The “Gamer Cap” and the Long-Term Growth of Esports

It’s pretty clear that esports is having a moment right now.  Ninja is on the cover of ESPN Magazine, Forbes is doing valuations for esports teams, and everyone from Michael Jordan to Drake to Meg Whitman (!?) is investing large sums of money into the space.

While the current financials of the industry probably don’t support the valuations investors are putting money in at, people are investing not based on where the industry is at now, but based on the assumption that things will continue to grow exponentially into the future.

There’s a big problem with that assumption, however. Right now, the core “gamer” audience for esports is probably close to tapped out. Esports isn’t a novelty anymore. Most gamers are already more than familiar with the concept, and are watching/following esports at the rates they will for the foreseeable future (and those who aren’t by this point probably never will).

If esports is going to continue growing at the rate it has, it’s going to have to attract people outside that core group of gamers – people who aren’t all that interested games and have never played the games they’re watching. In my view, that’s a huge issue, and probably the biggest question mark surrounding the future growth of the industry.

The problem is that in order to enjoy watching most esports titles, you need to have a pretty significant level of familiarity with the game you’re watching. If you’re not familiar with the basic mechanics of the game, you won’t really be able to understand what’s going on and you’re probably not going to turn into a long-term viewer. And with a lot of esports titles, the barrier to entry involved in learning a game is absolutely massive.

Look at DotA or LoL for instance: 100+ heroes, 4+ skills each, all sorts complicated mechanics. Good luck explaining that to someone with no background in video games.  Even basic concepts like leveling, items, etc. are probably going to take some time to learn for people who have no previous concept of them.

This isn’t really stuff you can easily pick up by watching either (I’m sure even a lot of long-time DotA and LoL fans can barely make out what’s going on in a hectic team fight sometimes). If you want to learn a game like DotA or LoL from scratch, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time on Dotabuff or what have you figuring out the heroes, mechanics etc. Most non-gamers probably aren’t going to have the time or inclination to do that, and will therefore probably never turn into long-term viewers.

Try figuring out what’s going on here if you don’t know anything about gaming

Hell, the barrier to entry for a lot of games is pretty high even for other gamers who aren’t familiar with that particular game. I’ll use myself as an example – I’ve played DotA for years and enjoy watching it because of that, but I’ve never watched a game of League in my life because I’ve never played it, don’t know what any of the heroes and items do, and would have no real idea what’s going on. In order to truly enjoy watching the game I’d probably literally need to sit down and spend a few hours learning the heroes and items specifically for that purpose. I don’t really see massive numbers of people doing that.

Ultimately, in order to become a long-term viewer an esports title, someone probably needs to have played that game. That’s the only way they’re going come to know enough about it to understand what’s going on and enjoy it, as most people aren’t going to sit down and spend hours learning a game from scratch otherwise.

The unfortunate conclusion of the above is that most esports titles essentially have a cap on their potential audience, equal to more or less the number of people who have played that game (not necessarily the number of people who are playing it currently, mind you, but the number that have played it at some point in their lives, enough to know what’s going on).

That “gamer cap” may be high – for games like DotA, League or CS it’s in probably the hundreds of millions worldwide –  but it’s still a cap. Once a game reaches this cap, in order to keep growing it will have to deal with the huge barriers to entry associated with teaching that game to non-gamers. Unless its publishers can figure out a way around that barrier, which is a huge challenge, the game will stop growing, or at least substantially slow down.

The implications of this for the industry as a whole are not good, as this would imply that while the industry has seen massive growth recently, that growth will slow down dramatically now that the only way forward is to convert non-gamers.

Admittedly not every game is as complicated as DotA or LoL. In particular, games like Rocket League, sports games, and some shooters like CS:GO and Fortnite can probably be learned just by watching without a significant time investment by the viewer (at the end of the day it’s not that hard to understand the concepts of dudes shooting at each other). These games may have an easier time converting non-gamers, and may have an easier time getting past this “gamer cap.”

However, I think it’s pretty fair to say that for games with a steep learning curve, which includes most other games, this “gamer cap” is a huge issue, and one publishers will need to overcome if they want the industry to keep growing.