Over the last few years more and more people are saying “esports is the next big thing in entertainment” – but why, and why now? The answer to both questions is global reach – while the esports industry has existed for decades, the size of its audience has increased exponentially in recent years. Online livestreaming platforms like Twitch and Mixer brings esports content to vast audiences on a global scale. You don’t have to be an esports fan to have seen headlines such as “League of Legends World 2018 finals seen by more people than the Superbowl”.

Esports is clearly popular, but measuring esports viewership is not a simple science. Digging into the key viewership metrics reveals the nuances and factors that affect viewership, and sheds some light on a key driver of this booming industry.

Understanding the numbers

Many esports viewership metrics are fairly self-explanatory. Peak and average viewership are staple measures, along with peak and average concurrent viewers (CCV). Another, less common, metric is peak and average ‘channels’. Rather confusingly, this can mean two different things depending on the context. Twitch has a ‘host’ function that allows a livestream to be re-broadcast on another user’s channel. So peak and average channel numbers can refer to the total number of re-broadcasts of one live stream. Alternatively, it can describe the number of channels broadcasting a game or tournament.

'Unique viewers’ is less straightforward. What constitutes a unique viewer? Taking Twitch as an example, a 'view' is registered as soon as the livestream loads up and identifies ‘unique’ users by their IP address. Other platforms measure this differently – some require a certain number of seconds to be watched before registering a view. This can make reporting especially problematic if an event is being broadcast on multiple platforms that all measure views differently. While the unique viewers metric is widely used, its usefulness is therefore questionable because a view can be generated by merely loading up the livestream. A more useful metric is minutes/hours watched, which tracks the total amount of time that a livestream is actually watched.

Another question arises over just how global viewership figures really are, especially when they “exclude China”. There are two main reasons for this. First, the number of esports fans in China eclipses the rest of the world and including them can skew the numbers. Second, it is incredibly difficult to verify any viewership data from China and there are concerns about the use of ‘view bots’ to artificially increase viewership numbers on Chinese platforms like Huya, Douyu and Panda TV.

Factors affecting viewership 

What are the key factors that affect viewership?

The title itself and the size of its fan base has the biggest impact on viewership. In terms of purely esports titles, Dota2, League of Legends and CS:GO are the top three most popular titles, with games like Fortnite entering the fray if you include general viewership over professional competitions or tournaments. Knowing what the most popular titles are helps contextualise viewership when comparing titles. For example, the fighting game community ('FGC') has a much smaller fan base compared to games like League of Legends, so naturally viewership numbers of FGC-related esports are smaller. The level of competition also plays a role – as with traditional sports, viewership increases at the higher levels of competition, where the stakes are higher.

The platform has a unique influence on esports viewership. Twitch has long been the dominant livestreaming platform of choice for streamers and viewers alike. Its popularity is based on numerous community engagement tools and its general technical stability in key areas such as resolution and latency. Linked to this is the ability for viewers to gain perks for watching via a given platform. Subscribing and watching certain Twitch channels can allow viewers to earn digital content for some games, thus incentivising viewers to watch on Twitch. This can heavily affect overall viewership when an event or tournament is not broadcast on Twitch.

There are several other smaller factors to consider. Esports is a global phenomenon and therefore the representation of different regions can affect viewership. One of the reasons the League of Legends World Championships 2018 had particularly high viewership figures is because Europe, North America and Asia were represented in the semi-finals. Traditionally, Chinese and Korean teams dominated in the knockout stages and finals but having both Europe and North America represented led to a huge boost in viewership. Scheduling is another factor that is often overlooked. Tournament broadcasts can last more than 8-10 hours, and viewership can fluctuate depending on where the event is held and what time matches are played.

Context is king

The key factor in esports viewership is context. Its easy to read about the viewership of an event at face value and think that the numbers are either extremely high or quite low. But thinking about what the game is, what the level of competition is and other factors like platform, global representation and scheduling should help you contextualise the data and identify whether the viewership is truly impressive, just average or on the low-side. A top tip is to compare an event or tournament’s data from year to year as this gives a much better reflection of performance and growth.