me to the space was a lack of dedicated investment fund managers. Gaming has grown at a 9% CAGR [in 2020] — it’s going to be a record year. And that 9% CAGR is more than double gambling, film, and other entertainment sectors that are at 4% or less on their calendar growth.”

Konvoy Ventures’ first fund closed in 2019 just shy of $11m, and now has $110m under management.

2021 saw several esports companies raise millions, and in early 2022, Microsoft blew everyone away by purchasing Activision Blizzard for a whopping $70B.

The 10 largest esports investments of 2021
Source: Dexerto

Opportunities in the Esports Industry

We break down opportunities through 8 mini-signals, each delving into different aspects of the esports industry:

  1. College esports: Recruitment, Monetization, and Coaching
  2. Gamer health and wellness: Supplements, Fitness, and Mental Health
  3. Events and experiences: Partnerships, Gaming Tourism, and Trade Shows
  4. Esports betting: In-Game Currencies and Esports Guides
  5. Gaming tech: Kits, Resales, Rentals, and Wearables
  6. Brand exposure: Entering the Virtual World, Volatility, and Demographics
  7. Gamer merchandise: Entry-Level and Luxury Merch
  8. Independent esports streamers: Platforms and Building Communities

1. The Surge of College Esports

The number of colleges with officially recognized esports programs in 2022
Sources: Red Bull and NACE

Robert Morris University in Chicago was the first US school to embrace esports in 2014; since then 180+ more colleges have followed suit. 

When Boise State University opened its esports program in 2018, 20 students enrolled. The next year there were 200 applicants. “The interest in our university based on esports is a big part of the conversation,” says Chris Haskell, who runs Boise’s program. 

Michael Brooks, from the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), advises colleges that are considering esports to be prepared to double whatever space they have planned by the 2nd year of the program.

And esports team competing in front of a crowd
Source: University of Jamestown via Medium

As college esports take off, opportunities will present in a multitude of sectors. 

Recruitment: Computer engineers, database managers, and sound engineers — especially those with a solid background in gaming — are in high demand. College esports groups highlight students strongest in these fields.

Konvoy has invested in Rupie, a talent marketplace network, specifically for game development talent — which Josh Chapman describes as a “$17B-a-year industry.” 

College esports will create a hotbed for up-and-coming game developers, and, as Josh says, “gamers are really powerful assets.”

Entrepreneurs could design platforms like Rupie, specific to the college esports space. Recruiters and tech companies could work with colleges to identify the most promising candidates. And if they haven’t already, colleges will start to recruit top gamers at the high school level.

Monetization: College football generates $4B+ annually, the majority via broadcasting rights, brand sponsorships, and ticket sales. 

Recent industry shake-ups have expanded the avenues through which traditional college athletes are able to monetize. Analysts estimate that in 2021, top college players made $500k-$1m+ just from running their social media accounts and picking up endorsement deals. 

It’s only a matter of time before college esports follow suit. These new revenue streams will need to be effectively managed and leveraged — from the perspective of colleges, gamers, and brands alike.

Esports Coaching and ‘The Path to Pro’: The gaming coach industry is already estimated to be worth $1B, with coaches raking in an average of ~$62.8k/year. 

An esports coach working with his team
Source: Red Bull

As esports become increasingly professionalized, demand for gaming coaches, especially at the high school and college levels, will soar. This year online marketplace Fiverr.com recorded a 43% jump in demand for video game coaching sessions between January and March of 2020.

The coaching market is still largely informal and unregulated, but that is likely to change. The National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors (NAECAD) was founded in 2019, and launched an esports certification program believed to be a global first of its kind.

There are synergies between traditional sports and esports coaching. Taylor Johnson, an ex-NFL performance coach, moved over to esports when he saw “way more similarities than differences” between the 2, and a void in health and wellness for esports athletes. 

Traditional sports performance coaches might leapfrog into the growing esports market.

There is also opportunity to leverage AI within the training space: Neuroscientists at Klutch developed Aim Lab. Their technology mimics the physical rules of a game, identifies players’ weaknesses, and provides improvement exercises.

A screenshot from Aim Lab
Source: Klutch

Market expansion will drive innovation in esports certification options. Besides providing online platforms to match coaches to students, entrepreneurs could develop coaching training programs — even game- or genre-specific, complete with sections on marketing, social media management, psychology, etc.

According to Josh Chapman, “One of the biggest spaces where I see a ton of room for growth is the amateur scene — high school and college/university. It’s so bad today; there is no system, no infrastructure to get kids from primary school up. It just doesn’t exist.”

He calls this the “path to pro” — and entrepreneurs who develop one for the growing number of would-be esports stars will win big.

2. Gamer Health and Wellness

A chart of rising consumer search interest in the G Fuel product
Source: Google Trends

The pressure to squeeze in endless hours of gaming can take a huge physical and mental toll — and esports stars are burning out. 

In June of 2020, League of Legends (LoL) champion Jian “Uzi” Zihao, considered China’s most famous esports star, announced his retirement due to “chronic injuries” — at age 23. Doctors treating esports stars report seeing displaced tendons, neck and back pain that requires surgery, and high levels of anxiety and insomnia. 

While esports athlete health has gone largely under the radar (mostly because the sport is not deemed physically demanding), studies are starting to show the medical toll

Lindsey Migliore, the “Gamer Doc,” brings gamer health and wellness to the mainstream. She is one of the first medical professionals and brands to focus on the space, which presents numerous opportunities, such as:

Energy Drinks: Gamers are targeted by brands offering products with exceedingly high caffeine, taurine, and sugar content. Energy drinks especially are a gamer staple: 

The G Fuel nutrition label (it's not great)
Source: G Fuel Website

The negative effect of these substances on both physical and mental health is well documented. There is a dire need for healthier alternatives. 

Entrepreneurs could leverage the growing adaptogenic trend and provide healthier energy drinks that incorporate compounds like L-theanine, marketed specifically to gamers. 

Supplements: You could branch out to gamer-focused supplement products and create vitamins, bars, shakes, etc. 

For example, the majority of indoor athletes are vitamin D deficient; why not develop a supplement line specifically for gamers? 

A chart of rising search interest for gamer nutrition
Source: Google Trends

Meal Kits: Top competitive gamers spend 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week gaming; tailored gamer meal kits would provide athletes (and their fans) with convenient, healthy options.

Physical and Mental Fitness: The misconception that gamers are all couch potatoes is fast becoming outdated. 

Esports require constant high speed hand and wrist movement. Actions per minute (APM) is a metric used to measure gamers’ dexterity; top stars average 500-600 APM — translating to 8-10 actions per second.

The level of cortisol produced during gaming is on par with a race car driver. Combine this with up to 14 hours of active gaming daily, and fitness becomes, well, rather important.

Source: Reddit

The rising recognition of fitness will present big opportunities for specialized esports companies, focused on both physical and mental health. 

Entrepreneurs could develop gamer training programs that target specific muscle groups, and build mental endurance. Avenues to alleviate back, neck, and wrist pain will also be in high demand.

You could create posture and muscle support products specifically for gamers. Monthly Google search volume for “gaming gloves” is already hovering around all-time high; what about back support, wrist wraps, gamer pillows for better spinal alignment, etc.?

A chart of sharply rising amazon search interest for lumbar support pillow for office chair
Source: Jungle Scout

Meditation apps skyrocketed during the pandemic; esports companies could develop apps for gamers to help manage their occupation-specific stresses.

There is rising demand for sports psychologists; esports will provide a specialized high-growth niche within this profession.

Gamer Dating: Dating for gamers is a growing space ancillary to mental wellness. A number of sites exist (e.g., Soulgeek, which averages ~97k+ monthly visits, according to Similar Web). But there is a dire shortage of decent gamer-centric dating apps.

Entrepreneurs with a solid understanding of the industry could develop strong offerings in this nascent space. 

Think nonbinary options, matches based on favorite games rather than appearance, and links to Discord and Steam rather than just Facebook and Instagram. Why not have a first date virtually, over Discord, playing an MMO together?

3. Events and Experiences

A packed arena at an esports competition
Credit: Bartosz Plotka/Riot Games

A survey found that 60% of esports fans are willing to travel to watch their favorite games and players, translating to ~297m people currently, and rising. 

Top events treat fans to live music performances and impressive AR spectacles: The LoL finals have featured a soaring dragon (2017), a virtual K-pop concert (2018), and a holographic hip-hop battle (2019).

