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Esports is a global entertainment phenomenon. The industry’s growth over the last 10 years has been unprecedented in any area of entertainment. Many compare the industry to the Wild West or the California Gold Rush due to the lack of cohesive regulations. The free-for-all nature of esports may have been true at one stage. But, we are now starting to see established actors in the market take hold and look to expand.
The entertainment industry is beginning to pick up speed again as we transition out of the pandemic. Perhaps it is time that we turn our attention to one of its newest and fastest growing sub-industries: esports. Unlike other forms of entertainment, esports barely took a hit and seamlessly stayed in stride while others were faltering. With its far-reaching markets and lack of regulations, esports is a lucrative market to get into. Although there are well-established teams, leagues and games, there is still room in esports for innovation and entrepreneurship. Some experts believe that there needs to be a greater shift towards talent protections to further professionalize the industry.
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To the layman, it seems that what was a fringe activity has turned into a billion-dollar industry overnight. In fact, even with some knowledge of the industry, most outsiders may still not realize its scale. The 2019 League of Legends World Championship had more viewership than the Super Bowl that year. How is this possible? Despite esports not being a household entertainment form in most western countries, it has a global following with a particularly large stronghold in Asia. Establishing itself in Western markets will take the industry to the next level. It’s fast on its way to doing that as esports events are selling out stadiums in America. However, increasing Western popularity comes with increasing scrutiny and the industry will have to be comfortable being under the microscope.
To understand where the industry is going though, you need to understand where it came from. As an industry of entertainment that fed off of gaming culture, for most of its existence esports was on the outskirts of society. To outsiders, it did not make sense. Definitely not considered a real sport, competing at video games at this type of obsessive level was easily stigmatized. It was seen as inactive, unimportant, anti-social and misogynistic.
It’s not to say that these were not fair criticisms at the time. But in the absence of recognition and understanding of those on the outside, those on the inside created an echo chamber where they could hone their craft. However, with the devotion of the purists, esports began to grow in the shadows. Nevertheless, without outside scrutiny, the industry’s worst impulses would go unchallenged. With its increased recognition, esports is becoming notorious for a lack of regulation and talent protections. While it seeks to increase its professionalism, trying to escape the gamer culture of its origins has proved to be difficult and has manifested itself in several regulatory challenges.
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Esports athletes at the highest levels are highly professionalized, training 12-15 hours with the assistance and guidance of a performance team. Despite this, the industry is notorious for failing to safeguard its talent. According to medical researcher Hallie Zwibel in “An Osteopathic Physician’s Approach to the Esports Athlete,” “56 percent of esports athletes experience eye fatigue, 42 percent report neck and back pain, 36 percent wrist pain and 32 percent hand pain. However, only 2 percent of those reporting an ailment sought medical treatment [and] 40 percent of those surveyed get no physical activity in a given day.”
Additionally, substance abuse issues appear to be replete amongst talent. Esports athletes have been known to abuse nootropics like Adderall and other substances to give themselves an edge in competition. In his article “Doping in Esports: How and to What Extent Can We Look to WADA for Guidance,” attorney and entertainment scholar Oluwatamilore “Tami” Fashina dives into the world of doping. It has been noted as a timely and significant piece by other experts, and states how current regulations are failing the business’ stars. Fashina notes that the non-prescribed use of nootropics can cause severe side effects and dependency. He advocates that any industry shift in talent protections must include effective anti-doping programs. Fashina believes that a failure to do so will lead to the industry seeing honest athletes having to choose between doping in order to remain competitive or not competing at all.
Nevertheless, where some see challenges, others see opportunity. While industry-wide reformations will be slow, they are inevitable. In the meantime, private actors can and should step in to address these pressing needs. Not only is there the altruistic value of helping young entertainers, it is an easy pathway to enter a booming industry. You can ideally position yourself for partnership opportunities when the regulations eventually catch up with the reality of the business. The esports industry has certainly reached an unprecedented level of prominence. Despite this, there is still much for it to gain. Those who know how to address the industries’ biggest problems will be of undeniable value.
The success of esports during the pandemic shows that it is an entertainment sub-industry that is here to stay. It may look like its big names have all been established, but there is still plenty of opportunity for new actors in esports if they look close enough.
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