Esports has been celebrated for essentially turning competitive gaming into a spectator sport, with audiences getting massive in recent years. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon however, because about 20 years ago, the pro poker circuit more or less accomplished the same thing with a card game. That is to say, poker transitioned from being a hobby to becoming, for all intents and purposes, a pro sport. Each one, however –– Esports and poker –– has its own audience, and its own charm.
Let’s take a look at what draws crowds to each one.
The main thing pro poker has going for it is a crop of celebrity figures. Some of the top pro poker players became legitimate TV celebrities almost overnight during the early-2000s poker boom, and the sport needed famous faces. Names like Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey are household names in the poker world, and these players’ on-screen successes made fans of millions. Similarly, famous players –– often coming from humble backgrounds and rising from the amateur ranks –– have inspired countless others to try competitive poker over the years.
The other main “pro” in the poker category is longevity. Professional poker has now been a de facto sport for more than 20 years, and still earns significant streaming and TV viewership. Today, there are even Twitch steams and 24-hour live streams from websites dedicated solely to the game –– features we typically associate with Esports, incidentally.
While poker stars mainly bask in their glory alone, Esports streamer groups and teams tend to get more glory than individual gamers. As teams work together in order to win, the winnings they earn are also divided among the team.
The most important thing Esports has going for it, one can reasonably argue, is content variety. A wide range of different games has amounted to natural outreach to diverse audiences. Video games are enjoyed by people from all walks of life, and the world of Esports reaches out across the board. Someone who doesn’t enjoy Super Smash Bros. competitions can tune in for CS: GO battles; someone who isn’t a fan of either can watch pro FIFA players square off, and so on. By contrast, poker sort of is what it is; it has a large audience, but a more limited one.
Esports also has the advantage of being easier for fans to engage with. Video game streams are more easily found on free platforms such as Twitch, while poker competitions are often relegated to traditional channels, or else put behind paywalls. And for those who prefer to play rather than watch, there are countless video games that can be found for free. Poker can of course be enjoyed for free as well, but those who want to practice it competitively ultimately need to find ways to play with real-cash stakes.
Finally, Esports also benefits from being –– arguably –– more watchable. In addition to being easier to find, that is, viewers can usually tune in to just about any game and more or less recognize who’s winning or what’s going on. In poker, while broadcasts typically do well to explain the goings on, a lack of familiarity with the game make it a little more difficult for viewers to enjoy the experience.
In the end, neither is definitively better or more appealing than the other. Both poker and Esports have transcended hobby and at-home game status to become spectator sports, of a kind. And yet they’ve done so in different ways that make each one appealing for its own reasons.