Esports Fans Exposed To 'Dangerous' Ads In Unregulated 'Wild West'

Laws have failed to keep up with an explosion in online gaming, with fears young fans are being exposed to dangerous alcohol ads in an environment without regulation or rules.

Esports are big business. Games like Fortnite, FIFA, League of Legends and Starcraft -- formerly the domain of gamers on TVs at home -- are now played in stadiums, with millions in prize money, and broadcast on TV.

Entire ecosystems of lucrative sponsorship endorsements exist for the star players who are celebrities in their world, racking up millions of followers on social media who follow their every move live as they stream their games on video sites like Twitch or Youtube. A recent tournament for the game 'Dota 2' had a $50 million prize pool and millions of people watching at home.

READ MORE: Athletes Are Seriously Injuring Themselves Playing Esports

READ MORE: Aussie Teen Pockets $4.6 Million After Winning World's Richest eSports Prize -- Again

Just like any other sport, stars can get endorsements for football boots or apparel, gamers can become ambassadors for products like keyboards, chairs or energy drinks -- while tournaments can feature advertising for alcohol or junk food brands through naming rights, venue branding or even product placement within games.

But new research has found that heavy gamers are often also heavy alcohol drinkers and that more than half of those gamers surveyed are classed as being 'addicted' to playing.

Photo: Reuters

New Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education research undertaken by experts from the University of Queensland has shone a light on problems within the burgeoning esports industry, as laws around alcohol advertising -- especially that viewed by minors -- have failed to keep up with changing technology and entertainment.

Associate Professor Sarah Kelly, from the UQ business school, said esports were "pretty much unregulated", and that "dangerous" products were being funnelled straight into the brains of young people.

"It is an extremely lucrative platform for advertisers, they're accessing the next generation of consumers. There's a lot of harmful product categories like alcohol, gambling, energy drinks and junk food," Kelly told 10 daily.

Products like ready-to-drink spirits, also known as 'alcopops', as well as regular spirits and beer were regularly associated with both esports competitors and competitions, with alcohol advertised at venues and sometimes even inserted into games themselves as a new kind of product placement.

Photo: Getty

"People are playing these games for six hours at a time, so it's different to a quick football game," Kelly said.

"Some popular activations are working to circumvent the kind of ad-blocking software that people would be using if they're streaming at home, so they're using celebrity endorsements or star influencer gamers."

READ MORE: Esports Grind Takes Extreme Physical And Mental Toll On Players

READ MORE: Esport Stars Making A Fortune Playing Video Games In Their Bedrooms

Kelly's research found that 53 percent of gamers surveyed would be classed as 'addicted' to games. Those aged 18-34 have the highest prevalence of gaming addiction.

It was also found that those addicted to gaming were more likely to purchase alcohol advertised around games, and more likely to consume more alcohol while playing or watching games.

Photo: Getty

Some star players can earn millions of dollars a year, through a combination of tournament winnings, product endorsements, and advertising money through their video streams on social media.

READ MORE: Fortnite Is Being Blamed For Divorces

READ MORE: Campaign Launched To Ban The Booze In Sport Advertising

Swedish gamer PewDiePie has 101 million Youtube subscribers and 19 million Twitter followers alone, and other stars of the industry boast similar huge legions of fans. Australian teenager Anathan Pham last month was part of the winning 'Dota 2' team at The International tournament in China in August after also winning the competition in 2018, his team winning nearly $40 million in those two tournaments alone.

But while the industry is big business for players and advertisers and millions of fans tuning in to watch as well as playing their own games from home, Kelly said it was currently "the wild west" for advertising.

Esports are not governed under the same ad rules as other sports, experts say. Photo: Getty

Many advertising codes cover how and when products like alcohol, gambling and smoking can be shown in media, but Kelly said they currently do not apply to esports, meaning young people may be exposed to inappropriate ads -- with their parents having precious little ability to respond.

"The live events, or when they're streamed online, they're not regulated platforms. Esports are not fully classified as a sport, or even an interactive activity, which would be captured by existing legislation," Kelly said.

"If it were classified as a sport, it could be caught under interactive gambling codes or anti-doping codes."

Kelly and FARE will present their research as part of a forum into the "digital dark arts of alcohol marketing" at Parliament House on Wednesday. She has called for the federal government to step in and update advertising codes to better protect young fans and capture esports under the same rules that govern other sports.

"We need to have a look at widespread reform of existing advertising schemes to embrace these new digital spaces in sports and entertainment. We are a little outdated," Kelly said.

"We need to bring game publishers, star players, teams, everyone into the tent to engage them."