Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
As much as I’m tired of the phrase “disruption,” there’s really no better word to describe what Covid-19 has put everybody through, both personally and professionally. Like every other industry, sports and entertainment are finding their new trajectory. While everyone is jockeying for position in this new era, one thing is clear: gaming — which is both sports and entertainment — has shaken out to be a dominant player and leader in innovation post-pandemic.
Traditional Sports and Entertainment Are Going Through Seismic Shifts
Today, audiences are changing the channel on major traditional sports leagues. Even the Super Bowl, the biggest draw in North American team sports, saw eroded ratings in 2021, the lowest they’ve been in over a decade, according to Sport Business (registration required).
While it may be tempting to point the finger at one specific cause for this decline, the truth is that there are many facets to consider. A key factor is age of viewership. While the players on formal sports teams are naturally on the younger side, the audiences largely aren’t. For example, some estimates state the average age of NBA viewers is 37 years old. For the NFL, the average age is 47; and MLB ranked highest with an average audience age of 53.
Although leagues like the NBA, NFL or MLB aren’t going anywhere any time soon, there is the concern that, over time, they could age out of the entertainment sphere. For many of the younger generations, sports is being replaced with another equally constructive pastime (ahem, gaming), and for others, they simply enjoy both.
Now when it comes to entertainment, younger generations are digital natives whose tastes naturally vary compared to older generations. They prefer streaming and on-demand viewing, making services like Twitch a natural choice. Today’s audience wants to view events on their own schedules, with interactivity built in. It’s one thing to sit on your couch and cheer at the TV, but being able to actually engage with the community surrounding an event while directly interacting with the personalities playing the game is a new, much more dynamic experience.
Social media platforms play an enormous role in defining the trends of entire industries, social influencers define tastes and interactivity drives it all. Gaming has been at the forefront of this movement from the beginning, and I believe we’ll only see it grow from here.
While the preferred form of entertainment varies greatly by generation, Generation Z’s activity of choice is gaming — favored above music, internet browsing, social platforms and watching TV or movies. In fact, TV and movies have moved all the way down to activity No. 5, becoming their least preferred entertainment choice.
Gaming Is Filling New Voids and Demands — And This Is Just the Beginning
Now, it must be said: Gaming is still finding its way as an industry. Currently, there is too little competition among platforms, and the fact that game publishers actually own the games that this sector of entertainment is built around creates numerous hurdles. Reminiscent of the streaming wars that affected music artists in the 2010s, entities involved in gaming have yet to settle just how the economic pie should be divided.
But the data surrounding gaming’s hypergrowth speaks volumes. As traditional entertainment wanes, gaming has seen a massive spike — up nearly 80 percent for a total viewership of 27.9 billion hours in 2020. The global gaming market is projected to reach a value of $256.97 billion by 2025. Gamers draw gigantic audiences — often unscheduled and on random weekdays. Investments are growing every year to the tune of billions. And advertisers looking for more lucrative opportunities will find gaming and esports a worthy avenue to pursue.
Gaming audiences also skew young, and young gamers will likely continue to be a huge percentage of the entertainment market for many decades to come. When they bring their own children into the fold, the cycle could repeat. Even today, parents and kids playing Minecraft or Call of Duty together is as nearly as commonplace as having a game of catch in the front yard. When it comes to gaming, I don’t believe “aging out” will be an issue.
Instead, the opposite could be true, as the demographics for gaming have only continued to grow. It’s getting younger and older, expanding on both ends — 21 percent of all gamers are under 18 years old; 38 percent are within ages 18-34; and 26 percent are ages 35-54. The number of female gamers is steadily growing, now at 45 percent versus 55 percent male. In fact, women accounted for 63 percent of mobile gamers in 2019. And there are approximately 46 million gamers with disabilities. Esports in the workplace? Yup, it’s a thing. With an estimated 2.9 billion players worldwide, if you’re looking for an audience that is both huge and diverse, gamers are it.
There is greater awareness of formal esports, too, and there are more platforms where they can reach even wider audiences. As companies offer bigger and bigger prizes, the number of viewers goes up, and we are seeing significantly more interest and involvement in competitions and tournaments. Smart brands are already adjusting to focus more on esports marketing. Expect to see more businesses teaming up with esports influencers, making merchandise available in the gaming space, and pumping out ads. There’s no doubt about it, this type of collaboration will become the norm — and, for many companies, it already is.
The Bottom Line
Sports, movies and music are always going to be around in some form. As far as what that form will evolve to be — and its implications for culture and society — data doesn’t lie. The gravitational pull of gaming grows stronger every day and is only accelerating as traditional sports and entertainment leverage new relationships with gamers and gaming organizations to stay relevant with today’s youth.
One thing is for certain, nothing is slowing down the gaming juggernaut — where the future of sports and entertainment takes on newfound clarity. So, pick up your preferred controller. Let’s see how it plays out.