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How Do eSports Stack Up Against the Big 4 Sports Leagues?

Thousands of gaming fans descended upon Rogers Arena in Vancouver to enjoy The International 2018.
Thousands of gaming fans descended upon Rogers Arena in Vancouver to enjoy The International 2018.
  • The gap between esports and traditional sports is shrinking thanks to a series of high profile global events
  • Will events like The International one day have as much mainstream appeal as the Super Bowl or the World Series?
  • How do eSports purses compare to those from the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL?

The world’s best Dota 2 teams recently descended upon Vancouver, British Columbia for The International 2018, an eagerly anticipated six-day event attended by thousands of rabid gaming fans and featuring an eye-popping purse worth $25.5 million.

We wanted to find out how this global event compares to games hosted by North America’s “Big 4” sports leagues, so we sent our special correspondent Tucker Bennett to get the inside scoop. Although new to the world of eSports, Tucker has been to countless NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB matches, making him the perfect man for the job.

Fans

The International 2018 took place at Rogers Arena, the home of the Vancouver Canucks, so in many ways it felt like going to an NHL game. Aside from a few colorful banners and concession stands, there was little outside the stadium itself to suggest I was entering another realm.

That changed the moment I stepped inside and saw half a dozen adult cosplayers wandering around the concourse dressed as elves, ice wizards, and crystal maidens. It was my first of many “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moments and it immediately struck me as being unlike any sporting event I had ever attended… at first.

Cosplayers could be found everywhere at The International 2018.
Cosplayers could be found everywhere at The International 2018.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that elaborately dressed fans can be found in every stadium you go to. Some of them are even as famous as the players on the field. The Canucks’ spandex-clad Green Men have become huge attractions in Vancouver, the Broncos’ Barrell Man was a folk hero in the Mile High city, and more people can probably identify Washington’s Hogettes than the team’s offensive line.

Professional and amateur cosplayers were everywhere at The International 2018.
cosplayers like @batarangkisses were everywhere at The International 2018.

I spoke with professional cosplayers who were hired to attend the event as well as passionate amateurs who spent hours getting into their elaborate costumes. Everyone was happy to chat and graciously posed for photos.

Demographics

One key difference that leapt out at me was the demographics of the crowd. Although most Big 4 sports attract vast numbers of female fans, the audience at The International 2018 was overwhelmingly male. At least 80% of those in attendance were men and they were mostly in their 20’s.

Although most Big 4 sports attract vast numbers of female fans, the audience at The International 2018 was overwhelmingly male.

Putting that much testosterone under one roof generally isn’t a good idea, but the crowd was exceptionally cordial and well behaved. I didn’t see anyone misbehaving, perhaps owing to the fact that coffee – rather than beer – was the drink of choice.

Fans take in the fast and furious action at The International 2018 in Vancouver.
Fans take in the fast and furious action at The International 2018 in Vancouver.

One of the things that really struck me was just how positive the crowd was throughout all of the matches I attended. I didn’t hear anyone boo or jeer during the eight hours I was there and was impressed – and surprised – by the nearly unanimous support directed at the competing teams. The crowd seemed to be genuinely in awe of the gamers’ skills and consistently showed their appreciation by cheering and applauding loudly.

Winnings

One of the many misconceptions about eSports is that the stakes are small, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The purse at The International 2018 was a record-setting $25.5 million. That’s the highest total ever raised for a single eSports event and, unlike Big 4 events like the Super Bowl or the World Series, it was generated through crowd-funding. The winnings were split amongst the competing teams with OG claiming the lion’s share at $11.2 million.

Total Purses for Championship Teams

Event Total Purse
The World Series $30.4 million
The International $11.2 million
The Super Bowl $5.93 million
The Stanley Cup $3.75 million
The NBA Finals $3.32 million

That total compares very favorably to the money claimed by the winning teams in each of the Big 4 championships. In fact, the only league that pays its champions more is the MLB, which gave the Houston Astros $30.4 million last season from a players’ pool of $84.5 million.

Competitors

I’m not ready to call eSports gamers “athletes” just yet, but they do have more in common with their Big 4 peers than you may think. They’re fierce, they’re focused, and they devote an insane amount of time to their craft. It’s not uncommon for teams to practice up to eight hours a day together to hone their skills. Many individual gamers also train on their own long after their team sessions have ended. And they don’t just play games. They discuss strategy, break down video, and refine their techniques just like professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey players.

The gamers I saw at The International 2018 were remarkably poised. They displayed no nerves during the pregame announcements and showed little emotion during the matches, regardless of the action unfolding on the screen. Stars like Ace from Team Secret, and Solo and RAMZES666 from Virtus.pro were locked in and supremely focused on the task at hand.

Team loyalty

Perhaps the most glaring difference between eSports and the Big 4 leagues is the team loyalty exhibited by fans. In most cities it’s unthinkable to cheer for anyone other than your home team, but that’s simply not the case at events like The International 2018, where the crowd’s allegiances seemed to be downright fluid.

Most of the fans I observed cheered equally for both teams in a match and seemed to care more about how the game was played than who actually won.

Most of the fans I observed cheered equally for both teams in a match and seemed to care more about how the game was played than who actually won. Sure, there were some flag wavers in attendance, but the fans I spoke with explained that they’re more invested in individual players than collective teams, and that they’ll quickly change their allegiances if one of their favorite gamers defects and joins another squad.

The International 2018 in Vancouver.
The International 2018 marked the first time the event was held in Vancouver, and just the second time it was held outside of Seattle.

Compare that to an NFL game, where a Raiders fan would probably get lynched if he suddenly started cheering for the Chiefs mid-game. It just doesn’t happen in the Big 4 Leagues, and it will be interesting to see if eSports changes once the teams become more established and rivalries become more pronounced.

Merchandising

As is the case with most Big 4 sports, merchandising seems to be a heavy driver of revenue for eSports events like The International 2018. Multiple merch stores were set up throughout the venue and jerseys, track jackets, shirts, mousepads, toys, pop sockets, and hats were all up for grabs.

There was no shortage of items for sale at The International 2018.
There was no shortage of items for sale at The International 2018.

One vendor I spoke with told me that many fans buy upwards of $1,000 in merchandise per day. That’s particularly significant since every attendee is given a bag with $50 of gifts and freebies inside when they attend.

eSports are ready to make the leap

Fans of traditional sports may not want to admit it, but eSports has far more in common with the Big 4 leagues than meets the eye. They generate enormous revenue, attract passionate fans, and are played by steely competitors who train endlessly and dedicate themselves to their craft.

Sure, OG may not be the Golden State Warriors, but it’s just a matter of time eSports teams hit the mainstream. They’re already being covered by publications like Sports Illustrated and ESPN and online sportsbooks regularly post odds and props for eSports events.

It’s time to get onboard, because the eSports revolution has begun.

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