A guide to careers in esports
Often seen as a niche pastime and still saddled with the outdated image of being about boys in bedrooms, esports is a now a major global industry that does far more than make and play games. We look at the digital employment possibilities opening up.
Esports. You either love them or … you may know next to nothing about them. In case you fall somewhere close to the latter camp, this may get your attention. According to Cindy Rampersaud of Pearson:
“The Esports industry is one of the fastest growing across the world and this year will grow by 20% to circa $1.1 billion with a global audience of over 495 million.”
It is also a significant and fast-growing source of future employment for young people looking towards careers in tech and STEM subjects.
Truly massive MMO (massive multiplayer online) games
Esports – electronic sports – is essentially the business of organised multiplayer gaming tournaments that lead to championships at regional, national and international levels. Amateurs compete around the world in large numbers: in 2017, the game League of Legends had 100 million players. (This made it by far the most popular game. Its nearest rival was Call of Duty with 28.1m players.)
But despite its home gaming roots, esports is now increasingly dominated by professionals, where earnings can be sky high. As of October 2020, Danish professional gamer Johan Sundstein, better known among his peers as ‘N0tail’, is estimated to have earned more than $6.9m over his career to date, playing the game Dota 2. However, it is sadly worth noting that, for all the recent hype about gender levelling and stereotype busting in online gaming, the highest earning female player, Sasha Hostyn, who plays as ‘Scarlett’, is estimated to have earned just $390,000 to date. Her game is StarCraft II.
So where do the jobs lie? Is this all about amateurs turning professional and chasing prize money? Not at all. They key to understanding contemporary esports is that it is a spectator industry*. In autumn 2018, 99m television and online viewers watched the League of Legends 2018 World Championship Finals. As a benchmark, the US 2018 Super Bowl, a solidly mainstream and long-established sporting final, had only 4m viewers more.
The prize money and celebrity status for champions are not to be sniffed at. In July 2019, 16-year-old Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf won approximately $3m in prize money at the Fortnite World Cup. In the same month, Novak Djokovic earned about the same for winning Wimbledon.
But the big prize that’s taking the industry mainstream is that spectator audience. The global television and online audience is expected to pass 600 million in 2022. In April 2020, mainstream sports platform ESPN announced a deal to carry League of Legends Championship series playoffs. And the dominant gaming platform, Twitch, peaked at more than 6 million concurrent viewers at one point in June this year and averaged almost 2.5m viewers at any one moment in November 2020.
However, long gone are the days when gaming was confined to screens. The 2019 Fortnite World Cup was a physical spectator event, played in New York’s Arthur Ashe stadium, better known for staging the tennis grand slam event, the US Open. Tournaments routinely sell out arenas such as New York’s Madison Square Garden. The home of England Rugby, Twickenham stadium, hosted the Neosurf Cup in January 2020. London was due to host several rounds of Call of Duty League and Overwatch League in 2020, until Covid stepped in. And since 2018, Richmond, British Columbia, has had a dedicated gaming stadium – cleverly named The Gaming Stadium.
Twitch has also gone physical with TwitchCon, a conference held in the US since 2016. In 2019, TwitchCon pulled estimated crowds of 25,000 a day for three days at the San Diego Convention Center and staged its inaugural TwitchCon Europe event in Berlin. Conference-goers attended celebrity panels, networked with artists and gamers, and watched top players compete at popular games such as Fortnite and League of Legends. And – another insight into the industry’s mainstream acceptance – Berlin’s sponsors included Gillette and Intel. Indeed, one of the biggest clues to the value of esports lies in the fact that global sponsorship in 2020 is amounting to more than $580m.
This all adds up to the fact that professional playing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to jobs and careers, including many tech and STEM roles. The esports industry is a wide-ranging employer, with growing potential in areas as diverse as:
- games content creation and publishing
- content creation for the channels that carry the tournaments
- digital infrastructure (platforms, streaming)
- online and physical events management and production (sometimes with high production values)
- advertising, sales and marketing (games, events, merchandise, community building)
- on screen presenters, commentators and interviewers (someone has to talk us through it, especially if they combine a deep knowledge of gaming with on-camera skills)
- everything that goes into developing, coaching and supporting a team
- legal, media rights, sponsorship …
And at a time of Covid uncertainty in so many industries, the future of esports is looking secure and sustainable, with increasing opportunities likely to result from its growth over the coming years. No wonder that, in September, Pearson announced the creation of its Level 3 BTEC in Esports, to “support learners to develop a range of transferable skills and knowledge” – perhaps the first of many mainstream qualifications for this increasingly mainstream industry.
* Like regular physical sports, esports has also given rise to a large gambling offshoot, which, confusingly, is similarly referred to as ‘gaming’. This article is focused on the non-gambling industry and revenue statistics do not include gambling.