eSports The International 2016
The International came with over $20.7 million in winnings, yet another telling sign of the rapid growth of eSports. (Image: Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

ESports betting revenues are outpacing total wagers placed on National Hockey League (NHL) at one online sportsbook, a shocking development for the emerging market that just a decade ago was largely reserved to small video game tournaments competed online.

According to Pinnacle Sports, an online book that offers odds on both traditional sports and eSports, bets on video game tournaments outnumber those placed on NHL games. And according to Pinnacle sportsbook head Marco Blume, it’s not even close.

Through October, Blume says eSports is “10 percent ahead of ice hockey for 2016.” Pinnacle says eSports bet count is up 127 percent year-over-year, with live betting soaring over 400 percent.

Pinnacle, named “eSports Operator of the Year” by EGR, allows users to place financial wagers on the outcomes of eSports tournaments and competitions. Like traditional sports betting, some play for fun, while others play purely for profit.

“Many players see betting as a way to add excitement to a competition, with the hope of gaining money enhancing the excitement,” Pinnacle says on its website. “Others, however, use mathematics, statistical analysis, or their unique knowledge to determine ways of earning a living from betting on events.”

Welcome to Vegas

Oddsmakers in Las Vegas and Nevada are licking their chops on the news that eSports betting is more popular than ice hockey at a major online sportsbook. Ironically, Nevada will welcome its first major professional sports franchise with the Vegas Golden Knights NHL expansion team in 2017.

Last month, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval (R) and the state’s Gaming Policy Committee issued the first eSports betting license. William Hill, one of the most well-known and respected sportsbook operators in the world, received the Silver State’s blessing and immediately began offering odds on gaming tournaments.

Sandoval called the development a “major step toward ensuring Nevada becomes the eSports capital of the world.”

ESports lounges have also begun popping up around Sin City. The Downtown Grand recently opened the city’s first space dedicated solely to video gaming to compliment its William Hill sportsbook.

Big Pots up for Grabs

Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, a leading gaming research firm, says eSports betting could reach $16 billion annually by 2020. While that number, which would almost triple the yearly revenue of the entire Las Vegas Strip, might sound outlandish, the demographics back up the projection.

A major eSports tournament in 2016 attracts tens of thousands of live fans watching in an arena, with millions more watching online. Of course, there are currently fewer events in eSports than hockey, but as the market continues to develop, additional contests are being added.

For eSports majors, the prize pools are already astronomical.

The granddaddy of them all is The International, an annual spectacle that brings the world’s best “Dota 2” players together. The sixth installment of the event was held in August at KeyArena in Seattle, and the tournament purse surpassed $20 million.

To date, there have been 30 eSports tournaments with payouts exceeding seven digits.