Popularity of computer gaming ‘growing faster than sport’

Dublin conference hears of plans to enhance GAA spectators’ experience through technology

 Kyle Giersdorf, who goes by the name “Bugha”, celebrates as he holds up the trophy after winning the Fortnite world cup solo finals in New York last July. Photograph: Epic Games via AP

Kyle Giersdorf, who goes by the name “Bugha”, celebrates as he holds up the trophy after winning the Fortnite world cup solo finals in New York last July. Photograph: Epic Games via AP


Electronic gaming is growing “faster than any other sport” and may soon have more followers than the likes of soccer and tennis, a conference in Dublin has heard.

Teams participating in video games such as League of Legends, Overwatch, and Fortnite are part of a new category of professionally-played electronic sport, or e-sport, whose fan base is rapidly expanding, the One-Zero conference at Avivia Stadium was told.

“It’s just huge in Asia, Europe, North America, all the key markets,” said Mike Downey, director of sports technology at Microsoft.

Describing the attraction of e-sport as similar to that of traditional sport, he said: “It’s competition, at the end of the day, it’s players, it’s teams, it’s strategies. They’re going head to head, they’re training.

“It’s growing much, much, much faster than any other sport, and arguably, faster than any sport has ever grown,” he said, adding that the global fan base of 220 million was growing by 15 percent a year, while revenue was growing 38 percent.

“Last year’s League of Legends world championships, the final match had an online global audience of 92 million people... that doesn’t happen in any industry, that kind of growth, let alone sports. So everyone should take it seriously.”

Technology is also becoming a central part of the experience in more traditional sports, with organisations striving for fan engagement, the conference heard.

Chief marketing officer of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars Julian Duncan said “the phone is just an extra appendage for fans today — it’s as connected to their arm as their hand is”.

He said there was newfound focus upon “finding a way to keep the conversation going with the fan beyond game day”.

“So really understanding what moves the needle with the fans, and delivering it to them in an experience that allows them to almost be transported to a different place. So it has to be more than just a ticket, it has to be an experience where they’re being engaged at all times.”

Suzanne Little is a lead researcher in a project trying to do just that in Ireland, involving DCU, Croke Park, Intel and Microsoft.

“One of the things that we’ve had a number of conversations with Croke Park about over the years is this notion of we want to make being there better than just being at home,” she said.

The group has explored the way technology could enhance fan experience beyond “just the 80 minutes that the team is on the pitch playing”.

One future possibility involves augmented viewing on a mobile device. “So if you don’t know quite what’s going on, could you get a replay of something, could you get personalised highlights that are tailored to your favourite player or your particular team that you’re watching,” said Ms Little.

Tomás Meehan, who became the GAA’s first chief information officer in 2015, said “5G will certainly open the doorway to a lot of innovation around fan experience in the venue”.

“Once that becomes pervasive and devices catch up, then I think you’ll see huge change in what the ordinary punter at a match or at a sports event can enjoy.”