eSports: Sport or Business?

The sports industry joins the eSports fever to reach the digital generation and expand its business

Can you imagine being paid millions for playing in a professional team? That you were able to fill stadiums with people coming to see you play? That you could attract the masses in the same crazy way as a rock star, a Hollywood actor or a famous sportsperson? eSports have made all that possible and more. The fever for video games has had a decisive impact on the sports industry, and not only has it borrowed the name, it has also given a voice to the digital generation and led it to stardom. eSports and the millennials have united and their strength is unstoppable.

To what extent eSports, or electronic sports, can be considered a sport remains a controversial question. If we stick to the definition in the dictionary, sport is understood to be any physical activity, whether a game or competition, that requires training and a subjection to rules. A second meaning is: all kinds of physical activity that is done for reasons of health or entertainment.

Spending hours and hours in front of a computer or with a mobile phone in hand playing video games is the antithesis of physical activity. But when the voices that defend it belong to elite athletes, and when the International Olympic Committee itself is seriously contemplating the possibility of introducing eSports in the 2020 Olympic Games, it is at least worth considering the debate.

What is undeniable is that eSports has had a big impact on the sports industry and its fans are constantly increasing. Athletes, professional teams, sponsors inside and outside the sport, and the media are the main promoters of an industry that attracts, nourishes and satisfies the millennial generation. Professional video game competitions have generated nearly $900 million in revenue over the past three years thanks to sponsorship and advertising, and the industry is projected to exceed $1.1 billion in revenue and reach 215 million users in 2019, according to a study by the consultant Newzoo.

eSports: Sport or Business? - Johan Cruyff Institute

NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, now an analyst for TNT Sports, is co-owner of NRG eSports alongside former New York Yankees baseball star Alex Rodriguez and active Los Angeles Dodgers player Jimmy Rollins. Swedish Boston Celtics forward Jonas Jarebko has bought the ‘Renegades’ team. Former Los Angeles Lakers player Rick Fox founded the Echo Fox. And the Philadelphia 76ers was the first NBA team to commit to eSports when they bought two teams for $15 million – Dignitas and Apex, which now compete under the name of Dignitas.

If we look at European professional football, teams like Paris Saint Germain, Ajax FC, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting de Lisboa, Manchester City, FC Schalke, Wolfsburg, West Ham, Valencia FC, Besiktas, Santos or FC Volga have their own teams in eSports and are just as ferocious and dedicated in the transfer market as in traditional football. On September 22nd, Ajax FC added the best player in the Netherlands of the FIFA game to its eSport team. Their marketing director and former student of the Johan Cruyff Institute’s Master of Sport Management, Edwin van der Sar, said at his presentation: “Koen has been FIFA champion on several occasions, inspires our youth and has a personality that fits with our club. At Ajax, we are always looking for new ways to connect with our younger fans. We will help Koen, not only supporting him in big tournaments, but also in organizing activities with our followers. We believe it is important to encourage both digital football and real football. These two worlds can coexist and complement each other perfectly”.

eSports: Sport or Business? - Johan Cruyff Institute

Nor does PSV Eindhoven, to cite another example, skimp on its digital team: its ‘cyber players’ have access to all the facilities and services of the club, appear in the annual photo of the team and wear the red and white shirt in all the tournaments in which they participate defending their colors.

The electronic sports industry allows large brands to foster the loyalty of the millennial generation and connect with them in their own language: 75% of players are between 18 and 34 years old. “The fan phenomenon in eSports is amazing -says Shaquille O’Neal-. I have seen this movement in the NBA itself and in other traditional sports. The passion with which these people follow their favorite teams, players and games is incredible. It is an inexhaustible source for sponsors and distributors”.

eSports: Sport or Business? - Johan Cruyff Institute

Heroes of the Dorm is the ultimate collegiate eSports tournament. (Photo: Business Wire)

The big players in the eSports leagues have turned their ‘hobby’ into a profession and the attraction they generate gives them celebrity treatment in this parallel world. Those guys who distance themselves from the world, shutting themselves up for up to 12 hours a day in a dark room to connect with people from all over the planet through a video game, now fill large stadiums and compete for cash prizes that exceed one million dollars. They are the envy of half the planet!

But what are these curious characters really like? There are different traits that perfectly describe an eSports fan, whether a player or spectator: they are passionate, dedicated, with a high capacity for concentration, extremely competitive, with a desire to excel and loyal to a culture, that of gaming. Traditional sports recognize these values in their own players; perhaps that is why they do not criticize those who try to compare both worlds and, let’s not fool ourselves, it is a perfect way to connect with your younger audience and increase your business through merchandising, ticketing, rights, advertising and sponsorship.

eSports: Sport or Business? - Johan Cruyff Institute

In South Korea, one of the countries with the most gaming fever addicts, there are stadiums dedicated exclusively to eSports and countless cyber cafes where the only background sound is the bip-bip of electronic games. On October 29th, the Los Angeles Staples Center, the legendary NBA Lakers’ stadium, was packed like never before with fans to see the final of the League of Legends world championship, the most popular video game in the world with 100 million monthly users. The end of the season had a worldwide audience of 43 million, with a peak of 14.7 million viewers during the final. Previous rounds were held in San Francisco, Chicago and New York before the final in the city of stars. The winnings: $5 million in prizes, $2.4 million for the winner.

eSports: Sport or Business? - Johan Cruyff Institute

The scene at the 2013 League of Legends world championship in Los Angeles. (Photo from

Do you think the owner of the Lakers would not pay for those million-dollar audiences? As someone who has lived countless nights of glory with this team, Shaquille O’Neal says, “the fans themselves are the ones who opened my eyes. eSports are a great business opportunity and the industry cannot be left out”.

While millions of dollars are paid around the world for these new idols, we can continue to debate whether they are sports or not. If only for fun…

eSports: Sport or Business? - Johan Cruyff Institute


Johan Cruyff Institute uses a rich learning environment that fosters educational tools based on a student interaction model. We aim for a mix of students from sports and business sectors, which also enables students to share their unique experiences and learn from each other. Through ‘Cruyffian’ teaching methods the students will engage actively in creative challenges that require effort, commitment and intuitive thinking. Visit these web pages to find out more about our programs:

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