If esports wants to make it big, and I mean really big — “your colleagues talking about at work” big — it needs a Tony Hawk. Here’s why.
Skateboarding and esports are not sports right? Hello, Olympics
Alongside punk rock sports like surfing, skateboarding is now making its belated gnarly nose grind of a debut to finally represented at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Factual data on the economics of skateboarding is pretty hard to come by, but a report by Technavio estimated the sport will be worth around $5 billion by 2020 in annual revenue, with about 11 million active skateboarders in the world. That’s a lot of credibility for the Olympic committee to consider (no doubt presented in a nice A4-printed, bound folder).
Something, however, that has not (yet) made it to be in the Olympic Games is esports. It could be ready for its Olympic debut in at the 2024 Games in Paris. Skateboarding has always been linked with rebellion — being different, a counterculture of graffiti, hardcore music and the punk rock aesthetic. It is also increasingly seen as a force for good; a subculture that’s more of a community — and one with a positive outlook on life and fun, integrated competition. You’ll note skateboard videos are frequently full of people complimenting each other, pushing each other on and displaying sportsperson-like behavior (as well as celebrating violent failures and crashes).
Perhaps the origins and trends of skateboarding can offer us some clues on how esports might enter the wider public domain and become something your mom and pop know about. (Hint: it starts with Tony Hawk.)
Show me the money
According to a 2017 report from market research firm Newoo, the esports economy could grow to $696 million — which is a staggering year-on-year growth of 41.3 percent. Like skateboarding, brands are projected to contribute $517 million and will double by 2020, demonstrating companies are beginning to take their audience seriously as the numbers grow, pushing the total market to $1.5 billion — only a few more billion to go to match skateboarding.
In fairness, skateboarding has been evolving to its mainstream position since the 1940s (or longer depending on whether you believe Back To The Future is real, which in fact it is), and has found itself in and out of the mainstream media despite other amazing movies like the 1986 skateboarding cult classic Thrashin’ (starring future Oscar nominee and action hero Josh Brolin), with cameos from some of the all-time great global skateboarders including Tony Alva, Christian Hosoi and Steve Caballero, and the person who went onto transcend the sport to be its first global household name: 720-degree megastar Tony Hawk.
Professional skaters such as Hawk are, of course, have supposedly earned millions through their careers through a variety of sponsorships and endorsements and, always at the cutting edge through his endorsement of Activision’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater series of computer games appearing on many console and PC platforms.
From the concept of corporate sponsorship and involvement in skateboarding also began to emerge the idea something most skaters could only dream of: the ultimate goal of being a “sponsored skater” and getting paid to ride like Tony and his friends.
This is a prevalent phenomenon in esports also – with folks looking to make an entire career from gaming as they witness their heroes making a lot of money at what they do, such as the closest we have to a Ryan Scheckler: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. Ninja, of course, smashed the Twitch world record for concurrent viewers on the platform playing Fortnite with music star Drake. He is a megastar in his own right on Twitch — with over 3 million followers, and over 160,000 paid subscribers, creating an estimated monthly income of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s easy to see why people want to emulate him.
Professional skateboarders have also become synonymous with their own signature (and often self-designed) line of skateboard decks; esports is not so different, with players and teams also having merchandise lines and stores of their very own. (See this to really get a sense of the scale we are talking about here.) Esports has its own equivalent in terms of banded player merchandise: racing chairs, headsets, mice, multi-monitor setups, and a myriad of other competition prizes and products bear the name of the sponsoring company and the skater or gamer’s endorsement. It’s lucrative for the elite few — in 2017, 18 pro gamers made more than $500,000 in esports prize money and 195 more than $100,000. Twenty-year-old Spencer “Gorilla” Ealing became the official FIFA Interactive World Cup (FIWC) champion this year — a great example of someone who felt school was not for them, and that gaming presented a career option — just like millions of park football and rugby playing kids and pushy parents the world over.
Just like other sports
Merchandise is massive business in esports, and interestingly, this industry shares many parallels with the unique and visible fashion identity that skateboarding embraced so much. Skateboarding is big business, with multinational brand such as Converse, Nike, DC Shoes, Globe, Adidas, Zoo York, Enties and World Industries ollieing up from grassroots to competing for global market share. We’ve even seen some brands such as the skate-specific shoes VANS become a ubiquitous cultural item, worn by anyone and everyone.
There is a noticeable, and I think distinctly skate-influenced look in a lot of esports athletes — skate-style sneakers or high-end skinny jeans and T-shirt/hoodie combination.
Another key skateboard visual that does come through is the concept of uniform. Not just in the new ideas of a team uniform, although it is interesting to see some many Premier League Clubs embracing esports by having their own teams for games such as FIFA. It’s also good to see they still exhibit the same behavior — witness the Manchester City-sponsored esports team also buying up all of the megastars!
The idea of being “discovered” by brands gave rise to the incredible phenomenon of “sponsor me” videos of would-be pros demonstrating their prowess. In esports, this is supported by a much more public and integrated analytics, with scoring, global league tables, and social media sharing helping uncover the great and the good up-and-coming skaters — no more VHS videos’ required (excuse the personal plug, but if you have 5:12, please check out a documentary I shot a while back about that very thing here — other skateboard documentary videos are available).
The parallels with esports are also interesting with the emergence of dedicated skateparks, giving it a home and a focal point. It is interesting how esports players also come together. Not just physically in the case of circa 40,000 esports fans at the League of Legends Championship’s final in Seoul, South Korea but crucially with the advent of YouTube live streaming, also convening together virtually and online, just as they now increasingly play games like Call Of Duty, Diablo and Overwatch themselves. I feel the notion of “everyone playing” and being together is an under-explored area, and I love the idea of premiership footballers, movie stars, and artists being just another avatar during a Call of Duty match — it’s so real, and so punk rock (if articles like this one can be taken as true — I hope so as I love the image of it and I love the clichés it smashes).
We’ve talked a lot about similarities and DNA in this article. Skateboarding and esports share the inherent dichotomy of being future-facing — seemingly always at the cutting-edge of style, yet also being at the nexus of nostalgia and retro.
How great that two things seemingly so diametrically opposed — with one sport involving a lot of sitting staring at a screen with a massive multi-button gaming mouse, and headset full of friends, and the other a plank of wood with a bit of metal and plastic — is so incredibly aligned, still emerging, still evolving. It is so exciting that people still hold the power to redefine sport with virtual league of their own, and despite the millions, with a resolutely anti-corporate aesthetic. Long may both continue.
Due to this relentless progression, I really believe that it is only a matter of time before someone transcends the sport and becomes that “household name” it arguably needs to cross into the mainstream — into the coffee room chats, the arguments in the bar and into your social media stream. Then, things are going to get really interesting.
Dr. Geraint Evans is an award winning international marketing professional, board advisor and academic researcher.