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Packed-out soccer stadiums, millions of viewers worldwide, players revered like pop stars, and prize money in the millions. Add on top of that pyrotechnics, fireworks, loud fans – the atmosphere in the arena feels like the Super Bowl or a big soccer final. And while the spectators cheer, the competitors concentrate hard on winning. But this isn’t the Super Bowl. And it’s not the Olympics or the World Cup. This is esports – a largely underestimated sporting competition that now captivates tens of thousands of spectators in the gaming arena, and millions online in front of their screens.
As with other sports, esports are about a competition. In other words, it all comes down to the sporting performance of every individual pro gamer and esports teams. The difference is that this performance takes place on a screen, not on an actual playing field. Boiled down, esports are direct competitions between human players, using suitable video and computer games under fixed rules.
This means that it’s far from every game that's suitable for esports tournaments. The prerequisites, above all, are equality of opportunity and fair assessment of performance. The factor of chance is most unwelcome in the esports world. Many games with a multiplayer mode do meet these requirements – be it virtual soccer, sim racing, or team-based arena battles.
As new as it may seem, esports is not. Almost 50 years ago the first gamers held virtual competitions in the legendary forefather of video games, “Pong”. Digital sports first attracted more attention in the 1990s, when LAN parties first appeared. These involved lots of players meeting up in event halls to network their computers. Barely a decade later, the online revolution had arrived – and almost everyone had easy access to the internet. Gamers (➜ Read more: These games really need to be remade) no longer necessarily had to meet up in one place. And that paved the way for global esports tournaments.
From the 2000s onwards, digital sports finally became a mass phenomenon. South Korea led the way. The real-time strategy game “StarCraft” enjoys great popularity, and a pro gamer is a true superstar there. South Korea also played host to the first World Cyber Games.
The prize money for esports tournaments is now in the millions. At “The International” 2019, the final tournament of the “Dota Pro Circuit”, prize money totaling US Dollar 34.3 million was distributed.
For spectators it has never been easier to watch major championships. Large platforms such as Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Gaming broadcast them live. And classic linear television also shows esports: US networks such as ESPN and CBS have carried esports live.
There are a range of disciplines in esports, from “League of Legends” to “FIFA”. Basically, two forms can be distinguished: contests between two players, and team-based games. The first form includes, for example, the aforementioned “StarCraft” – a sci-fi building game in which two players fight for resources, tactical points and victory. Even traditional sports organizations are getting involved: the ePremier League, for example, holds tournaments in e-soccer, featuring players representing clubs from the real-life soccer teams in the English top flights.
Team-based games take place in virtual arenas. This is where big esports organizations and groups like G2 Esports, Cloud 9 Esports and Fnatic come into play. In the shooter games scene, games with a pseudo-military touch, such as “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” (“CS GO” for short), “Call of Duty”, “Valorant” and “Overwatch” are popular. Esports teams also compete in what are known as “MOBAs” (“Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” games) such as “DOTA 2”, “Heroes of the Storm” and “League of Legends”.
The esports market is exploding. In the US alone there are millions more video gamers (244 million according to NPD) than there are car drivers (227.5 million according to Statista). Big drivers in esports are games like “League of Legends” (“LoL” or just “League” for short), which is one of the most popular esports games, with over 100 million players worldwide. In this game, two five-man teams duel, with the aim of destroying the enemy base. The division of tasks in esports teams is clearly defined: just as in football, every pro gamer has specific responsibilities, such as offense and defense. Victory can only be achieved through coordinated teamwork.
More than US Dollar 215 million in prize money was awarded in over 4,600 gaming tournaments in 2019 alone. In 2020, too, any pro gamer at the top table has been fighting for millions of dollars. Some are as revered in the world of esports as Tom Brady in football or Lionel Messi in soccer.
One example being South Korea’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, a.k.a. “The Unkillable Demon King” (League of Legends esports team T1). The vice-president of games-maker Riot Games called the player the “Michael Jordan of League of Legends”. He has won the World Championships of the LoL Finals three times. With US Dollar 1.2 million, he tops the esportsearnings.com, which tracks prize money from competitions. The highest paid esports professional is currently the Dane Johan “N0tail” Sundstein. He won the World Championships in the game “DOTA 2” twice in a row, claiming a total of US Dollar 6.9 million in prize money.
A pro gamer has to work hard for that kind of fame. Esports players make around 300 movements per minute, and during big tournaments their heart rate often reaches 160 to 180. Esports players coordinate tactical moves with one another in a flash, and need quick reactions. To achieve this, they practice up to ten hours a day under high pressure.
