Fans flood arenas wearing their team jerseys. They rush to events in search of players' autographs. But these "athletes" they're flocking to see, who spend hours in scrimmages honing their skills, are not football or basketball players — they're gamers.
Competitive video game playing, more commonly known as esports, drew 258 million unique viewers globally last year, according to research firm SuperData. For perspective, the National Football League said 204 million unique viewers tuned into the 2016 NFL regular season in the U.S., based on Nielsen data.
The esports business surged in recent years with the arrival of streaming services like Twitch capable of broadcasting players' video game exploits to thousands of viewers.
Just like "real" sports, esports makes money off of investments, branding, advertising and media deals, raking in $1.5 billion in revenue last year, said SuperData. The firm expects the esports industry to hit 299 million viewers this year and top $2 billion in revenue by 2021.
"It's growing at a pretty steady pace, well in to the double digits year over year, which is very healthy," said SuperData CEO Joost van Druenen.
Several esports leagues have surfaced, luring investors from traditional sports leagues including former NBA star Rick Fox, owner of esports organization Echo Fox, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Even the International Olympic Committee is reportedly considering adding esports to future Olympic Games.
The latest to launch: the Overwatch League, which kicked off its inaugural season Jan. 10 with 12 teams from cities in the U.S., China and South Korea that will compete against each other in the competitive video game Overwatch. The league will feature regular season matches from a custom-built arena in Los Angeles, leading up to playoffs and a championship event.
"Esports for me is just as, if not more, entertaining as regular sports," said Jake Duchesne, a 22-year-old fan who says his love of esports was sparked in the same way he started following the NFL, NBA and NHL — he wanted to watch "the best of the best" compete in the sports he enjoyed.
"I have a favorite team, players that I enjoy watching succeed and players that I dislike," said Duchesne, who is a student at Arizona State University.
Duchesne also regularly attends events, including the Call of Duty Championship and the League of Legends League Championship series.
How did esports become such a thing? Here's a primer on this growing slice of the video game industry: