The popularity and regulation of competitive eSports

The victory of 16-year-old Kyle “Bugha" Giersdorf in the Fortnite World Cup highlights the global rise of eSports, with millions of viewers and substantial prize money. Despite its popularity, the industry lacks a central governing body, leading to challenges such as player protection, betting, match-fixing, and potential substance abuse. There is a need for appropriate regulation, especially as eSports is poised to flourish in India.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

When you think of an elite athlete, the image least likely to leap into your mind is that of a teenager playing video games in front of a computer. And yet, when 16-year-old Kyle “Bugha" Giersdorf won the finals of the Fortnite World Cup at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, New York, it was hard to think of what we were witnessing as anything other than a massive global sporting event.

Perhaps it was the prize money of $3 million, more than has ever been paid to the individual winner of any video game tournament (and in absolute terms, just $800,000 less than what the winners of this year’s US Open singles finals will take home when they play later this month in the very same stadium). Or perhaps it had something to do with the size and global nature of the audience—23,771 watching in the stadium and millions more streaming it live around the globe through Twitch and YouTube.

For those who have never heard of it, Fortnite is a massively multiplayer video game in which 100 contestants at a time fight on a virtual island in a setting strangely reminiscent of a Hunger Games tournament. They fight with each other, Battle Royale style, until there is just one player left standing. It is not dissimilar to other games based on a similar format—PUBG and Counter-Strike, for instance—but because its characters are cartoonish, parents seem to have less of an objection to its content. Fortnite has an estimated 250 million players around the world, making it the most popular addition to the pantheon of electronic sports (eSports).

Gaming is huge today in a way that it has never been before. In 2017, viewers logged a total of 355 billion minutes on Twitch. Of the 2.2 billion gamers on the planet, 380 million were eSports viewers—of whom 165 million were regular viewers. It has become such a serious spectator event that the 6th Olympic Summit in Lausanne seriously considered granting competitive eSports the status of a sporting activity, based on, among others, such considerations as how intensively players trained for it.

Despite its rapid growth in recent years, eSports still lacks a central governing organization. This has given rise to several challenges that could have serious consequences on the industry if not addressed early on. For instance, there is a need to address issues around the protection of players from commercial exploitation. The average age of contestants at the Fortnite World Cup was 16, with the youngest finalist no more than 13. While minors enjoy special protection under the law in most jurisdictions, they have limited autonomy when it comes to deciding which eSport franchise to sign up with. In most instances, parents and legal guardians, who are supposed to decide for them, have no idea what eSports is about. Despite their best intentions, they may not be the right people to take decisions in their children’s best interests.

As new as it is, the gaming industry is already rife with betting and match-fixing. Gamers use nicknames and avatars while playing, making it next to impossible to accurately identify each gamer. In the Fortnite World Cup, 196 players were disqualified for illegally playing in the qualifiers for different regions but it is possible that several others escaped detection. With players located in different countries (with divergent laws and standards on the legality of different types of gaming), it will be virtually impossible to determine what law should apply and which court is competent to adjudicate.

Once eSports is elevated to the level of a traditional sport, we will have to regulate the use of performance-enhancing drugs in gaming tournaments. When that happens, it will be important to recognize how different this activity is and that the type of performance that is being chemically enhanced is different from everything that doping agencies are used to dealing with in the context of more physical sports. That said, the likelihood of substance abuse is as high and deserves to be appropriately regulated in the interests of the players and the sport at large.

Today, none of the gamers participating in elite eSports tournaments around the world are from India. As a result, one might question the timing of this entire article as being a tad premature. Given the explosion of mobile data and smartphones over the last three years, I have no doubt that it is only a matter of time before Indian gamers hit the eSports big league.

The industry has more in common with entertainment than sport and given that revenues are driven much more through viewership rather than active participation, India is an ideal market. We are voracious consumers of entertainment and we enjoy a good battle as much as anyone else—be it cricket or the latest flavour of reality TV. I have no doubt eSports will flourish in the subcontinent.

That being the case, we’d do well to be prepared to regulate this space appropriately. We need to understand the differences between eSports and traditional sport, appropriately tuning our regulations to account for that. It would not do for us to force-fit our new eSports regulations into one of the pigeonholes we have already created to regulate traditional sports. Instead, we need to appropriately address issues unique to the industry.

While no one really thinks eSports will de-throne cricket in this country, who knows?