With its millions of viewers, lucrative titles and sell-out competitions, it should come as no surprise that the world of esports is beginning to challenge some of Europe’s most established sports.
While the industry is still relatively young, its continued growth shows no sign of slowing with sponsors keen to capitalize on the emerging market.
League of Legends remains one of the industry’s most successful titles and, according to new data from sports industry analysts Nielsen, it’s a huge hit with younger audiences in Europe.
A recent study found that the League of Legends European Champion (LEC) has a higher Average Minute Audience (AMA) than sports such as tennis, basketball and rugby union for those aged between 16 and 29.
AMA calculates the average number of people who were watching a specific game or event at any given point in time.
The study compared the AMA of European viewers during last year’s broadcasts of rugby union’s Heineken Champions Cup, a tennis grand slam, the UEFA Champions League and the LEC.
“The LEC has been growing double digits for the last six semesters. Year on year,” Alban Dechelotte, head of business development EU at Riot, the game’s publisher, told CNN Sport.
“It’s kind of amazing and a challenge to see what is next for us – how do we keep growing and keep bringing more value to fans?”
The data also determined that the average age of an LEC fan is just 23 years old – 19 years younger than the average age of soccer fans – showing the lifelong potential of its supporter base.
Viewers of the game also tend to be from a specific demographic; namely young, single men at either high school or college.
For Dechelotte, this indicates not only a bright future for the game but an opportunity to diversify and broaden its audience.
He says the industry already has more parents involved and believes people’s passion for esports will eventually be passed down naturally between generations.
“It’s happening,” he said. “We show that parents can be proud of their children for playing esports.
“Our dream is to have, one day, on the fridge, parents putting a [medal] for something that the kid did on League of Legends, the same way they do for judo.”
While the LEC continues to grow within the ever-expanding esports industry, sponsors are flocking to the game.
Dechelotte has identified three different generations of brands to have been involved with the LEC since it began, showing the evolution and increasing acceptability of the industry.
Initially, only tech organizations were keen for players to be using their equipment. Then came brands, including food companies, that wanted to target viewers of live events. And, most recently, brands such as Louis Vuitton have wanted to collaborate with the industry.
“We are very well positioned in terms of audiences, in terms of vision, in terms of the way we do things and that makes us a bit different,” Dechelotte said, adding the Covid-19 pandemic had seen an increase of viewers while regular sports were in lockdown.
Such promising potential has encouraged traditional soccer organizations to develop an esports branch, such as German club Schalke.
Tim Reichert is now the club’s chief gaming officer and has been behind its successful development into the LEC.
Reichert had played professional football in Germany but made a transition to esports after retirement, following his brother into the industry.
As an avid gamer throughout his life, Reichert began to see the potential a title, such as League of Legends, had and still has.
“I realized this will be a thing for sport organizations at one point. It was quite obvious for me to see that the atmosphere, the people, the crowd and also the viewership will be at some point interesting,” he told CNN Sport.
“I was quite convinced that this will be the case in at least a very few esport titles and I think I was right.”
“The target group [for LEC] is perfect, the viewership is great, the publisher is strong and it’s also not like these bloody sports, which are very complicated in sport organizations due to ethics problems.”
‘We have a huge impact’
Despite Schalke initially coming to him for help, Reichert faced challenges to convince people an esports branch would be positive for the wider organization.
He admits the last four years have been a roller-coaster but says the branch can now be seen as a separate asset from the traditional football side.
“This is something you cannot even pay with a marketing budget,” he said, speaking of the impact an esports branch can have.
“We have a huge impact on the Schalke FC brand, even if it’s not football. People buying our jerseys. It’s not a real revenue for the size of the club, but it’s a start.
“People start loving the esports brand and then also maybe the football brand and if you’re a Schalke fan, most of the time, your kids will also be a Schalke fan so they will be most likely a fan of the esports organization at some point.
“There are so many add-ons to just the business we are creating. It’s actually very surprising that we are the only one who is doing it on this size.”
While many in esports say the pandemic has helped accelerate the industry – with more people viewing digital content – Reichert says such growth would have happened naturally.
And like almost all organizations, he laments the financial impact Covid-19 has had.
“There won’t be a year in the next 20 or 30 years, where we have a decrease in viewership for esports. There is no doubt for me,” he said.
“Coronavirus helped for the future a little bit, but not that much. There was also a downside. A lot of the companies, especially big companies, are struggling with coronavirus.
“Media spending, marketing spending just decreased and this also hits the esports market. So it’s not like everything was great with coronavirus. Not at all.”