But, with a long way to go before this form of entertainment becomes truly mainstream, with a fiercely dedicated fan base in tow, licensees will need to fully understand what they are getting themselves into before plugging in.
In layman’s terms they are competitive video games. So it’s like playing football or golf competitively, but in a virtual world, explains Dominic Sacco, content director for the British Esports Association.
And, just like other sports, it has a spectator element. Tens of thousands of people will buy tickets to watch gamers battle it out in stadiums, or will stream the matches at home on platforms like Twitch or YouTube.
There’s big money involved, too. The largest prize pool held in the UK to date was the $765,000 (£550,000) ECS Season One Final, held at Wembley SSE Arena in June 2016.
And Newzoo, a global leader in intelligence on virtual sports, says it expects a year-on-year cash prizes growth of 38% in the coming year.
Closer to home, the UK’s audience growth is expected to reach 8m people by 2019.
Jo Twist, chief executive of Ukie, the UK’s trade body for games and interactive entertainment, says the rising popularity of virtual entertainment of this sort in the UK could provide the perfect opportunity for pubs to get involved.
“It is one of the fastest growing entertainment sectors on the planet with tens of millions of people regularly watching professional players competing at the very highest level,” he explains.
“It presents opportunities for all types of venues, including pubs, to attract new customers; this could be anything from hosting local competitive games sessions, to collaborating with local teams and clubs or hosting live streaming of big international tournaments alongside more traditional sports.”
However, from the technology to the games themselves, there is a lot to consider if pubs want a piece of the action.
Sacco says: “There is scope for doing it small scale, but the thing to bear in mind for pub owners, is that it is easy to get caught up in the buzz, but not really understand it.
“At the top level it has a lot of fans, but does the average Joe want to go watch grassroots players, or amateur tournaments in the UK? Not as much, no, it’s like watching a Sunday league team. You are going to get some friends and family, but you are not going to get the thousands that the top tournaments pull in.
“It’s very, very hard to replicate that top level stadium experience in a pub. It is esports, but it’s more like a small video game tournament. You aren’t going to have that spectator element, unless you create a real buzz.”
“You wouldn’t be able to just convert your pub for this and sit back and wait for the money. There are 101 other easier ways to make money as a pub, but it gives you an option, especially if you have younger customers.” - James Dance, founder of company Loading Bar
If pubs do decide they want to put on tournaments, there are many aspects to consider when picking games.
There are team-based sports like League of Legends, Counter Strike and Dota 2, where they can be played by teams of five versus five. These would be harder to set up, because the pub would need at least 10 systems, 10 monitors, and all the accessories.
There are other games where single players play against each other, which Sacco says may be better suited to a pub. These would be games like FIFA 18 and Street Fighter, which only need a few systems and TVs.
“This is not something that you can just do in five minutes and put on, it’s very specialist, then if they get it wrong, this community can be quite fickle,” Sacco continues.
“They are passionate and loyal, but also can be very critical, if you are going to go into this, take your time, do it right, and you will reap the rewards.”
Ollie Clarke, who works in games development as studio director for Lockwood Publishing, has been to events in pubs. He believes one way pubs can start the virtual ball rolling is with something simple, like a retro gaming night, before investing too heavily.
“I think eventually people going to the pub for esports could become as common as going to a pub quiz. How formal they will become is the interesting question, however.
“You see these events with tens of thousands of people going, and millions of people watching online. If you’re just starting off, why not find out who your local team is, and what games they are playing. Try to build a dialogue with them, and see if they would be willing to come to the pub to meet people or host events.
“I would also start with events, not necessarily based around esports, maybe try a retro games night. You can get hold of retro consoles relatively cheaply, or try a small FIFA tournament. See if there is an interest just to get you started.
“If you are looking towards the high end, you are going to be looking at PCs, they are going to be expensive, and you have to think about maintaining and running them.”
However, a pub doesn’t have to invest too heavily to tap into this market.
Just by screening it, like you would a more traditional sporting event, you can bring in numbers.
According to Matchpint research, 12% of sports fans say they would watch a live esports contest in the pub, the majority of these being aged under 34.
James Dance, founder of company Loading Bar – which has a cocktail and consoles bar in Dalston, plus a games pub in Stratford, both in east London – does just that, and focuses purely on streaming matches rather than hosting tournaments.
“We show games on projectors in the same way your traditional pubs would be showing sport.
“If you have got screens, it’s something you could do and you don’t necessarily have to go overboard or put any kind of investment in.
“For example, streaming site Twitch has no subscription, so you are not paying another supplier, which is why a number of bars have dropped football, because it just doesn’t pay for them.”
However, Dance advises pubs to look at their customers, and what their current offering is, before putting on a specific event or viewing party.
“There is a big community around this, and they will be able to see a mile off if your staff don’t know anything about it.
“If you have customers that sit on their laptops all day playing games, talk to them about it, get them on board. Or, get someone on your staff who watches, talk to them, ask what they would want.
“You want customers that spend money to be enjoying it, not just people turning up because you have a nice screen, and they ask for a water and watch the screen – the hard-core fan is traditionally a non-drinker. You have to build it in, and it has to fit the audience you already have.”
Another successful venue that both streams and puts on tournaments is dedicated bar Meltdown, in Barnsbury, north London.
The bar markets itself as a place where you can “meet other gamers, share drinks and play”.
“We make most of our money just over the bar, and the contest is more of an attraction,” says bar manager Duncan Morrison.
“We have a fully stocked bar, with beer and spirits and we have our own unique cocktails that are gaming themed.
“We are successful at what we do because we are very passionate about it.
“We really know the games, we know the communities – we knew them before we started the bar.
“I think a lot of places try to get into this, and it’s something they don’t really understand, so they don’t give people what they actually want.”
He continues: “My advice to pubs that want to get into this area is: firstly, make sure you have a decent internet connection and then make sure you actually find someone who is part of the scene already to guide you. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
According to statistics from Ukie, esports are popular with Millennials in the UK, with the 21-35 age group representing 63% of the market.
Women make up 31% of the audience and are most likely to watch when aged between 21 and 35.
“It’s a growing area, and there’s nothing wrong with hosting one or two events, getting a feel for it and the community in the area,” says Sacco.
“It’s a good thing to try, because it is very popular with Millennials, and it is a good way for pubs to attract a bigger demographic. It would be great to see more pubs embracing it.”
Statistics also show there is a growing grassroots scene in UK universities, with 3,000 players in the National University Esports League, representing 110 universities.
Dance says: “Showing esports, for us, brings those people back into your space at times when they probably wouldn’t be there. It allows you to offer a bit more where you wouldn’t normally have anything happening. It gives you options for times when you’re not usually busy.
“You wouldn’t be able to just convert your pub for this and sit back and wait for the money. There are 101 other easier ways to make money as a pub, but it gives you an option, especially if you have younger customers.”
Clarke adds: “Undoubtedly, this is something that we are going to see more of in pubs because digital entertainment is going to continue to grow, and it is going to grow dramatically in the next 10 years.
“You have got something that is increasingly appealing to a wider age range of people and demographic.”
Offering or showing virtual contests in a pub is not something that licensees will be able to jump straight into without prior knowledge. But with patience and research, it is an area that could be the next big thing in the pub scene – perhaps even the next pub quiz?