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CES 2020: $1B esports industry challenging traditional sports

Myriad companies, organizations and brands are scrambling to capitalize on the burgeoning esports market, making it a hot topic of discussion at CES 2020.

According to the Consumer Technology Association, the esports industry, centered on competitive organized video gaming, crossed the $1 billion mark in 2019. The association's research also found that more than 70% of Americans ages 13 to 64 play video games.

At the CTA's annual technology and media show, various esports panels featured speakers ranging from executives at major gaming companies to professional gamers who make a living off esports. During one such panel, titled "Esports and Technology: An innovation game-changer," Marcus Kennedy, general manager of Intel Corp.'s gaming division, noted that esports is no longer a niche form of entertainment but now a legitimate career choice for aspiring gamers who want to go pro.

"We are partnering with schools and offering scholarships for esports and building out teams, so the gamers can practice at schools," Kennedy said. "Those schools can then attract them, grow them and then launch them into professional careers, just like with normal sports."

SNL ImageCompetitive gamers gear up for an esports tournament
Source: League of Legends

Ann Hand, founder and CEO of Super League Gaming, an esports platform aimed at amateur gamers, also noted that, like traditional sports, esports viewer numbers are exponentially larger than the number of people who actually play.

"The viewing audience for esports at the pro level is even bigger than Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League's fanbase," Hand said. "But it's still just scratching the service of the amount of competitive video gaming content consumption that is happening."

Hand also pointed out that in this very young industry, there are already more than 10,000 professional esports players and big tournaments that are filling up large stadiums, so "the growth projections are huge and significant."

At a separate panel discussion, titled "How are brands engaging with esports and gaming?," Josh Cella, head of global partnerships at Activision Blizzard Inc.'s esports division, discussed the video game company's efforts to directly challenge traditional sports with its professional video game leagues.

"From day one, we hired Nielsen to come up with an [average minute audience] that allows brands to compare ratings versus traditional sports ratings in specific demographics," Cella said. "We have also hired a slew of other measurement providers because we know that there is still uncertainty from investors and we want to combat that with all these tools so we can measure the investment and make sure brands that invest feel very secure."

Overwatch League, Activision Blizzard's professional league for its shooter game "Overwatch," already boasted a higher 18- to 34-year-old rating in its second season than some traditional sports, according to Cella.

For her part, Grace Dolan, vice president of home entertainment marketing at Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.'s U.S. unit, highlighted the many similarities esports has with not only traditional sports but also other modes of monetizable entertainment.

"There is a specific demographic and audience for each specific traditional sport, and the same is true within video games," Dolan said at an esports panel. "The person who plays [racing game] 'Forza' competitively is very different from someone who plays 'Overwatch.' So if we use all the traditional learnings in how marketing dollars are invested in any interest or passion area, there is a world of opportunity within esports."