From Russia with esports – Russia’s growing love affair with professional video gaming (by Iain Fenton)
The global games market is huge. Last year alone saw over 2 billion gamers across the globe generate over $100 billion in game revenues and of these 2 billion gamers, almost 100 million of them are Russian.
Around the turn of the millennium, the games industry gave birth to esports – competitive, professional video gaming. Since then, esports growth on a global level is unparalleled. In 2016, the global audience of esports peaked at over 213 million - this number will almost certainly continue to grow into the next decade - whilst global revenue for esports will likely top $1 billion by 2018. It is no surprise then that Russia is keen to be at the forefront of the esports boom.
Young Russians and esports
Back in 2001, Russia became the first country to officially recognise esports as a sporting discipline. (although it was later rescinded in 2006 before being recognised again in 2016) And since the early days of 2001, young Russians have continued to hold their passion for gaming and esports. Thanks to the government’s decision to recognise esports as an official sport, Russian esports athletes and coaches now have the opportunity to receive titles such as ‘Master of Sports of Russia’ whilst, because of the popularity of esports in the country, there are now numerous Russian players ranked amongst the top 100 in the global esports prize winners.
These young Russians are competing in esports franchises such as League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter Strike - many have more than $100,000 in earnings. Young Russians and young people from across the world are growing up in an online world and online gaming is a large part of this world. Currently, around one in three Russians play video games online, whilst the majority of these will not be at a competitive level, it is, nonetheless, certainly still a high proportion of the population.
“Young Russians love esports” says Yuly Polyakov a 20-year-old Russian esports fan from the Voronezh region.
“I started playing games when I was three years old and esports became interesting to me just when I started using the Internet.”
“In Russia, esports stand on the same level with traditional sports. Esports has become an officially recognized sport. I think it`s already caught up to the traditional Russian sports.”
Egor Maleev, a 16-year-old Russian who has dreams of becoming a successful esports athlete himself, tells RBTH that esports have helped him in various ways, he says:
“I started playing when I was six years old. And the first time I met esports was when I was about 12-13. Esports helped me become a good in-game leader and has promoted some good human qualities.
“Also, it is a good opportunity for younger minds because it is easily accessible, as long as you have an internet connection and a computer, you can play.”
The experiences of Yuly and Egor are familiar with many young Russians. Emilia Frank is the administrator of a VK.com [the Russian version of Facebook] esports group with over 14,000 followers. Emilia is certain that esports in Russia will continue growing well into the future, she says:
“I think esports can have a big future and we have a lot of talented players in our country. We've reached a point where we have a Russian esports cup already.
“When it was StarLadder (an esports Dota 2 tournament) in Minsk - Belarus still has a lot in common with Russia - the stadium was filled. It is definitely the start of something big. A lot of people who came to see the event were absolutely surprised with how incredible it was.
“I personally was there [at Star Ladder], it was an epic point, it [esports] is really getting bigger, it is not a small computer club anymore, it is epic.”
The gaming stereotype
According to statistics by Newzoo, almost 50% of the Russian population plays video games online. The stereotype that it is just 16 - 25- year-old males that play video games has become an outdated one. Female gamers now make up almost 50% of all gamers worldwide, whilst the average age of a gamer is 31 years old.
Yaroslav Kuznetsov, is a former Russian esports pro who during his career, earned over $18,000 from playing Dota 2 - a free to play, multiplayer online battle-arena game. He now works as one of the most popular casters and commentators on the esports scene and believes esports is an increasingly growing passion of Russians from multiple generations, he says:
“Cybersport [esports] in Russia are very popular, especially Dota 2 and CS: GO [Counter Strike: Go]. Since the Epicenter series began to be held here, the opinion of the public and media is improving. Earlier media could often speak about esports in a not so good light, now everything has changed.
“The average age of esports viewers and athletes in Russia is about 20. But it is constantly growing, many older Russians are starting to learn about esports right now. In addition, the entire audience is growing along with esports. Thus, the average age of the audience every year increases a little.”
Investment from Russian banks and businesses
Other factors are also contributing to the massive rise in popularity of esports. Banks and businesses have begun to see the incentives in sponsoring major esports tournaments and athletes – the money to be made out of esports is growing each passing year.
