Digital Native Millennials Fuel the World’s Fastest-Growing Sport

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Turns out, I was a world-class athlete in the making.

You wouldn’t have known it from looking at me. I graduated high school at 17, a robust 5-foot-6, 135 pounds of pure metabolic overdrive. My workouts at the time didn’t include pumping iron so much as, say, lifting aluminum (in various forms: the kind used to hit a baseball or sold by Schaefer Brewing). I was built not terribly unlike the best athlete of the day: a skinny Wayne Gretzky, though with my hair and the glasses I got as a college freshman, I more likely would have been mistaken for Harold Ramis in “Stripes.”

In 1984, Bo Jackson I was not. And yet I, unknowingly, was on a path that could have led me to greatness. You could have been reading about or watching my exploits today on any of the ESPN platforms. That’s because over the last six months or so, ESPN has identified a segment of the sports universe growing faster than Donald Trump’s lead: eSports.

As in video gaming.

As in playing video games competitively. Professionally, even.

Back in junior high and high school, I blew more of my allowance on Ms. Pac-Man more than any flesh and blood girl I was interested in. I was out of this world with Asteroids, scaling my way to greatness with Donkey Kong (categorized, back in the day, as a “climbing game”).  While my contemporary, Mike Tyson (four-and-a-half months older than me) was obliterating his opponents on his way to becoming boxing’s youngest heavyweight champion, I was splintering Glass Joe and the rest of the parade of Punch-Out punching bags. I not only coulda been a contender, I was on my way. Terry Malloy, I feel your pain.

I wasn’t wasting my time, as my parents occasionally felt compelled to remind me. I was a prodigy. I was Ken Griffey Junior in my world before he was in his. Now, The Kid is going into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I’m left to ponder what could’ve been.

If only I knew then what ESPN knows now: that the eSports industry, as reported recently on Fortune.com, “will grow from $278 million in revenue in 2015 into a $765 million industry by 2018.” Why else would the Mother Ship launch a vertical on ESPN.com dedicated to covering eSports the way it covers, well, most of the sports world? Look at the menu bar atop ESPN.com. There are tabs for the NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAAM (men’s college basketball), Soccer and NHL, and then a dropdown menu for coverage of everything else. NASCAR is on that list. Golf is on that list. Tennis is on that list, even during the Australian Open, which is broadcast on ESPN. Horse racing, MMA, X Games,  the Olympics . . . all there. But at the top of that list, positioned, essentially, as the best of the rest?

eSports.

Today, there actually is an official Major League Gaming. It’s been around since 2002, actually. Four weeks ago, on New Year’s Eve, all of MLG’s assets reported were purchased by Activision Blizzard for $46 million.

There are college national championships. You can watch them on television. ESPN2, of course, will be broadcasting the Heroes of the Storm college championships (“Heroes of the Dorm”) in March. A college tournament in March, featuring a field of 64 teams? A whole new kind of Madness is upon us.

And get this . . . colleges are starting to recruit eSports student-athletes. Columbia College announced that it will be “fielding” a team starting in the fall of 2016, and that it will be offering scholarships. “eSports aren’t the future,” Columbia president Dr. Scott Dalrymple said in a release when the school announced its ePlans. “They’re the present.”

According to that press release, Dalrymple once challenged the student body to find someone who could beat him in EA Sports’ Madden NFL 25. He promised a year’s worth of free textbooks to anyone who could beat him at his own game. Call it a precedent set by a prescient president.

Why would he do that? To connect with the college community of today, which is composed entirely of Digital Natives. The Millennials on campus have an opportunity which generations before did not – and, to be honest, could never have imagined.

Newzoo reported a year ago that 89 million people play eSports, a number that it projects may grow to 145 million next year. It found that “another 190 million will watch eSports competitions occasionally.”

Video gaming and its grown-up counterpart, eSports, finally has outgrown mom’s basement. And there seems to be no ceiling for its growth. With the recent validating investment from ESPN, eSports are no longer a niche; in the sports universe, they are now a legitimate player.


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David Seigerman has two new books out this fall,
Take Your Eye Off The Ball 2.0 (Triumph Books) and
Quarterback: The Toughest Job in Pro Sports (Triumph Books),
the first ebook in the Real Football Network’s Go Deeper series.
Follow him at @dseigs18.




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