Esports in the US: will China replace North America as the largest esports market in 2020?

From the first recorded video game competition held in 1972, the esports industry has seen an exponential rise in popularity world-wide. The late 1970s saw a rise in arcade games, with players chasing the elusive high score, birthing the idea of competing against strangers. In the 1980s, arcade game owner Walter Day founded Twin Galaxies, an organisation that went on to create the US National Video Game Team which toured nationally, publically engaging in challenges in front of an audience, attracting more people to video games. As well as showcasing the potential for competition, the publicity and promotional events set the foundations for modern esports. Further technological developments moved the scene online, and Netrek (1993) has been credited by Wired Magazine as the first online sports game.

A key turning point in the advert of esports came in 1991 with Street Fighter. Until that point, esports relied on high scores to rank players, whereas Street Fighter allowed for face-to-face real-time competition, and paved the way for the competitive multiplayer and battle royale modes of modern esports. Large esports tournaments toured the US in the 1990s, including the Nintendo World Championships, solidifying the US as the world leader in esports. As video games became more mainstream and an integral part of pop culture (from the 1990s games shows in the US, UK and Australia had video games segments) the interest in all things video game related increased, and esports organisers and competitors took advantage of this.

The 2000s and 2010s saw a growth in global competitions. With the increased connectivity and technological developments of the last two decades, esports became more accessible to spectators and participants. 

The popularity of gaming and the low barriers to entry (there is no specialist equipment required, no costly coaches, no requirement to travel to practice and so on) attracted participants, and by extension spectators. The increased numbers have led to increased interest from advertisers and sponsors, with sponsors accounting for US$400+ million and advertisers’ US$189+ amount of the revenue in 2019. There has also been an increase in the prizes offered (some in excess of US$100000, and even into the millions) to attract more and more players. The events, both in person and online, are engaging and exciting for all involved, and has led to the increased popularity of the market. 

US esports market

The US currently holds pole position in the esports market. In 2016, globally the market was worth around $463 million and $175 million in the US (around 40%). In 2019, this had jumped massively, valued (conservatively) at just shy of $1 billion, with the US holding onto top spot with 37% of the market. In 2016, there were around 42 million spectators, split fairly evenly between casual spectators watching once a month, and those watching regularly. Around 75% are male, and almost half are aged 21-35, providing opportunity for lifelong customers, and increased growth of the market. There are also opportunities to attract more women into the market; although women only account for 25% of esports enthusiast, and an even lower number participate in tournaments, women account for 40-45% of gamers in general. 

However, predictions across the board indicate that Asian markets are leading the growth in the esports market, with 51% of all esports enthusiasts. By 2020, it is expected that the market will be worth in excess of US$1 billion, and that China will be the market leader, overtaking the US.

Esports betting in the US

Another driving factor in the popularity of esports is the wagering scene. This has attracted a new demographic of enthusiasts, who might otherwise not be involved or interested in esports. 

However, betting on esports is only now starting to experience a substantial growth in the US due to legislation concerns as PASPA (Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992) made sports betting illegal across the USA until 2018. Following on from the success of Murphy vs National Collegiate Athletic Association, PASPA was ruled unconstitutional and states were free to set their own rules and laws around sports betting. From there it has been a growth area with states like Colorado officially opening for sports wagering this year, though it lags behind overseas markets where gambling on esports has been allowed for many years. 

US vs China

Although the market is growing, the USA is seeing additional competition for market share, in particular from China. The USA remains a very important player in the esports market: the increasing engagement from spectators and participants, a young demographic with great future potential, new sponsorships deals that open a new channel to brands engaging with fans and recent developments in legalization of esports betting are providing another avenue for growth. 

Nonetheless, the sheer size of the Chinese market and its eager to technology pioneering will make it almost certain that the USA will be overtaken, making the US market a number two that will remain hugely important and influential for years to come.