Whether it’s a true sport or not, esports has an enormous following of gamers and non-gamers alike—and it’s here to stay. Esports (or “electronic sports”) are organized video game competitions with professional players and teams just like in football or basketball. While the industry is still growing, SportTechie reports that esports made about $865 million in 2018 worldwide. Obviously, it’s a lucrative business, but how much do professional video game players make? And is an esports equivalent viable for board games?
Many esports players have salaries, with supplemental income from sponsorships, tournament winnings, and streaming. League of Legends esports team Ember revealed their players’ salaries in 2015: the total comps ranged from $70,000 to $92,000. With money comes fame for some esports stars, as it does for professional athletes. This is especially true in South Korea, which dominates the esports arena. Den of Geek states that Cho “Maru” Seong Ju of South Korea has won around $600,000 in prize money playing Starcraft II, and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is called “God” within the League of Legends community. There are well-known players from the United States, as well, like Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora (Dota 2) and Dominique “SonicFox” McLean (fighting games).
If you earn money playing a game, are you a professional, or do you need to play games full time? Can you be a professional board game player? We think that the answer is yes, but you most likely need to supplement tournament winnings with other sources of income, such as sponsorships, paid public appearances, or coaching.
Many analog games, like pool, poker, and chess, have professional players and tournaments. A mid-level professional pool player can make around $50,000 annually in tournament cash prizes; but, unless you are a top player, you may not make enough for a livable wage. And because we’re obsessed with pool’s Canadian cousin crokinole, you should know that there’s a World Crokinole Championship: you can check out a video with 2018 championship highlights here. Poker’s in-game “points” are real-world cash, so winning means that you’re making money. US Poker Sites reveals that a professional poker player’s annual income can be anywhere from $10,000 to $1,000,000 or more, which doesn’t seem like a stable career for anyone other than a master bluffer. And in chess, professional players’ earnings come from winning prizes and playing for clubs—unless you’re a Grandmaster, you probably need additional income. Expert chess players can make a lot of money with sponsorships, appearance fees, and coaching, depending on how well known they are.
Moving Away from the Abstract
Two-player competitive card games like Magic: The Gathering and Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Games work well in professional play. Magic is one of Hasbro’s top-earning franchises (alongside Monopoly), and professional players can earn quite a bit by winning championships and making appearances. Magic esports are on the way in 2019 that will combine tabletop Magic and the online MTG Arena: tabletop Mythic Championships will step in for Pro Tours, and weekly Pro League matches between contracted professionals will take place on Twitch. Professional Magic players can gain the same kind of fame that esports players do—American Jon Finkel and German Kai Budde are still regarded as the two best Magic players of all time—and we should expect to see top Magic esports players pop up in 2019. In addition, Fantasy Flight Games hosts tournaments and Organized Play events for its Living Card Games and Star Wars miniatures games that have strong, dedicated followings.
Board Game Conventions
At conventions many tournaments take place simultaneously for different games, so play is much more spread out than it is at singularly focused Magic tournaments. The Boardgame Players Association’s World Boardgaming Championships hosts players from all over the world who compete to be masters of their favorite board games. The event brings about 2,000 people, all with their own specialties, and you can view last year’s games in the 2018 event reports. PrezCon (“The Winter National”) boasts over 100 board game tournaments, and there are worldwide championships for specific games, like Catan, Carcassonne, and Scrabble.
Problems with Esports for Board Games
While some board games seem to work for tournament play, there could be some obstacles in the way before board games make it to the level of video game esports and televised sports like football. Below are six sweeping generalizations about the problems with implementing “esports” for board games.
- Money. While we are in the middle of a board game renaissance, Research and Markets anticipates that the industry will reach about $12 billion by 2023—not even close to what video games bring in now (almost $135 billion in 2018, according to GamesIndustry.biz), so there is less funding for board game tournaments. With Magic, Hasbro has the money for tournaments that most board game developers do not.
- Rules. Some board games have novella-length rule books that new players must repeatedly check throughout the game. If the audience doesn’t understand what’s happening, then they probably aren’t going to be interested in watching. Magic could be an exception, here, as rules can get very complicated very quickly. The barrier to entry for new Magic players can be relatively low, however, especially with beginner welcome decks. While there are many complex rules and card descriptions, a new player (or an audience) needs only a basic understanding of the premise to follow along, especially if they’re not building their own decks. Like chess, Magic has a high skill ceiling, with various levels of play from novice to expert.
- Length of Play. Board games can take about thirty minutes to an hour to play, but some are designed to last multiple hours or perhaps an entire day. If a session runs too long, spectators could lose interest. The shows that have found success with longer board games and tabletop games (like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop or D&D shows like Critical Role) fall more into the realm of television shows or entertainment based on the stories and cast interactions rather than on masterful displays of competitive skill (although these do sometimes occur).
- Necessary Randomness. Board games must involve enough random chance to vary gameplay and to hold players’ interests; however, sports competitions try to keep randomness out. While random chance can allow an inexperienced player to beat an expert at a game of Magic, most of the time, the better player will and should win. And in chess, an expert will always beat a novice. This is part of what makes Magic and chess suited for tournament play.
- Social Experience. You need practice to master a game, but repeated play could be difficult if you can’t find other players. For the most part, board games are a social experience, and they’re designed to be enjoyed with others and foster relationships. As a result, they might be more suited to social environments than competitive ones.
- Celebrating Variety. BoardGameGeek lists more than a hundred thousand games on their site, making it difficult to determine a unifying skill set for board games—like reflexes are for video games. Magic and chess have achieved prominence and popularity in their competitive tournament circles, but these are exceptions to the rule. The board gaming hobby is more about playing a lot of different games than it is about playing a lot of one game. Once you really sink your teeth into a game, it can become a separate hobby from your board gaming one.
The variety in board games may not translate well to focused competition like that of esports, but it’s what makes board gaming a unique, worthwhile hobby. By playing more and different kinds of board games, you learn different ways of thinking, strategizing, and cooperating, and you also get to meet different kinds of people. What do you think? Would you watch esports for board games? Let us know in the comments!