On a random Wednesday in March of 2018, 630,000 concurrent viewers watched as the streamer known worldwide as Ninja played Fortnite with A-list rappers Drake and Travis Scott and Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Juju Smith-Schuster.
The quartet played late at night, with Smith-Shuster not joining until roughly 1 a.m. Thursday morning, but the stream shattered Twitch’s previous high of 388,000 concurrent viewers. It was a historic undertaking, in terms of the streaming of e-sports and the teaming of four unrelated yet prominent figures in American society.
Ninja, the first streamer to reach 10 million subscribers, reached his peak, level with global superstars Drake and Travis Scott for at least one night.
“Seeing a top gamer and musician come together on Twitch and unite their large and passionate communities is a cultural moment in terms of building awareness around the appeal of social video and it’s only going to grow from here,” Twitch marketing senior vice president Kate Jhaveri said in a statement, which the Washington Post‘s Jacob Pogage wrote about that afternoon.
Fortnite has seen a rise and fall over the last two years, and Ninja, like his favored gaming platform, peaked during the star-studded event. In March of 2018, he gained over two million subscribers on Twitch. While he has averaged out over the past year, recording months of gains and months of losses, he still boasts over 14 million subscribers.
While Ninja may remain the most prominent streamer in the realm of e-sports, the world of e-sports has blossomed with hundreds of popular streamers. According to Forbes, the top 10 highest-earning streamers earned $120 million in 2019.
The Slippery Rock e-sports club might not make any money and have a subscriber count in the hundreds, but club president Zeve Olbum likes where they’re at and the direction they’re trending.
“I’ve been part of it since my freshman year,” Olbum said. “Last year, I was on the board as public relations, so I did all the social media. Just to boast a little bit, we started our Twitter account when I made the PR position and by the end of the year, we were almost at the 150-200 range.”
That Twitter following has grown to nearly 300 in the past year. The club’s Discord server has 230 members and over 100 followers watch the gaming action on the club’s Twitch account. Most importantly, however, has been the influx of actual, countable members to the club over the past year.
“We started this year, with the first day on Core, with 45 members and now we have over 100,” Olbum said. “So, our club has been massively improving, and that has nothing to do with what’s been going on recently. We had over 100 early last semester.”
What’s been ‘going on’ will be touched upon, but as of now, like the e-sports club, the games continue.
The e-sports club has teams that compete in Counter-Strike, League of Legends, Overwatch, Super Smash Bros., Rocket League and Rainbow Six Seige.
Until last year, the e-sports club did not feature a Super Smash crew. An unofficial club on campus actually played Smash themselves, and it was through a collaboration request that the sixth team was added to the club.
“So, the unofficial quote-unquote president of their group came to me and was like, ‘hey, we’re e-sports, you’re e-sports, let’s merge,'” Olbum said. “So, we had the whole Super Smash unofficial club come under the e-sports umbrella.”
The addition of the unofficial Smash club netted the e-sports club an additional 25-30 members, Olbum said.
Like the athletic teams at Slippery Rock, the e-sports club competes against schools from across the country. Except the games don’t require the teams to travel hundreds of miles in some cases. While there certainly is travel, the games don’t come grinding to a halt during a lockdown.
“All of those games we’ve been competing against other colleges from across the country, from Cornell to Penn State to CMU,” Olbum said. “Any big school to little school, we’ve probably seen them or played against them.”
Competing in all six previously mentioned games, Olbum said the Overwatch team has achieved the most success.
“Our most notable team is probably our Overwatch team,” Olbum said. “At the end of last semester, we were — we’re in a league called TESPA, which has over 600 universities in it — it’s a university only league — and by the end of last semester, we were the No. 1 school in Pennsylvania.”
Competing in year two of the Overwatch team, Olbum said the club continues to progress. However, with the spread of coronavirus, not even e-sports are in the clear.
“TESPA actually suspended their league, so we’re still playing — it’s the playoffs right now, and I believe we’re either in the third or fourth round of playoffs — and they’ll be continuing, hopefully soon,” Olbum said.
While it’s easy to assume that e-sports don’t suffer from the spread of the potentially fatal virus, Olbum said it’s not so cut and dry.
“People will be like, ‘Oh, it’s online, it doesn’t matter,'” Olbum said. “That’s true, but you also have to remember that everyone has a very chaotic schedule — they don’t even know what they’re doing tomorrow.”
Olbum said TESPA employees have been scrambling, making plans for the future — some can’t work from home — and how much it is to handle for a lot of the community. So, the season was suspended until further notice.
However, despite TESPA’s interruption, e-sports as a whole has and will continue to benefit from the stay-at-home orders and lockdown that force Americans to stay home.
Counterstrike has seen a sharp spike in the number of concurrent players in just the last month alone. Olbum has kept up with the player engagement for years, having played the game for years himself, and has he’s watched the number of players jump from roughly 450,000 to over 1.1 million.
That’s 1.1 million at one time, and Olbum said that’s just one example. If Fortnite, Call of Duty or Apex Legends were to be checked, he’d expect a drastic increase in concurrent players over the last month.
With lockdowns boosting the prominence, participation and impact of e-sports in the US and worldwide, Olbum said the lockdowns haven’t been the sole reason for a spike in e-sports — as the e-sports world has seen a spike over the past year — but it certainly has put e-sports in the spotlight.
“It’s definitely rising right now, and I think after all of this over, people who are new to the e-sports realm will continue to play because they’re seeing how much fun it is, they’re seeing how interactive you can be with anybody in the world,” Olbum said.
However, Olbum doesn’t expect the casual American to tune into an Overwatch stream over any NFL game. At least, not any time soon.
That doesn’t mean e-sports won’t continue to grow, possibly challenging major, traditional sports someday in the future. With the e-sports board elections taking place this week, Olbum said he expects the rapid growth of the club to continue.
“Every person I’ve talked to who’s running, whether it’s as president, vice president or whoever says they want to continue as they see — all of them have been in the club, and they see how big we’ve gotten this year and they know that there’s so much room for potential on a campus of over 9,000 students,” Olbum said.
That growth which has continued on Slippery Rock’s campus has blossomed greatly with the suspensions and cancellations of the major sporting leagues.
Almost a million people tuned in to Fox Sports to watch the eNascar iRacing Pro Invitational. Each canceled race will be broadcast in its virtual platform for the remainder of the season, too.
The NBA, in conjunction with 2K sports, ESPN and the players’ association, will broadcast the first-ever NBA 2K Players Tournament. 16 teams, which will be run by NBA players selected from their teams, will compete on television for the chance to win $100,000 — which will be donated to charity.
While the Olympics have been canceled, and don’t include e-sports yet, e-sports have been discussed in the past as a potential addition to the games in the future. But Olbum doesn’t envision e-sports ever being included in the Olympiad.
“I’ve talked to a few friends about [e-sports in the Olympics],” Olbum said. “I’m very opinionated about this subject because it’s not a physical sport and it’s not a traditional sport, and you only see traditional sports in the Olympics.”
If anything, Olbum said e-sports should hold a category entirely of its own: an e-sports Olympics.
“I don’t consider e-sports a sport, it’s a whole different thing,” Olbum said. “I could see maybe an e-sport Olympics, but I don’t see it being part of the traditional Olympics.”
But while Olbum said that e-sports might not actually be sports, falling into a category all its own, he emphasized how rigorous and competitive e-sports is.
“It’s not the way that you see people playing it,” Olbum said. “In e-sports, you exert the same amount of effort as you would a regular sport. Specifically looking at the team based e-sports like Counterstrike, Overwatch and League of Legends. We have practices, we have team managers, we have coaches, we have days in practices where we look over previous games and see what we did wrong, what we could do against our next opponent, and it’s the same amount of effort that’s put into a football team or a baseball team.”
Rising on its own — without the added complicated boom from lockdowns and quarantines — Olbum pointed to e-sports as a growing entity. While the coronavirus pandemic has affected the US worse than anything in recent memory, it’s possible e-sports will be able to help a few, or more, through a difficult time.
“It’s on the rise, and it’s going to get there, but it’s hard to tell when,” Olbum said. “This is obviously the worst of times, but this helps to have people open their eyes and see how big e-sports really are.”