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Could virtual sports really become more popular than the real thing?

One thing is certain. eSports is still in its infancy, and the growth potential and scope are immeasurable.

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Image: 2KSports

Sports-related gaming has been a core aspect of the industry from the very earliest days of home computers. Gamers and sports fans alike have grown up around the likes of John Madden Football, FIFA International Soccer and the like. These are games that were first developed 20 to 30 years ago, get updated practically every year and remain at the top of the gaming charts.

As such, the question of whether kids (or indeed adults) would prefer to kick a ball around in the park or play a game in the virtual world is not a new one. However, the advent of esports has taken this dilemma to a whole new level.

The rise of virtual sports leagues

eSports are well-established in the MOBA sector and attract plenty of attention in terms of spectator figures in the millions and big name sponsors. But there is no rule to say that competitive gaming has to restrict itself to this genre.

Last year, the NBA launched its eSport league to coincide with the real-world basketball season, and it is set to be bigger and better in 2019. Meanwhile, soccer fans the world over are streaming FIFA games and gambling on the outcomes in exactly the same way as they might for the English Premier League or the European Cup.

Can anyone become a virtual sports star?

A survey of sports fans in the UK showed that an incredible 73 percent would prefer to fire up their Xbox or PS4 for a game of FIFA than to go outside and kick a ball around with friends. Yet perhaps that is not so surprising after all. Let’s face it, whatever sport we enjoy, we all fantasize a little about having the skills of Lionel Messi, Tom Brady or LeBron James.

Out there in the real world, with the ball in hand or a foot, we are soon faced with a reality check. But in FIFA, Madden or NBA 2K, we don’t just acquire the skills of our sporting heroes, we can actually become them for the duration of the game.

Where next for eSport?

Even that, however, is only the beginning. The growing popularity of eSport leagues that operate alongside the physical ones has not escaped the notice of the major sports clubs. Premier League soccer teams like Manchester City and Chelsea are operating what are, in effect, eSport academies and are signing up the top players. Given the popularity among fans and the willingness of major sponsors to get involved, could we see a day when a virtual premier league attracts viewer numbers and offers salaries that could outweigh the real thing?

One thing is certain. eSports is still in its infancy, and the growth potential and scope are immeasurable. Already, there is a groundswell of opinion that eSport should feature to some extent at future Olympics. Initially, this might be for “traditional” eSports like League of Legends or CS:GO, but from there, having virtual basketball, soccer, tennis and even track events played alongside the physical sports has to be a very real possibility.

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