The business of eSports is booming. The industry’s revenue is pegged to reach $1.5 billion by 2020, and it’s intersection with social media and pop culture continues to thrive.

Fortnite has emerged as a pop culture phenomenon, capturing a developing market of gamers and social media influencers. Games like Apex Legends are poised to follow Fortnite’s lead, building upon a blossoming pop culture revolution in step with younger generations who have grown up with the Internet.

Social media has become a playground for all new types of content, from celebrity Twitch streamers pulling in seven-figure incomes to YouTube channels attracting billions of views. The convergence of eSports and pop culture is not strictly limited to established social media platforms either. The hashtag #gamersonTikTok is rapidly gaining mainstream traction as the young creative, short-form video platform TikTok garners enthusiastic favor from former Vine lovers.

As eSports continues its meteoric rise, high-profile investors are pouring into the space and gamer leagues are quietly growing into financial behemoths, anchored by a growing community at the intersection of pop culture and the digital era.

eSports is Becoming a Financial Unicorn   

The rapid rise of eSports is aptly demonstrated by the sheer scale of favorite games like Fortnite, League of Legends, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Particularly on video game streaming platform Twitch — where some players have millions of followers and lucrative incomes — gamers are becoming legitimate celebrities.

The prevalence of popular streamers has coincided with the development of eSports teams. Professional eSports teams such as 100 Thieves have attracted investors from prominent venture capital groups like Sequoia Capital and celebrities — including Drake. These teams focus on tournaments for game franchises like Fortnite, Call of Duty, and League of Legends, where the prize money dwarfs mainstream sporting purses.

For example, the massively popular game Dota 2’s prize pool at the International 2018 Dota 2 Championships was more than $25 million. For context, The Masters PGA Golf Classic purse in 2018 was $11 million.

Teams like 100 Thieves are even starting ‘superteams’ for games, inking deals with high-profile players for stacked League of Legends teams. The reputation of the tournaments that teams compete in has also soared. Tournaments like Dota 2’s International 2018 sell out arenas and are full-fledged live-broadcasted events to international audiences, complete with commentating crews and surreal displays.

With nearly 100 million people viewing the League of Legends finals alone, the power of eSports to alter the direction of pop culture in a digital era is compelling.

Pop Culture, Social Media, and The Digital Era  

eSports leagues are primarily controlled by a few major companies that produce the games, manage the media content rights, and run the tournaments. These include Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games, and Epic Games, who have created fertile ground for advertising and marketing initiatives.

Apparel companies that are explicitly targeting eSports audiences are benefitting from a younger audience which is increasingly drawn to the digital sports ecosystem. And apparel companies are only a portion of what seems to be an endless series of companies lining up to tap into the enormous potential of the eSports industry. Of the $1.5 billion in revenue projected by NewZoo for the eSports sector, more than $1.2 billion is expected to come directly from brand investment like sponsorship and advertising.

Interestingly, the rapid growth is happening despite the fragmented nature of eSports. Tournaments are usually confined to specific games from the corresponding studios, while some — like Fortnite — operate entirely independently even without sponsors. Fragmentation would seemingly provide a barrier to onboarding more users and followers, especially with organically growing fanbases for teams, but social media has provided the coalescing layer for the broader industry.  

Sports have always had a significant impact on mainstream culture, but eSports is taking it to another level as it ingratiates itself with social media culture. Twitch has been the dominant live-streaming video game platform over the last several years, with roughly 15 million daily active users and an outsized share of users either Millennials or Gen Z’s.

However, another intriguing component of eSports is its ability to develop in parallel with new social media platforms. For instance, TikTok has become immensely popular among Generation Z that has integrated music and short-form video creations — becoming an attractive medium for gamers to interact in new ways. Viral content like #gamersonTikTok serves to propel the young social media platform into a niche domain of popular culture that gamers are driving into mainstream convergence with the social media Mount Rushmore of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

eSports are often overlooked by older generations and those who pay more attention to the NBA or NFL than League of Legends, but that dynamic is shifting. Headlines of the meteoric rise of competitive video games grabbed the attention of ESPN all the way back in 2015, and the industry has only continued to swell at a scary pace. Legacy brands like Coca-Cola and Red Bull have been jostling for a position in the up-and-coming sector since 2014, and eSports is poised to eventually become the most popular sport in the world.

Already fusing social media and a digital culture of young generations, eSports is set to profoundly influence the evolving narrative of pop culture in the coming years.