Ricky Charlesworth: Growing attraction of eSports that is proving lucrative business

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SEB COEedging past long-time rival Steve Ovett to famously win gold in the 1500m in Moscow, 1980.

Usain Bolt not so much breaking the 100m world record but smashing it to smithereens in Beijing in 2008.

Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jessica Ennis all achieving superb gold medal victories in their respective fields on the same glorious evening in London four years later.

All of these throw up iconic images from Olympic bygones and are indelibly etched on the minds of spectators across the globe.

Now, imagine that the year is 2024.

The Games in Paris are getting down to the nitty-gritty stage.

Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan.

It has come down to this – one final match to see who takes gold and will be recorded in the annuls of sporting history.

Great Britain’s ‘Joe Bloggs’ is competing with a Japanese peer.

The pair are doing battle not on the track or field, but on screen, playing the FIFA video game series – a simulated computer game that sees gamers control teams.

This scenario may sound far-fetched, but it could well become a reality.

There is a massive amount of interest in it, with millions of dollars in prize money up for grabs. Lots of people are watching it and there are a lot of parallels with real-life sport.

Nick Robinson

Plans are already afoot for eSports – which simply stands for electronic sports – to be part of the Games, potentially as a demonstration sport in Paris in six years’ time.

Last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it was open to exploring the possibility of including eSports in future Games, before stating it “could be considered a sporting activity” but “must not infringe” on Olympic values in order to be recognised as a sport.

Since then it has been confirmed eSports will be a medal event at the Asian Games in 2022.

All of this goes to show that eSports is being taken notice of.

Such is the clamour for the activity that certain tournaments can attract thousands of spectators to huge, multi-plex arenas.

If you think those numbers are impressive then you should see some of the prize money handed out.

It is not uncommon for competitors, often aged between 17 and 25, to walk away with six-figure fees for coming out on top.

Dr Nick Robinson is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies/Videogames Research at the University of Leeds.

He believes that the appetite for eSports partly comes down to the lack of barriers that it takes to become a success.

“FIFA is the world-leading football video game in the world and it’s the game that predominantly young people will play,” Dr Robinson said.

“They have a growing association with all levels of football, with the Premier League and EFL.

“People that play it might well rise to a certain standard in the game.

“It’s a very democratic form of sport in that sense.

“For example, people who are disabled can be one of the best FIFA players in the world.

“So there’s something attractive about it in that regard.

“Also, part of the reason that it’s growing at such a rate is because of the money involved in it.

“Recently, Michael Jordan (former basketball star, pictured right,) has invested a considerable amount of money into eSports in the US.

“This kind of phenomenon of investing via high-profile entertainers is pretty widespread.

“There is a massive amount of interest in it, with millions of dollars in prize money up for grabs. Lots of people are watching it and there are a lot of parallels with real-life sport.”

The growth of eSports is not just restricted to the technology-obssesed heartlands of Asia and the United States.

Right here in the Broad Acres the ‘sport’ is beginning to take grip.

Last month, Rotherham United became the first professional football club in Yorkshire to have their own eSports team.

The concept will see a squad of players competing in a professional league, whilst representing the Millers. The link-up is one that is relatively new to the UK, but across the pond this arrangement is already proving popular.

Dr Robinson points to the recent example of teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

“This is a common pattern in the NBA,” he said. “There’s a game called NBA 2k19, which is as popular in the States as Fifa is over here.

“Almost all the elite level teams have their own eSports team who play in a competitive league.

“To give you some sense about the amazing amount of investment, the Toronto Raptors’ eSports team all live in a house together.

“They are paid a professional salary, train together on a daily basis and then participate in these competitions.

“It’s becoming an integrated model.

“Despite the arguments over its classing as a sport, eSports require a vast amount of skill and training and people at the elite level of it are actually considered athletes.

“If a lot of people start watching, then I imagine that almost every team will end up having a professional eSports team sooner rather than later.”

Millers taking lead esports role

eSports is a form of competition using video games.

Its popularity has soared in recent years, thanks to advanced technology offering improved user experience and the ability to play anyone in the world online.

One of the most popular games that people compete on is Fifa, which is the best-selling football video game series in the world. It has released a new title every year since 1993.

The phenomenon of professional teams signing up players to represent them recently saw Rotherham United invest in its own eSports team to represent them at tournaments.

The link-up will also see the club offer fans the chance to play Fifa on matchdays.

Rob Hawden, eSports team manager, said: “We are delighted to be collaborating with the club.

“Rotherham United has some of the most passionate fans in the country.

“We want to help spread the club’s wings to build on an already growing fanbase.”