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Volume 22 No. 35
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The impending irrelevancy of the pro athlete

If you look carefully, you can see an inflection point approaching. The professional athlete is in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Skeptical? Consider the following three trends:

1. The rise of eSports: The New York Times recently reported on the rapidly growing popularity of eSports. For the uninitiated, eSports refers to professional video gaming. Players compete in a variety of different games for prize money before live and Web-connected audiences. And before you scoff, a July eSports event in Seattle drew 11,000 people to KeyArena. A recently completed League of Legends championship featured 8.5 million live streams at its high point. By way of comparison, the peak TV viewership for the deciding game of last season’s Stanley Cup Final: 8.5 million. Metrics like these are why Amazon just spent $1 billion acquiring Twitch, the streaming service favored by gamers.

2. Quality of game graphics: Have you seen screenshots from the latest “Madden” game from EA Sports? The detail and rendering of the athletes in the game is stunning. Each iteration of the game brings leaps in the quality of appearance and game play. In five years, it will be almost impossible to distinguish between real and virtual players.

3. Technology development and expansion: 4K picture resolution. Mobile screen ubiquity. High bandwidth (wired and wireless) availability. Prices continue to drop on all these technologies, making them within reach of nearly everyone.

In 10 years, it’s entirely plausible that professional athletes will be supplanted by virtual versions of themselves. Technology will continue to improve and will eliminate the “uncanny valley” — the name given to the feeling of discomfort upon seeing a not-quite-perfect human replicated in computer graphics. (Anyone who has seen the movie “The Polar Express” knows what I speak of. ) The real will become indistinguishable from the virtual.

These perfect athletic avatars will be driven by skilled gamers in contests that are held live in the largest stadiums and webcast to hundreds of millions around the globe. A competitor breaks his or her leg? No worries, because they can be connected to a tournament from anywhere, including a hospital bed. The injured reserve is now a thing of the past.

Prize money will continue to skyrocket, encouraging more and more gamers to participate in an ever-expanding number of tournaments. Minor leagues will form, as well as college programs. Schools will compete for the best gamers with scholarships. And if you just rolled your eyes at that last sentence: Robert Morris University in Chicago is currently offering qualified League of Legends players scholarships that cover up to 50 percent of tuition, room and board.

Media companies, financially taxed from ever escalating rights fees, will rush to acquire and distribute more efficient eSports programming. Because the cost to broadcast an eSports tournament is negligible compared to even a minor live sports event, they can invest in new technologies that heighten the experience for live and remote viewers.

Corporate marketers, constantly on the lookout for solutions to the increasingly complex digital messaging puzzle, will recognize eSports for what they are: a native digital sports platform that can be blended effortlessly with their online platforms. Traditional pro sports teams, with their unfulfilling digital assets, can’t compete.

Ultimately, increased competition from eSports will depress right fees paid to the traditional pro sports leagues that aren’t delivering the young male demographics they’ve promised in the past. Revenue will sink — and with it, so will many franchises.

So what does this mean for the aspiring professional athlete? The same thing that happens to any workforce when disruptive technologies erupt: their jobs slowly diminish, with fewer opportunities to play, and for less money. Think about how a cab driver currently looks at Uber and Lyft, and you’ll get the idea.

Unless, of course, they work on their League of Legends skills.

Dave Almy (dalmy@adcpartners.com) is a principal of ADC Partners, an adviser to sports businesses and corporate sponsors. He remembers, fondly, the Atari 2600.