STARNBERG, March 1, 2022 (Guest Post)
The meteoric rise of Emma Raducanu following her outstanding break-through success at the 2021 US Open has put tennis in the international spotlight and introduced the sport to a new generation of social media-conscious spectators. At times it’s easy to forget that, despite tennis being one of the oldest professional sports played internationally today, it still struggles to make anywhere near the cultural impact of, for example, soccer or basketball, in spite of the fact it can attest to over 500 million fans globally.
Pace of Innovation
Part of the reason governing bodies, from the NBA to FIFA, enjoy continual growth and a seat at the table of public conversation has to do with their openness to innovation around their sports. There are a host of new disruptive technologies and platforms that are set to transform the way people participate in and spectate their chosen leagues. From NFTs to the Metaverse, franchises such as the NFL are actively looking for ways to integrate these advances into the way people connect to their platforms. Tennis and the ITF are, by contrast, remarkably conservative. With the Australian Open announcing a tentative foray into the sale of NFTs, this picture may be set to change, but it’s hard to deny that the tennis world tends to play catch-up on emerging tech trends.
The Esports Boom
One area where this is abundantly clear is the world of esports. Esports, or competitive video gaming, is now a huge global industry worth over $1 billion dollars. Streaming platforms that host esports content, namely the Amazon-backed platform Twitch, are changing the way people consume sporting content with major organizations such as ESPN pivoting to focus heavily on establishing a presence on the site. They join major social streaming projects underway from the EPL, NBA, NFL, NHL and UFC, all focused on utilizing Twitch’s collaborative streaming format to increase interactivity and participation in sports spectatorship. This is unsurprising given a new generation of tech-savvy sports fans favor sourcing their sporting content from online and largely free services such as YouTube and the aforementioned esports hub. What’s more, those same audiences are also increasingly interested in esports, and the areas where the two concerns – “real” sports, and competitive gaming – overlap.
Major League Gaming
To this end, we are increasingly witnessing the rise of officially sanctioned esports tournaments. Popular examples include the annual Madden NFL Championship Series hosted by EA Sports, which consistently pulls in new NFL fans familiar with the franchise game and hungry for high level off-season action, digital or otherwise. Elsewhere, some of the biggest soccer clubs in the world are beginning to invest heavily in building up their own esports franchises. Many of these are concerned strictly with creating official representation in order to compete in the FIFAe World Cup, the world’s largest esports soccer tournament. But others, such as German squad Schalke 04, are taking a more progressive approach by also building out their own “pure” esports teams in order to compete in major future competitions, like the League of Legends Championship Series and DOTA 2’s The International.
In all respects, tennis lends itself nicely to becoming an esport due to its one-on-one competitive format. Many of the conventions of real world tennis, such as the seeding and wild card system, could also be ported over seamlessly into the digital space. The biggest tennis esports tournament running in the world today is the Roland-Garros eSeries, which is entering its 5th year and runs on the 2020 title Tennis World Tour 2. Perhaps the key problem holding tennis back from finding wider acceptance as an esport is the fact that there is no one instantly recognizable tennis game out there. As such, players are dispersed across a range of titles. Tennis World Tour competes against rival series Grand Slam Tennis, OA Tennis, Top Spin and Virtua Tennis. To add to the confusion, no one game appears to have the full officially sanctioned license of the IFT, meaning there is no one satisfactory equivalent to NFL Madden or FIFA soccer for players to congregate around. For tennis to break-through as an esport, this is perhaps the major obstacle it must overcome.