In the beginning, there was football. When exactly that was is still up to speculation, as football’s history goes back to antiquity, to Ancient Greece and Imperial China. By the middle ages, it was already spread out all over Europe. People lapped it up, went to the games, read about it in the papers talked about it down the pub. Even played it themselves. As technology advanced, we started to play it on our computers, and we even became managers of treble winning teams. Then fantasy football came along, first of all in newspaper form, and now on our smartphones. This means we can manage not just a computerised version of Harry Kane, but the Spurs forward himself. And what’s more, we can pair him up front with Aguero and with Wayne Rooney in the hole.
Nowadays, when we watch a football game, it’s not just a case of cheering on our team. More often than not we have an accumulator resting on the result, and in all likelihood a couple of midfielders on one team and a defender and striker on the other. Watching a game today has become an incredibly complicated event, involving the sort of mathematics that got Apollo 11 to the moon to work out the best possible result for all the variables.
Not content with making actual live games into a thing of fantasy, we now have a whole raft of eSports that are becoming more real than ever. eSports simply means electronic sports: Video games played on a professional level, with star players and cash prizes. Nowadays, eSports are treated in much the same way as actual sports, with tournaments, celebrity players and even betting sites allowing you to bet on the winners of upcoming tournaments. BetStars, for instance, offers a dedicated eSports section, allowing punters to place bets on teams and individual competing in popular titles such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends and Starcraft 2. Once money is involved, we can safely say that eSports have reached the final level of acceptance and successfully have crossed over from the perceived preserve of teenage geeks, into mainstream sports.
Back to fantasy football, it is hard to exaggerate what a massive industry it has become. In the United States, where it all began, 10% of adults regularly play fantasy sports. In the UK that figure is around 5% and growing fast. It has been 25 years since fantasy football began in the UK, and it has seen a meteoric surge in interest and participants since then. There are currently 3,682,046 registered users on the official Fantasy Premier League site alone, while recent figures suggest that worldwide, there are upwards of 42 million playing some form of fantasy sport. It even has its own trade association, FSTA. The fastest growing demographic for those taking part in fantasy sports is in the under-18 age group. Another interesting piece of trivia is that women make up 20% of players.
Even more than video games, fantasy football gives us the chance to become involved in the real day-to-day drama of professional football. We debate it, formulate strategies for it and lose sleep over it. However, what makes it real is that when the players run out onto the pitch – the real bona fide players – there is nothing else we can do. It is that helplessness that’s not the case in other types of fantasies where we can control the outcome, that makes this fantasy more appealing, that make it a shareable experience.
For many years eSports were consigned to a subculture and looked down upon by those who took part in “mainstream” sports and fantasy sports. Still, their current rise in both popularity and acceptance is impossible to ignore, and as mentioned above, now that betting companies are recognizing them as actual sports, this crossover into mainstream will only continue and strengthen. In less than a year and a half, sports media leader ESPN has gone from famously declaring that eSports are “not a sport” to dedicating an entire subsection of their website – and some air time – to them.
In a sense, eSports have been around for as long as people have been playing computer games. The first major gaming event took place in 1980, when more than 10,000 took part in the Atari Space Invaders Championship. With the progress of computers and the connectivity that the internet provided, the industry has evolved into a multi-billion pound industry, played by tens of millions worldwide.
Two of the biggest eSports games are League of Legends and Starcraft. The first of these boasts an incredible 67 million players every month with reported 27 million playing it every day. However, what makes it an eSport as opposed to just a hobby or merely a computer game is the competition and tournament aspect of it. There are professional teams in North America, Europe and all across Asia. League of Legend stars in South Korea receive the adoration and fandom that football players in the UK receive. Riot Games – the game developers – organise an annual competition between 10 professional teams from Europe and the US. Similar tournaments are held throughout Asia, with winners meeting for the World Championships with prizes of over $1,000,000 up for grabs. But it’s not only the prizes that are impressive. According to eSports Marketing Blog, the League of Legends Worlds 2015 tournament attracted 36,000,000 unique viewers online, with 14 million peak concurrent views.
Starcraft, a real-time science fiction strategy game developed by Blizzard Entertainment, also enjoys phenomenal interest around the globe, particularly in Asia and South Korea and has spawned several spin-off games and books. Korean players are absolutely topping the charts, with accumulated earnings of over $12 million, followed by Chinese and French players. The Global StarCraft II League (GSL) has to date given away more than $3.1 million in prize money.
What exactly is real?
The lines between reality and fantasy in sport are increasingly becoming more blurred. In a recent interview, the Premier League’s current highest scorer - Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, said how he partnered himself upfront in his fantasy football team with Everton’s Lukaku and fellow England striker Harry Kane. This raises several questions, including would anyone ever drop themselves, and how many of their teammates do the Villa players have in their fantasy teams?
In a world where technology is enabling us to interact with each other and the world around us in ever more exciting ways, it is no surprise that the biggest growth trends are in fantasy and eSports. Very few of us will ever be able to compete at the highest level at football or any sport we follow, but these offer us the chance to at least pretend for a while that we can, and that can only be a good thing. Are we nearing the day when you will be able to bet on video gamers who are managing their virtual (fantasy) football teams in a global championship? Just how meta can you get?