The esports sector also includes sim racing, which BMW already intensively supports. Virtual drivers fight it out for race wins and championships in racing simulations on computers or games consoles. And it's not just motor racing enthusiasts and amateurs who compete – even pro drivers see sim racing (➜ Read more: Sim racing – perfectly equipped for a virtual race track) as a good training opportunity. As pro racing driver Timo Glock puts it, “You can practice consistency and precision very well via a simulator.”
A striking number of professional racing drivers play the “iRacing” game. This is due to the elaborate driving physics, the true-to-reality tracks and the regulated esports tournaments. Another popular game is “rFactor 2”, which impresses with its highly realistic vehicle and driving physics. Sim racing is also enjoying growing user numbers. In professional “iRacing” there are around 120,000 virtual drivers. Mass market sim racing games like “Gran Turismo Sport” on the PlayStation 4, however, have over 13 million users.
BMW got heavily involved in sim racing in 2019. As an example, BMW Motorsport integrated some top model racing cars into “iRacing” and “rFactor 2”. This enables even non-professionals to experience driving racing cars such as the BMW M8 GTE, the BMW M4 GT4 and the BMW M2 CS Racing as realistically as possible. BMW also organizes branded cup competitions: the BMW SIM 120 Cup and the BMW SIM M2 CS Racing Cup.
Since 2020, BMW has also been supporting five of the most successful top esports teams around the world. Under the topical mottos #UnitedinRivalry and #UnitedatHome, the automaker is involved in the Esports Teams Cloud 9, Fnatic, FunPlus Phoenix, G2 Esports, and T1, which between them are made up of over 200 pro gamers and have already recorded tournament victories in games including “League of Legends”, “DOTA 2”, “FIFA”, “Fortnite” and “Rocket League”.
But looking to the future is also important. As part of its digital BMW SIM Live event, BMW Motorsport SIM Racing is presenting three spectacular world premieres that take the technology transfer between real and virtual motor racing to a completely new level. The BMW M4 GT3, which will be the new flagship of BMW M Customer Racing racecars from 2022, celebrated its debut as a prototype on the sim racing platform iRacing even before its first real-life racing event. The steering wheel of the BMW M4 GT3 was developed in cooperation with Fanatec and is the first of its kind that works both in a racecar and in a simulator.
Another world-first is the concept study of “Fusion SL” sim lounge furniture, which can be converted from a designer table into a full-fledged racing simulator in just a few simple steps. With these developments, BMW Motorsport is underlining its claim to be not just exploiting the character of sim racing as an event, but also to be actively advancing the industry through innovations, for example in hardware, as part of a holistic commitment.
BMW Motorsport will therefore be putting its commitment to sim racing on an even broader footing in the coming year. In addition to various BMW SIM Cup racing formats, the focus will be on new partnerships, with BMW acting as sponsor for four top gaming teams. In 2021, Team Redline, Williams Esports, G2 Esports and BS+COMPETITION will be sending BMW vehicles to race at numerous top-class sim racing events on the most important platforms representing BMW Motorsport.
With the establishment of a dedicated academy, going forward sim racing will also have a physical home at BMW Motorsport. The “Home of BMW Motorsport SIM Racing” will offer both ambitious and inexperienced sim racers the opportunity to access the extensive range of BMW Motorsport racing expertise and training options as part of training courses. This begins with coaching by professional sim racers from the BMW Motorsport SIM Racing partner teams and extends to mental training, which the BMW factory drivers have been doing regularly for many years in order to optimize their concentration in races.
There is increasing argument in society about whether or not esports are real sports. The US officially recognized esports players as professional athletes in 2013, while esports enjoy government recognition in a number of countries, including Germany, Russia, South Korea and China. Despite this esports are often not taken seriously. Unlike many other sports, esports are not generally categorized as charitable, meaning that no recognized clubs can be founded.
A change in trend is slowly becoming apparent. What was once a small community has now grown into an industry worth billions. The esports market has been absolutely booming in recent years. More and more viewers are experiencing up close how the world’s top esports players take on their favorite games. Experts anticipate there will be close to 300 million esports viewers worldwide by 2023 (2018: 173 million). It is estimated that the global esports market will reach nearly US Dollar 1.6 billion in revenue by 2023.
Thanks to the internet, this rapid growth is pretty unstoppable. The acceptance of virtual sports is also growing. Where gamers used to be called nerds, they are now the superstars of a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s going to be interesting to see where the journey leads.
Photos: BMW; Author: Thomas Stuchlik