Credit: Riot Games

A growing fan base, hungry for esports experiences, unlocks opportunities far beyond just championship tournaments. 

Partnerships: The momentum in esports events is providing opportunity for increased partnerships with other entertainment sectors.

Fortnite has hosted live concerts, premiered new albums by major artists, and featured content from movie directors; during the pandemic, the game hosted a live rap concert that attracted ~30m viewers.

Other popular games (Roblox, Grand Theft Auto) have adopted similar strategies in the past. As new games come onto the market, opportunities will soar. Gaming festivals might even become the next big thing (Coachella for gamers, anyone?).

Gaming Tourism: Here at Trends, we’ve written about the birding tourism industry, which generates a whopping ~$41B in revenue a year — in the US alone. Why not provide travel and tourism packages for gamers?

Options could range from all-inclusive tournament experiences to immersive escapes where travellers jet off to experience all things gaming at their destination of choice.

Per Josh Chapman, a gaming fan himself: “Some of the tourism side is magic, like the League of Legends park. You walk around the map, and it’s half a mile big, it’s enormous. Dragons and paraphernalia, it’s an awesome visualization of everything that’s going on in the game, and it’s kind of one big party.”

Entrepreneurs could create on-the-ground experiences as new games roar onto the market. You could also focus on accommodation and eateries.

The Arcade in Amsterdam describes itself as the “world’s first video game hotel.” In China, luxury gamer cafes cater to players but also, increasingly, esports spectators — by providing a gamer-centric social environment.

a screenshot from the website of the worlds first gaming hotel
Source: The Arcade Hotel

Education and Networking: As all things esports and gaming rise, the number of firms and individuals on the fringes, but looking to capitalize, will soar. Education and networking will be key. 

Esports companies could provide for this market by tapping into the highly lucrative trade show business. You might enjoy Sam’s piece on how these (arguably unsexy) firms are minting billions — and his framework on how to leverage the opportunities there.

Virtual Events: While the Canton Fair in China’s transition to virtual in 2020 was not without teething problems, it did demonstrate participants’ willingness to embrace digital: The virtual fair pulled around the same number of exhibitors (25k) as 2019’s physical event.

Gaming events in particular lend themselves to virtual platforms: Fans and players alike thrive off online interactions. Opportunities will abound, especially for those entrepreneurs who leverage the massive social side of online gaming.

Media and Tech Support: Media companies should look to take advantage of the momentum gaming has produced. For example in mid-2020, Sony announced the building of an immersive media team to work at the intersection of music and gaming. 

This will in turn create opportunities for supporting industries such as tech companies that supply the equipment and infrastructure for these experiences, particularly those in the AR space (TetaVi, an Israeli hologram startup, raised $6m that same year).

two esports teams compete in front of a packed crowd
Source: Mashable

Event Hosting: Established businesses could also pursue innovative ways to access industry growth.

Firms with laser tag facilities, rock climbing gyms, indoor sports halls, etc. could rent out their premises for gaming tournaments and parties (s/o to Trendsters Steven Brown and Rob Davy, who put this on our radar). 

Movie theaters have already begun to leverage this opportunity.

Caterers and event organizers could develop themed options: Gamer weddings are already a thing, and Keywords Everywhere shows 40.5k Americans search for “gaming parties” monthly.

“Professional gaming service providers, like operators, are a really big trend,” Josh Chapman told us. “Basically the people that help produce and put on these professional events, that make the economics work, manage sponsors — that’s really a business model I don’t see going away anytime soon.”

4. Esports Betting

a chart of the US esports betting market rising from 800 million dollars in 2019 to a projected 13 billion in 2025
Source: Digiday

With the soaring growth forecasted for esports, it’s a safe (ahem) bet that the esports gambling industry will also explode.

The opportunities outlined in our piece on the lucrative market of sports betting (one of our most popular articles to date) apply to the esports market, too. But there are also some specific niches to take advantage of.

In-Game Currencies: Interestingly, cash is not always the favored esports betting currency: In games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), virtual currencies (here specifically, skins) account for 80%+ of wagering activity.

Source: Legal Sports Report

This opens up huge opportunities for 3rd-party brands who design tradeable in-game items, and collectors who purchase — or earn, via gameplay — limited editions, whose value then soars.

