By Mark Richards.

This is a busy weekend of sport, with the Grand National and the FA Cup semi-finals. But what will the sporting scene look like in ten years’ time? Will traditional sports have given way to Esports? And could Esports be a viable career path for your son or daughter?

As anyone with an interest in sport knows, this is a big weekend. The FA Cup semi-finals, the Grand National and even – in front of a few hundred, frozen spectators – the start of the domestic cricket season.

Saturday sees the Grand National, with 40 runners facing 30 fences, more than 600m people around the world watching the race and – just in this country – half a billion pounds of punters’ money riding on the outcome.

A few minutes after the National has finished hot favourites Manchester City kick off against Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final. The following day it is Wolves vs. Watford to see who will play City on May 18th.

So it is a huge weekend of sport – but are we seeing the beginning of a drift away from traditional sport? Yes, sport is big business at the top – this week Spurs opened their new £1bn stadium – but you do not have to travel far down the football pyramid to find a very different story. Championship club Bolton is massively in debt and face a winding-up petition over a £1.2m unpaid tax bill.

Sport in 2030

So it is entirely possible that the face of what we traditionally accept as sport could look very different in ten years’ time. Yes, Spurs will still be playing Manchester United – but will millions of people around the world be watching a game played between 22 very highly paid footballers? Or between two teenage boys, playing the game on 5G consoles and representing the two clubs?

The rise of Esports

Before we look at the rise of Esports, we had better take a step back, and answer the more basic question. What is Esports?

Simply put, they are a form of competition using video games. They are played either individually or as teams and yes, there are now professional players. I remember my son playing Halo ‘with his mates’ maybe 12 or 14 years ago, but over the last eight to ten years Esports have become a significant factor in the video games industry, with developers starting to actively develop games for the Esports sub-culture.

Unsurprisingly the audience for Esports is mostly male (the estimate is around 85%) and in the 16-34 age bracket. This year it is estimated that some 427m people worldwide will watch some form of Esports.

The most popular games are multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBA), first-person shooters (FPS) and real-time strategy games (RTS).

Esports are grabbing eyeballs

The Rise and Rise of Esports

Let me introduce you – if you need introducing – to League of Legends, a MOBA game developed by Riot Games.

Every year there is the LoL Tournament, hosted by Riot Games, where teams compete to be crowned champions and walk off with the million dollar prize. Now in the world of traditional sport, a million dollar prize is nice, but it is by no means exceptional – the winner of golf’s FedEx Cup gets ten times that.

What is exceptional are the viewing figures. At peak viewing times the LoL Tournament attracted more than 100m viewers: compare that with the Wimbledon final (just under 10m), the US Open Golf (around the same) and the Tour de France, at around 7m.

Yes, big one-off sporting events like the Grand National and the FA Cup final still attract hundreds of millions of viewers – but Esports is in its infancy, and the trend is only in one direction.

Professional sports team are embracing Esports

It is therefore small wonder that professional sports teams are rushing to form Esports teams and to sign up players. To give one very simple example, Wolves will have all their attention focused on this weekend’s Cup semi-final. But of just as much importance to their long-term brand – especially in the lucrative Chinese market – is their partnership with the Weibo Esports Club, to play FIFA4, the most popular version of the game in China.

So is playing Esports going to be a potential career? The answer is a resounding yes…

How much money can gamers make?

We have all seen the stories about teenage girls making fortunes by posting make-up and clothes videos on YouTube. Well, across the hallway in her brother’s bedroom it is the same story…

There is a large – and growing larger – audience for video games, with gamers able to ‘monetise’ their gameplay through platforms like Twitch – where Generation Z is going to watch the top gamers. So how much money can the gamers make?

Twitch has grown rapidly in popularity. There are now more than 3.3m broadcasts every month with 48bn minutes’ worth of broadcasts watched in a month (there are just over half a million minutes in a year – so every month, there is approaching 100,000 years of broadcasts watched. That is a lot of homework going undone…)

At any moment in time, there are more than 1m viewers on Twitch, with up to 4m at busy times. The statistics – at least to this new viewer – are astonishing and Twitch is obviously delivering a clearly-defined viewer demographic, much more clearly-defined than say, the audience that watches a football match.

The platform, therefore, has to be attractive to advertisers and so it is small wonder that the top players can earn a lot of money, with estimates suggesting that the top 10 gamers earn a combined sum in excess of $20m (£15m) a year. According to this article from last year, the top gamer – Ninja – earns over $5m (£3.84m) with earnings coming from subscriptions (people paying to watch him play), ads, donations, sponsorship and YouTube revenue.

Here is another earnings breakdown from Jeremy ‘Disguised Toast’ Wang. Read it and you may start to think you made a mistake by stomping up to your teenage son’s bedroom and demanding he come down for dinner…

A more democratic form of sport?

Traditionalists will scoff at all this. Sport takes place in the healthy outdoors. You get wet, you get muddy and then find that the hot showers are not working…

But those days are gone. You might even argue that Esports is a more democratic form of sport – one that is much more open to all. After all, if you are growing up on a housing estate you are unlikely to represent your country in Three Day Eventing. Given the way education budgets are going, you are equally unlikely to be playing cricket for England. But gaming? There may not be international recognition – at least not yet – but it can represent a perfectly viable career path for many young people. And why not? Success requires the same dedication, commitment and practice as any other sport…