From the arcade to the arena: Leidos joins forces with the world's fastest-growing sport
The climactic scene from The Wizard, a 1989 film starring Fred Savage, features three prodigies competing in the final round of a high-stakes video game tournament. The scene takes place in an arena with cheering spectators and an elaborate stage designed to showcase the finalists, who square off in the game Super Mario Bros. 3. Jimmy, the story’s protagonist, wins in dramatic fashion, taking home a grand prize of $50,000 and resolving the film’s major conflict.
This movie appealed to my generation of millennials who embraced the fantasy element of achieving heroic status as a video gamer. But organized video game competitions, also known as “esports,” hardly existed when the movie was released. The origins of competitive gaming date back to the early 1970s, but The Wizard is a good moment to point to as the birth of modern esports. The film, which became a cult classic, was a precursor to the following year’s Nintendo World Championships and the subsequent esports explosion in early adopting markets.
Nearly 30 years later, esports have become a global phenomenon. Video game fame and glory is no longer a fictional plotline. The professionalization of organized competitive video gaming over the past three decades is impressive. The world’s elite gamers, sponsored by the world’s largest companies, draw millions of spectators, sell out large arenas, and earn millions of dollars in prizes.
While the whole idea of esports, an industry premised on watching other people play video games, might seem strange to generations who didn't grow up as digital natives, video gaming as a spectator sport has similarities to televised cooking competitions, poker tournaments, and traditional athletic events. Surprisingly, watching other people play video games is as popular as playing them. In a Washington Post article titled Teenagers are fueling a competitive gaming tidal wave, writer Emily Guskin reports a “58 percent majority of teens and young adults (ages 14-21) have watched people play video games on websites like Twitch and YouTube, while 59 percent report playing online multiplayer games.”
The international gaming community is enormous, and esports is the world’s fastest growing sport. Its audience grew from 134 million in 2012 to 335 million in 2017, and is projected to grow to nearly 600 million by 2020. Esports events have sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Madison Square Garden in New York, Wembley Arena in London, and the Crow’s Nest in Beijing. Twitch, a live streaming site dominated by esports content, is the No. 31 website globally, one spot behind Netflix. ESPN has a dedicated esports news section on its website, and esports are being considered for future Olympic Games.
Mostly concentrated in Asian markets, the esports industry is poised to expand rapidly in the United States. Esports already have a larger U.S. audience than the NHL, and will surpass MLB sometime in the next two years. The NBA in particular has embraced the opportunity to appeal to this market, and will debut its NBA 2K League on May 2. The league will feature 17 teams affiliated with NBA counterparts, including Wizards District Gaming (WDG), which will represent the Washington Wizards. Leidos is the official presenting sponsor for WDG for this inaugural season.
Despite these impressive numbers, the involvement of a company like Leidos might seem unusual. To help make sense of this partnership, I spoke with Chris Green, head of branding at Leidos, who emphasized that the Leidos brand is big on disrupting industry stereotypes. The company has embraced opportunities to brand itself where others in the industry have never thought to look. Green explained that as a brand, Leidos strives to challenge beliefs and assumptions about how we can most effectively differentiate and reach its target audience.
Esports offer an ideal platform to reach an emerging, digitally minded generation. Green believes the WDG partnership will help make Leidos grow by making the company synonymous with cutting-edge technology. He said getting in at the ground level of a new sensation is important, especially one with the backing of a blue-chip league like the NBA. “This partnership will give our brand new energy,” he said. “It will help our audience associate our brand with disruptive new platforms and exciting technology.” Recently, the NBA 2K League announced partnerships with Dell, Intel, and the U.S. Navy.
Melissa Koskovich, head of communications and marketing at Leidos, sees this as the perfect opportunity to enter the esports arena. “Watching the convergence of sports and technology is an exciting thing,” Koskovich said. “Sports is something everyone can rally behind, and technology is something that’s in the fiber of our company at Leidos, so getting behind this sponsorship was a very easy thing for us to do. It’s a way to bring our brand to life and to get people engaged with our company.”