The newest app from mobile sports company theScore Inc. has scores, standings, stats, and news on the latest trades. But it isn't following athletes on a field or a court – it's tracking the star players of competitive video gaming.
On Wednesday, theScore will be the first sizable media company to launch a mobile app dedicated to eSports, a burgeoning industry where the "sport" is watching skilled players duel at popular video games. The company will track eSports just as it does professional sports, hoping to tap the massive audiences that tune in for weekly tournaments.
It's not such a big leap. The most popular games like League of Legends (known as LOL) have become highly professional, with the best players under contracts to teams with managers and coaches. Some even have player agents. They are traded between teams and, increasingly, their every move is of keen interest to millions of fans – mostly in North America, Europe, China and South Korea – in the same way others might follow LeBron James or Sidney Crosby.
Just last week, the website The Daily Dot broke news of a match-fixing ring and seven top American players of the game Counter-Strike were subsequently banned from major tournaments.
Huge numbers of eSports fans "live and breathe it on a daily basis in their personal lives," said Benjie Levy, president and chief operating officer for theScore, which already has 9.2 million users on its existing mobile platforms. "We don't really know what the upper [boundary] on this is."
An estimated 71 million people watched 2.4 billion hours of eSports video in 2013, up dramatically from 1.3 billion a year earlier, according to research from data analytics firm IHS Technology. By 2018, IHS projects viewing hours will reach 6.6 billion. Most of that viewing is online, and the best-known hub is Twitch, a video-streaming platform that lets viewers tune in to live gaming feeds for free. Last August, Amazon.com Inc. bought Twitch for $1.1-billion (U.S.) in cash.
There is serious money on the table. Stadiums such as the Staples Centre in Los Angeles have sold out for big tournaments, which can generate multimillion-dollar prize pools comparable to those for pro tennis or golf tournaments such as The Masters. Sponsorships and advertising can be even more lucrative, with top players who stream their gameplay earning upward of $20,000 a month.
Yet eSports is still a comparatively young industry, and theScore sees opportunity in covering it professionally. At its King Street West headquarters in Toronto, the company has outfitted a room full of monitors and computers – "nerd heaven," as managing editor for eSports Kyle Chatterson describes it – where dedicated teams will cover live gaming competitions around the clock.
At launch, theScore will push out live stats, analysis and mobile alerts covering competition on games such as League of Legends, DotA 2, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, StarCraft II and Hearthstone. A content team of 30 employees, 14 of them full-time, will feed the app. Half are Toronto-based, but feature writers and freelancers will contribute from Australia, California, New York and Germany.
Your average button-masher need not apply. Like traditional sports journalism, eSports coverage needs reporters who can cover fast-paced live events, but who also have networks of contacts to gain access to pro players, managers, owners and agents.
"It's really the same stuff that I could hear a sports fan ask for," said Rod (Slasher) Breslau, theScore's New York-based senior reporter, who has covered the industry for 13 years. Statistics, results, signings and trades are the everyday currency, but player profiles and features are also in demand.
Players typically gain notoriety "by performing in big events" and for "doing stuff that's flashy like an athlete would," said Chris Chae, theScore's eSports project manager. And they tend to be far more accessible than the typical sports star: Twitch, for example, lets fans chat with top gamers as they play.
"Imagine you could watch Sidney Crosby practicing on the ice, and talk to him while he's doing it," Mr. Chae said.
So far, eSports remains "kind of like the wild, wild West," Mr. Breslau said. But as the community grows, theScore believes it can reach new audiences if it can become an authoritative source for news and numbers.
"Everybody involved in eSports is hungry for legitimization," Mr. Chatterson said. "So by being a decent-sized media outlet, we are able to bring some of that legitimization to the scene."