- Viewership of professional sports and enrollment in youth sports is on the decline.
- By contrast, esports are growing in popularity and financial strength.
- This makes sense, because esports undeniably have greater accessibility and a much faster “skill improvement curve” than traditional sports.
Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes
Last week, I invoked birthday privilege to write over 3,000 words about how to make my favorite sport, soccer, more watchable. While the topic may have appealed to a niche audience, it has much broader implications.
Improving the viewing experience of sporting events matters, because professional sports executives are quietly worried about the future of their leagues. And frankly, they should be. Children 16 and under (known as GenZ) are the “most online” generation in history. Even the oldest members of this cohort likely don’t remember life before high-speed internet, and with each passing day, the age when everyone walked around without a supercomputer in their pocket grows more and more distant.
Reflecting this, one 2022’s most frequently requested Christmas gifts for young children wasn’t a toy. It was “Robux,” the digital currency (requiring real money to acquire, of course) of the incredibly popular mobile game “Roblox.” It’s not just holiday gift requests, however. In general, kids spend more and more time online, less time outside, and according to the New York Times, membership in youth sports declines by the year. These trends do not bode well for professional sports leagues.
As the above article mentions, for organizations like the NFL to retain their cultural clout, a passion for football must be passed on from adults to children. But, what if the kids aren’t interested? “How could they not be?!” you may ask with shock.
Well, here’s a quick anecdote…
My dad is a world-class creator of miniatures. In this hobby, known as “fine-scale modeling,” he builds vehicles, mostly airplanes, out of plastic. He then paints and applies decals, often with astoundingly realistic results. He spent years as a leading reviewer in one of scale modeling’s largest publications, and has won multiple awards at national and international competitions. So, it may not surprise you to hear that my dad tried to pass a love of this hobby on to his sons. But, it didn’t stick.
Between the ages of five and ten, my younger brother and I each built a handful of model airplanes and sci-fi spaceships with our dad, but the main appeal was spending quality time with him rather than the activity itself. While we enjoyed the act of building something and seeing a final product come together after starting out as a handful of mismatched pieces, the activity itself simply couldn’t hold our attention for long.
At least, not compared to the stimulation offered by soccer, basketball, and videogames. The same is likely true for most children. The members of my dad’s model-builders club are almost invariably in their 60’s or older, and not many kids or teenagers participate. The point is, decades ago, many creative children would have jumped at the chance to build something out of plastic to escape the drudgery of chores or farm life, but so many more options exist today.
With that in mind, GenZ could conceivably view playing sports in a similar fashion to how my brother and I saw building model airplanes, or how kids 20 years ago might have looked at playing bridge or knitting. Fun to do with your parents on occasion, but they’re old people’s hobbies, right?
Okay, so maybe you grant that (ahem) kids these days might enjoy playing videogames more than traditional sports. But watching them? Come on…right?
Why do we enjoy watching?
Due to the growing financial power and prevalence of the esports industry, the following viewpoint isn’t nearly as common as it was even five years ago, but it goes something like this. “Wait, you want to watch other people play videogames? How lame and boring is that?”
This sentiment is usually uttered by someone who doesn’t play games themselves, and is probably older than 40 as well. At first glance, it’s a fair point, But dig deeper, and we see that a love of watching features prominently in nearly all common hobbies.
Let’s start with the easy one. Regular sports. You could just as easily ask a Monday night armchair quarterback shouting at the TV, “Why the heck would you want to watch a bunch of guys in tights play football when you could go out and toss the pigskin around yourself?
Well, the answer is pretty simple. When you enjoy an activity, it can be pretty darn fun to watch the best in the world perform at the highest level. Watching the cream of the crop execute complicated maneuvers at high speed with ease and grace can inspire amazement and awe. People generally like things that make them feel that.
And like I said, this can be true for just about every hobby. Do you play an instrument? I bet you enjoy watching or listening to world class musicians. Do you have artistic tendencies? You probably like seeing the work of elite artists. Do you enjoy acting and improv? I’d be willing to wager you have a good time at stage performances.
So, esports fall into the same boat. If you love a game, it’s simply fun to watch the best in the world demonstrate their skill at it.
I have a (not-so) secret love for one particular esport. It’s called Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and this love stems from my childhood. When I was 10 years old, my parents bought me the original Nintendo 64 version of the game for my birthday, and I had a blast playing the heck out of it with friends. Since then, Nintendo has published an updated version with every new console they release, and I’ve played them all.
For those unfamiliar, on the surface, Super Smash Bros. looks like a bunch of Nintendo mascots and cartoon characters beating the crap out of each other. But, dive deeper, and it’s a high-speed chess match, blending technical execution, game knowledge, and the ability to psychologically outmaneuver your opponent and overcome your own self-doubt. While my enjoyment of this game certainly colors my feelings towards today’s blog topic, I believe one thing is quite clear.
Esports are way more accessible than most traditional sports.
During the initial stages of the pandemic lockdown, I, like many people, found myself with a ton of free time. Playing a lot of Smash was one way in which I spent it.