Esports Guides: Although small fries in the bigger esports picture, sports-simulation games are leading the pack in betting growth: The 40% rise in esports betting volume in the UK between March and April 2020 was fueled by FIFA and NBA 2K.

This is likely because sports-related games provide a simple crossover from traditional sports — the offered betting markets and formats are the same. 

There may be significant opportunity to produce TL;DR guides for understanding and betting on esports such as LoL, CS:GO, Dota 2, etc. — and for new games as they come roaring onto the market.

5. Gaming Tech

The booming esports market is driving up sales of gaming tech — for athletes and spectators alike. Equipment required for streaming and playing is already in high demand. 

A table of amazon search volume for various gaming tech products
Source: Jungle Scout

Beyond general sales or logistics, entrepreneurs could focus on:

Gaming Kits: Provide kits containing core gaming equipment, for various levels. Ex.: “The Starter Kit,” “The Go-Pro Gamer,” “The Streaming Set,” etc. You could also offer a variety of optional add-ons, like lighting and green screens.

Resale: The speed (and high prices) at which new tech is released is likely to create a roaring secondhand industry. Entrepreneurs could provide a resale platform for quality tech, or even tech components (much like the opportunities identified in our piece on the secondhand e-bike boom).

Rentals: Tech and equipment rental might also provide attractive opportunities. You could offer monthly subscriptions for gaming kits and products, similar to what Grover (raised €250m in 2020) does with its pay-as-you-go service, but specifically for gamers.

Give consumers the option to buy out the tech when their period is up, or move on to try out newer/different models.

Wearables: Garmin released an esports smartwatch that allows gamers to livestream their biometric data. Soon the market will be flooded by a slew of gamer-centric wearable tech: Think EEG headsets, discreet wireless microphones, and immersive gaming vests

Fitness Esports: Fitness video games utilizing VR are on the rise; wearables will catalyze growth in this space. A future niche of competitive esports based on fitness gaming will open up new equipment, tech, partnership, and training opportunities.

6. Brand Exposure

A breakdown of 2021 revenue streams among esports companies
Source: Newzoo

In 2021, sponsorships made up the lion’s share (~59%) of esports revenue. They brought in $641m+ in 2021, an ~11% increase over 2020.

Brands targeting digital natives should take careful note: In 2019, the majority of esports fans were aged 18-24, up by 60%+ from 2018. And they have significant spending power. IAB research found 43% of esports fans have an annual household income of $75k or more.

Traditional sports have considerably limited offerings in terms of brand advertising; esports provide a much bigger canvas. 

The rise in female gamers (~46% of gaming enthusiasts are women) and the gender-neutral cohort of Gen Z are also opening up opportunities for non endemic brands. MAC recently worked with developers to produce makeup lines corresponding to game characters. Fashion collaborations are also growing

The in-game/virtual aspect of esports provides a whole new world for brand exposure. Brands are partnering with developers to create virtual items that fans can collect or purchase in-game, for real money.

If you can’t afford Moschino IRL, don’t worry — your Sims character can, for just $10. The Italian fashion house is just one of many luxury brands jumping into the esports playground: Givenchy, Valentino, and Marc Jacobs have all entered into digital collaborations

Louis Vuitton (who already designs virtual in-game items) spent 900+ hours creating a custom trophy case for LoL’s 2019 championship finals.

Sources: Riot Games and Louis Vuitton

New games, trends, and events will continue to provide brands with growing exposure options. Beyond direct partnerships and collaborations, ancillary opportunities also present:

Taking Advantage of Market Volatility: Developments in esports arise at a much higher rate than traditional sports. New games are continuously disrupting the market — and the fan following is often immediate. 

Apex Legends amassed 1m players just 8 hours after its launch in February 2019. In 2020, the closed beta of Valorant hit a new Twitch record when it logged a total watch time of 34m hours (with a peak viewership of 1.7m) on the first day.

You could provide brands with a platform that tracks games in development, predicts which demographic will be their largest follower cohort, and outlines the best ways in which to collaborate.

Demographic Specificity: Authentic, real connection to target audience is paramount in esports. Fans are not homogenous; there is opportunity to focus on specific niches (as outlined in this McKinsey report) and cater to various needs, for example:

  • Sports-simulation game fans (e.g., FIFA) tend to be more athletic and health conscious; brands could focus on real-world offerings as opposed to virtual. Think athletic gear, health supplements, wearables to compare biometrics when gaming vs. playing, etc.
  • Fans of newer esports (e.g., Overwatch) place big emphasis on outward appearance; target them with fashion, beauty, gender-neutral options, etc.
  • Niche esports fans (e.g., Starcraft II) are most interested in literature and travel; provide them with applicable merchandise, international events/experiences, etc.