In 2015, it was reported that Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov had invested $100 million into the Russian esports team Virtus Pro. Since then, Virtus Pro have gained a lot of popularity – they’re easily the most well-known team in Russia and possibly Europe. Virtus Pro now have a variety of esports teams, made up of athletes from a variety of different countries, playing a variety of different games. And Virtus Pro General Manager, Roman Dvoryankin, sees investment as a good thing for esports because of the sponsorship money and publicity that it receives.
“The press reported about 18 months ago about $100 million investment by one of the guys who is in the top 3 of the Forbes rankings in Russia, [Alisher] Usmanov” says Roman.
“But he’s not the only one, many middle sized businesses’ and investment bankers are looking into esports and trying to set up their own teams. These guys are investing in amateur teams and then they’re selling the squads for good money, so it’s moving ahead.
“So that $100 million investment kind of opened many people’s eyes. It was so widely reported on. And then you see the sponsorship, so companies and internet service providers are coming in and the big sponsors are coming in as well so you will soon see big sponsorship announcements for VP and other esports teams. There are Russian companies who see the potential of esports and the viewing audience getting bigger and bigger, so there is money to be made.”
Clearly, monetary investment is driving the popularity and growth of esports in a positive direction. Big businesses, banks and sponsors are jumping onto the back of esports and at the moment, it is paying off for them. But esports are popular all around the world, in Asia and America the fan base is massive and Russia do not want to fall behind.
The dark side of esports
Esports still has its problems, though. Online trash talking and hate speech is common and is difficult to monitor effectively - female esports players especially are hit with lots of toxic abuse. According to critics of esports, it is important that this behavior - which has become normalized within esports circles - is dealt with so that children who play these games are brought up in an online world where they are taught to be respectful to one another. Egor Surkov – a professional esports athlete thinks that teaching respectful online behaviour is vital in order for esports to challenge mainstream, traditional sports, he says:
“I want to see how esports and online games in general educate the younger generation to be kind and tolerant towards each other. Coaching and teaching good behaviour should be rewarded.”
“My favourite about thing about esports is the opportunity for every human being to have his place in this world only by passion and hard work. I also like how esports unite people around the world just like music does.
Looking into the future
Will the sports stars of tomorrow be esports athletes? Only time will tell. The past decade has shown us the power that technology has on modern social life – YouTuber’s and Vloggers have become millionaires and stars in their own right thanks to the power of the internet. YouTubers have become the film stars of today. And now the internet is the go to place to watch esports.
Clearly, Usmanov’s investment into Team Virtus Pro is not just the crazed spending of a billionaire – many hours of planning and thinking will have gone into this investment – Usmanov will be expecting a profit in the long run.
Due to the spread of social media and the popularity of esports worldwide, the best esports athletes are being thrusted into the public spotlight. Esports athletes have become household names in America and lots of Asian countries. And with the introduction of FIFA as an esports franchise – esports tournaments are being bet on in the same way as real football matches are - the same thing is starting to happen in Europe. The biggest Russian football clubs have started investing in esports, the likes of Spartak Moscow and Anzhi Makhachkala have already signed esports athletes to represent them in esports tournaments in order to boost their own fan bases.
European and American television sports channels have begun to broadcast live esports tournaments events to their viewers, esports has never been as popular as they are now and this popularity seemingly knows no end.
In terms of cleaning up the online hate speech aspect of esports, the outlook appears to be a positive one. The esports athletes who are in the media spotlight will set a standard of what is expected from a professional gamer, thus, young esports gamers and fans will pick up on these new standards and slowly but surely this hate speech will be eradicated – this is the hope anyway.
For 20-year-old Ukrainian esports fan, Alexander Fedorenchuk, esports is the future of sport in Russia, the CIS and beyond, he says:
“Young people have embraced esports. The numbers increase every day. We can’t exactly see into the future of esports but we can see how the prize pools rise, this should motivate people to participate, maybe we'll see things like special cyber schools in the near future.”
With one of the biggest esports events of the year set to be held in Moscow this October, Russia’s capital is increasingly at the forefront of global esports tournaments. ‘Epicenter: Moscow in Counter Strike: Global Offensive’ is set to build upon the success that ‘Epicenter: Dota 2’ found in May of last year, where more than 24 million people from all over the world followed and watched the tournament live. Although it is still unclear what role esports can play in our everyday lives, one thing has become clear, no matter who you are and where you live, ‘esports’ is a word that you are going to have to get used to hearing.
Text is provided by Iain Fenton
Author: Anna Dorozhkina