The e-sports market is already worth an estimated $748m and projected to hit $1.9bn by 2018, according to a SuperData report last year.
In the US, sponsorships of tournaments, players, and e-sports-related sites exceeds $578m, just 28% less than this year’s total NBA sponsorship.
But a few notable exceptions withstanding, brands have so far been reticent to join in, fearing the black box in millions of homes and unsure how to get involved.
Connecting e-sports to live sport
This is about to change as the lines become blurred and events in the e-sports world start to have an effect on the real world. This plays out in a single question; can an e-sports player be considered an athlete?
The German football club Wolfsburg seem to think so, having been the first club to sign an official FIFA 16 gamer.
David Bytheway, from Wolverhampton, has signed a deal with the Bundesliga club and will compete in official tournaments on their behalf.
At the time, Klaus Allofs, Wolfsburg’s sporting director said: "Our goal is it to create a binding connection between real football and the digital version."
This represents a watershed moment in the evolution of gaming as a serious part of ‘real’ sport and you can bet that it won’t be long until the Premier League clubs follow suit.
E-sports and motorsports
This is just the start of a broader trend.
I attended a panel at SXSW during which Tom Halls, the head of digital for Formula E, talked about the sport’s increasing partnership with e-sports organisations.
He discussed the potential concept of each team recruiting a ‘virtual driver’ who could compete in a parallel tournament that would impact the actual championship standings. Read that one more time – virtual results impacting the real world results.
This would be a ground-breaking and incredibly bold move for any governing body but it makes absolute sense when you think of the new audiences who would be engaged and the massive potential scale something like this would deliver globally.
A new talent pool of gamers
Motorsport has been leading the way in this area for a while now. The Nissan GT Academy in the US has already turned over 20 Gran Turismo gamers into real world professional racing drivers. This represents a totally new talent pool in sport.
It’s also worth noting that every major sport now has a video game spin-off, from NFL and football to UFC and WWE.
How long before these games begin to have a showcase in the physical world? Is it that hard to imagine a concurrent FA Cup final played out through FIFA at half time during the actual game?
Brands and sponsors should be the facilitators of this new shift. At M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment we believe brands are the natural drivers to push forward this blurring of the lines as the virtual and real worlds start to collide and we are talking to our clients right now about how this could manifest.