7. Gamer Merchandise

Beyond sponsors and branded options, the D2C gaming merchandise space is still in its relative infancy. 

The limit to what fans might purchase is apparently boundless: Gamer Belle Delphine made headlines last year when she offered jars of her bath water for $30 each — and sold out immediately. 

Entry-Level Merch: You could develop offerings in the low-cost space — think themed printed clothing, mugs, decor, etc. 

Jungle Scout shows these novelty gaming socks bring in a whopping $77k/month. Other popular gaming merch on Amazon:

Luxury Merch: CyberSmithy raised pre-seed funding to expand its jewelry line for gamers; as the space takes off, a slew of firms will dive into the high-end esports merchandise market.

expensive jewelry from CyberSmithy
Source: CyberSmithy

Besides jewelry, entrepreneurs could leverage 3D printing to provide fans with real-life replicas of costumes, ornaments, and weapons. 

You could even 3D print fans’ characters (or their favorite esports star’s character) — and create personalized collectibles from memorable games, tournaments, epic battles, etc. 

Custom gaming equipment will also present attractive opportunities. This could be personalized to meet fans’ unique needs, and/or incorporate their chosen theme, favorite colors, etc. 

8. Independent Streamers, Casual Gaming, and Esports

A chart of the total hours watched on Twitch by quarter from Q3 of 2019 to Q3 2021
Source: Streamlabs

The most popular esports events are major team competitions like world championships, which draw in record peak live viewerships. But it’s important to note that professional competitions make up just 11% of total esports viewing. Much of the rest goes to independent or casual (non-professional) streamers.

Twitch is the dominant esports streaming platform, currently boasting ~70% of market share for hours streamed. YouTube Gaming and Facebook Gaming make up the difference.

Microsoft attempted to rival Twitch with its platform Mixer — even enticing streamer giants Ninja and Shroud over — but viewers did not follow, and the platform crashed.

Mixer’s downfall illustrates how streaming is primarily social: In-stream chats and an established sense of community are crucial parts of the viewership experience.

There will be platforms after Mixer that test the waters to rival Twitch as streaming titan; those that manage to successfully shake up, and leverage, the social side of this massive viewership market will win big.

esports athlete shroud streaming on twitch
Source: CCN

Esports News: ESPN announced the shut down of all of their esports coverage. While the firm linked the decision to COVID-related layoffs, it’s clear the daily editorial coverage of esports, which ESPN began in 2016, was not finding its successful market niche.

This is likely due to fans’ engagement on platforms like Twitch, Discord, and Reddit rather than broadcast TV or newsletters. For example, R/GamerNews has 580k+ subscribers.

These massive, established communities keep members updated with industry happenings in real time; and leave little room for 3rd-party news providers.

Entrepreneurs might be able to sneak a foot in the door by leveraging established community infrastructure. For example, providing esports news streams on Twitch, complete with top streamer guests and game developers. Live in-stream chats would provide a constant flow of Q&A and community engagement.

A collection of news streams could then be posted on a YouTube esports account, for fans unable to join the lives.

a map of dozens of subreddits frequented by gamers
Source: Related Subreddits

Streamer Partnerships: Many esports fans support their favorite streamers via monthly subscriptions for $5 (50% of which goes to Twitch). This gives viewers access to exclusive content like subscriber-only chats, emojis, and badges. 

It’s a lucrative market for streamers (and platforms).

Entrepreneurs are starting to take advantage of fans’ willingness to pay for exclusive content and a sense of community: Skrmiish allows fans to create virtual teams and leaderboards, and even pay to play live with their favorite streamers.

Avenues and platforms for fans to connect with stars and communities will soar. Trendster Nathan Resnick is already leveraging the opportunity through his platform Game; you can check out his demo vid here.

Entrepreneurs could branch out to include options for one-on-one coaching sessions, and connect new players to established streamers and veteran gamers within communities.

Brand Exposure: Independent esports streamers provide huge brand visibility — especially for those firms who sponsor individual gamers, and provide in-game items.