During this period, a service called “Metafy” launched, where you could play against or receive coaching from top esports professionals.
So, I spent a measly $42 to play for a half hour against the guy ranked number one in the world for Smash Ultimate. I held my own way better than I expected…in our first two matches. Then I proceeded to get absolutely destroyed for most of the remaining games we played. The point is, I paid less than $50 to play against the best in the world in a competitive endeavor enjoyed by millions of people.
Imagine I wanted to replicate this with my favorite competitive sport: soccer. How much would it cost for a 30-minute kickabout with Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? Maybe a minimum of an 8-figure donation to one of their favorite charities would do it.
The amount is likely a moot point, as it wouldn’t happen for security concerns even I had the means to make such a contribution. Plus, in the hypothetical world where someone could afford the donation, it’s not like they would be allowed to actually try to stop Messi from dribbling or have a free kick contest with Ronaldo. There would be too much risk involved for the famous players.
Continuing with the accessibility theme, many top pros in various esports stream daily on the platform, Twitch, where the chance exists you can interact with them via chat. Or, for a reasonable amount of money, you can enter tournaments in which they also participate, and get a chance to play against your esport hero. Plus, organized youth sports require a large time and financial commitment from parents that esports simply don’t. Buy your child the console once and you’re done. No $2,000 annual team fees here. Yet, at least.
How quickly one can improve at esports compounds their advantage over traditional sports in attracting the youth.
The Improvement Curve
Repetition breeds competence in any pursuit, and with esports, it’s simply easier to “get your reps in.” Let’s once again examine soccer and Super Smash Bros. If I want to improve my skill at taking free kicks, here’s a list of what I’ll need:
- A big enough field that isn’t already in use
- A full-size goal (preferably with a net)
- A bag of soccer balls
- Something to use to replicate a wall of defenders
- Ideally, a friend to play goalkeeper
If I don’t have the latter two, I’m stuck chasing the ball every five minutes, severely decreasing the number of shots I can take in an hour. On top of that, I can take maybe 50 free kicks in a single session. I’ll also probably have to wait a couple days before practicing again, in order to avoid risking injury to my hip flexors or adductors. In fact, that just happened to World Cup winner, Paul Pogba. He tweaked his groin practicing free kicks, and now faces three weeks on the sidelines.
On top of this, you’d be lucky to find even one opportunity per week to put your free kick skills to the test in an actual soccer match.
Compare this to Smash Ultimate.
Let’s say I want to learn some of Nintendo icon Mario’s best offensive techniques, like these. A single attempt takes less than 10 seconds, which means I could practice hundreds of times in a single hour. Plus, with very little physical fatigue to battle, one could conceivably do this hours per day, multiple days in a row.
And with many of these skills, even an hour or two of practice may be enough for someone to feel comfortable starting to implement them in matches. Which, by the way, you can always find. With a high-speed internet connection, you’re never more than a few seconds away from finding an opponent in popular esports titles. All from the comfort of your couch.
On top of this, for just about any esport, you can find in-depth videos from top professional players detailing their strategies, practice habits, and matchup knowledge. Many games also feature robust training modes where you can recreate nearly any in-game situation and practice it until it’s second nature.
All of the above combines to make it much easier and much quicker to improve at various esports. That tends to be highly motivating.
In addition to everything we’ve mentioned above, esports can be faster and more visually engaging. In Smash, for example, one game lasts a maximum of 7 minutes, and typically just half that time. During this time period, colorful, well-animated action happens constantly.
By contrast, a typical NFL game takes over three hours to complete, features less than 20 minutes of actual “ball-in-play time,” and as many as 100 commercials. Is it any wonder a generation raised online finds this boring?
Where do we go from here?
In the end, niche hobbies can certainly persist. Heck, my dad has found dozens people in the Chicago suburbs alone who also build model airplanes and cars. One of the beautiful things about the internet is the way it lets you connect with other people who enjoy the same things you do.
So, while I doubt traditional pro sports will completely go away, surveys finding that nearly 30% of GenZ actively dislikes sports means that leagues like the NFL are going to shrink in revenue and relevance. That’s basically inevitable.
I find myself interested to see whether esports will become less and less approachable as the amount of money in them grows. Hopefully not, but perhaps we’re not far off from the days when parents are asked to pony up thousands of dollars so their child can join the local traveling Rocket League, CS:GO, or Fortinite team. Colleges are already starting to offer scholarships for certain esports, and coaches are popping up left and right.
Whenever it comes, esports should enjoys its time in the spotlight, because who knows? Maybe in 20 years, I’ll be writing about how Generation Alpha finds competitive games played with a controller or keyboard to be quaint and boring because nothing can hold a candle to virtual reality. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, unless traditional sports can do something to match the accessibility and improvement curve of esports (Pickleball, anyone?), they may be in big trouble.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Do you engage with any esports at all, or do you prefer traditional sports. Or neither? What do you think the future holds for both traditional sports leagues and esports? Reply to this email and let me know!