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Can eSports be bigger than football?

How does a game go from a simple playaround to a global sport? And how long does that process take? For football, the world’s favourite spectator sport, it took approximately 2,270 years. And that’s only if we attribute football’s origination to the Chinese game cuju.

Roughly translated as "kick ball", cuju (also known as tsu’ chu) began during the Qin dynasty and involved soldiers kicking a leather ball into a net strung between two posts.

A couple of thousand years later, we seem to have gone full circle, with England’s favourite son Wayne Rooney rumoured to be considering a move to the Far East. Sport is a business and, as such, the rush to monetise players, franchises and the sports themselves has reached stratospheric proportions.

With billions at stake, it’s no wonder that people have become hugely innovative in the way they create, manage and deliver sports to a digitally savvy global audience. There is no better demonstration in recent times than the astounding global phenomenon that is esports.

To give you one example of its popularity – the first esports bet was taken in 2010 by my employer Pinnacle and, last year, we took our three millionth wager. According to Pinnacle chief executive Paris Smith, esports is now a bigger market by bet count globally than ice hockey.

There are several factors at play here – participation being one of the most pertinent. From my days squandering the intellectual delights of a geography degree to master Tekken 2 and Fifa 98 to The International – the annual Dota 2 championships, which had a prize pool of more than $20m in 2016 – participation has mushroomed.

According to Newzoo’s 2017 Global Esports Market Report, there will be more than 330 million frequent and occasional esports participants and viewers worldwide in 2017.

Accessibility is also hugely influential. Anyone from nine to 90 can be a proficient esports player. Aside from a few sore finger joints (mitigated, unbelievably, by physio teams at larger events), there’s no physical limitation on becoming an expert esports player.

Seven-figure team sponsorship and media deals by the likes of Coca-Cola, Red Bull, ESPN and Nissan are now commonplace.

Finally, I would count scope of opportunity as being a significant element of esports’ popularity and growth. Football is, and always will be, just football – played at varying degrees of skill from schoolyard to Camp Nou, with rewards for success rising accordingly.

In contrast, the imagination and creativity of game developers such as Blizzard Entertainment, Hidden Path Entertainment, Riot Games and Valve are the only limitations in how expansive and diverse esports can become. Add to that infinite networking capabilities and it means anyone can find any game at any time.

If you take a cursory glance at streaming platform Twitch (the YouTube of esports, which is owned by Amazon), you’ll see incredible swathes of graphics, visual effects, sounds, levels and characters.

New games such as Overwatch are challenging established names every year but the big four of League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2 and Hearthstone simply adapt and thrive accordingly.

Brands are sitting up and taking notice of the esports phenomenon. Seven-figure team sponsorship and media deals by the likes of Coca-Cola, Red Bull, ESPN and Nissan are now commonplace.

Only last month, Procter & Gamble’s Gillette announced a new sponsorship with esports event Intel Extreme Masters and unveiled xPeke, one of esports’ biggest stars, as brand ambassador.

Amazon, meanwhile, is on the hunt for an esports research and community marketing chief to capitalise on what it describes as a "future where games are a global cultural touchstone that cuts across age, gender and nationality".

Big money can, of course, lead to big problems. Illegal "skin" betting markets crept out of the dark web the moment a fast buck was there to be made, with a huge, popular and creative sporting entity potentially heading fast towards a precipice.

But mass-market operators such as Sky Bet and Bet365 (among others) have followed Pinnacle’s lead in curbing match-fixing and grasped the opportunity to bring safety, security and integrity to the market. This has helped to create a more regulated and responsible platform for esports betting.

For brands and media owners alike, the sporting landscape has irreversibly changed. Trust me, within ten years, esports will be bigger than football.

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