Twitch also tests out new advertising strategies, which provide even more opportunities for brands to gain exposure in the esports market — if the platform manages to balance the community backlash.

Connecting With Viewers: There is further opportunity to connect with fans via things like Twitch drops, where viewers are chosen at random to receive gifts that contain in-game rewards, or exclusive early access to prereleases. 

It’s only a matter of time before drops branch out to include a wider range of non-virtual rewards, opening up significant opportunity for brand collaborations.

Twitch Bits provide a similar opportunity: Fans earn the virtual currency through hours watched or direct purchase. The Gillette Gaming Alliance with Twitch allows fans to earn Bits from IRL purchases of Gillette products; they can then exchange these for customized virtual content from their favorite gamers.

The Future of Esports

Source: ViewSonic

Esports’ rapid evolution will continue as technology advances and audiences grow. We touch on 5 areas of particular future interest:

Interaction Technology: When we spoke to Josh, he mentioned how shockingly under-monetized esports is: “The average NFL viewer is valued at, like, $45 per fan or something; esports is at around $3. Especially in esports, the viewer has been trained to get too much value for free.”

Josh sees improved ways for fans to interact as a way to monetize. “So when you’re watching a sports match, there are better ways to watch than the way that we’ve always been watching football or lacrosse, or the NBA. Esports is a digital game, so there should be ways to augment the viewer experience more.

“For example, if I’m watching LoL with all my friends, could I pay to have my face put literally on the map, or other fun stuff like that? If I could put Josh in the middle of a premier league match on the field for 10 minutes, would I pay $1k for that? Probably, yeah!

“As the fan base grows from 500m people watching esports, to 1B to 1.5B, if you can figure out how to get even $11 from each of these people, now you’re talking about esports becoming, instead of a billion-dollar industry, a $10B+ industry.”

Content Diversification: Kuaishou, a leading short-form video firm, participated in VSPN’s $100m raise. VSPN’s CEO, Dino Ying, regards short-form video as “an important part of our future strategy.” 

This is the first signal of esports branching out to embrace different forms of content — which will drastically increase its reach.

Keeping pace with social media trends and content creation will be key for brands and firms looking to the future of esports. Collaborations with influencers, celebrities, and platforms are on the horizon. Watch out, TikTok.

Augmented Reality: Already a huge draw card at events, AR will continue to enrich esports experiences. Integration of real-world gaming and virtual competitions is on the horizon. 

Think of a LoL theme park, but built entirely through AR. Or AR versions of world leagues in various locations, all in real time. In the words of Dino Ying, “the possibilities are endless.” 

Changing Valuations: A high-growth, high-volatility industry does have its pitfalls. Josh cautions investors in esports teams going forward.

“We [Konvoy] don’t invest in esports teams because we think they are misvalued. They’re being valued like tech companies; but that’s not what they are. They’re worth a lot — but not ~13x revenue. This is creating a bubble, and a very precarious situation for the investment climate around that space.

“If it bursts and a lot of investors lose a lot of money, then there will be a drought of capital. Frankly, we’re about to go into a drought, which will create a really tough time for esports. But not for gaming.”

Breaking Gender Stereotypes: Mobile gaming has extended esports’ reach, particularly to female audiences: 75%+ of female gamers play on mobile phones. Newer esports fans are also more likely to be women, who start out with mobile gaming and become increasingly engaged over time.

The mobile space will be a target for brands looking to engage, and capture, female esports fans in particular.

female esports athletes
Source: Girl Gamer Instagram

Unlike traditional sports, female participation barriers in esports are not physical; they are discriminatory. The industry will need to address the hurdles and toxicity that female gamers face. While all-female approaches have been tested, these have been met with very mixed reviews

Reports suggest female gamers do not want gender-specific leagues; they want acceptance and support within a coed sport. Female-only approaches provide a stepping stone for women to enter the esports industry: They are essentially a means to an end, not a solution. 

Developers, platforms, and brands that create safe, gender-neutral, and non-stereotypical environments will gain entry into the largely untapped white space of female gamers — and the nonbinary future market.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This Deep Dive was originally published in December of 2020. It was completely updated in February of 2022 to reflect ongoing evolution in the market.

About the editor

Shân Osborn

Human bioscience and behavioural finance nerd. Consultant and writer.