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Is Tabletop Gaming the Next Great Esport?

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Forbes has discovered tabletop gaming, and asks if a new organized play platform will make board games into an a big esport business. Is it time to go looking for sponsorship, or did somebody just pull off some clever PR?

Tabletop gaming is growing fast. Reliable estimates put the size of the hobby gaming market at $1.2 billion in 2015. Magic: the Gathering has led revenue gains at Hasbro, while the investors behind Asmodee are rolling up top brands and building a strong digital portfolio. Face-to-face family entertainment is in the best position it’s been in for 50 years.

That seems to be an opportunity for Oomba, a company that promises to “Challenge everyone!” According to Forbes, Oomba is building software to manage tournaments and organized play. The company is also trying to make a splash with its “Unrivaled” event. This national tournament is built around six games from different manufacturers and a $250,000 purse.

Forbes seems willing to buy into Oomba’s pitch, but if you’ve been knocking around the tabletop industry a decade or two… well, you’ve seen this before.

Herding the Tabletop Gaming Cats

There have been many organized play programs over the last twenty years. Most CCG publishers have up a tournament program. The biggest games hold fancy championships at Gen Con and other major conventions. There are cross-publisher demo programs, and occasional broader efforts like Organized Play, which tried to take tabletop roleplaying to a new level from 2001 to 2003.

Publishers’ programs wax and wane with the fortunes of the games they support. Demo programs support specific games and local communities, but have little impact on the hobby. Ambitious programs like Organized Play tend to founder after a couple of years when the IP fails to break out into a larger market.

 

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The previous wave of hot media interest

Oomba says it’s trying to “expand the tabletop hobby”. It seems to be positioning itself for a big media play, which is problematic for several reasons:

  • Tabletop gaming is still a niche hobby. Grandma and Grandpa may have heard of Catan now. That doesn’t mean they know how to play. Most Americans see hobby games as weird and complicated, so they’re not good spectator sports like poker.
  • The technology isn’t sexy or salable. Video games run on cutting-edge technology that gets sold to other markets. Tech companies have good reasons to promote a powerful graphics processor or a new monitor through esports. Nobody wants to advertise the latest meeple technology.
  • The entertainment is social, not competitive. Most popular tabletop games are not high-stakes showdowns of skill. In fact, the trend runs the other way with designs that emphasize negotiation, cooperation, and catch-up mechanics for trailing players.
  • There are better ways to watch. Because tabletop games favor social play, shows about them have a relaxed vibe. Popular shows like Tabletop and Crit Camp Gaming rely on camaraderie and interactions with viewers, not strategy.

Oomba may still have a good business on its hands. Local stores and organizations can use good event software. Big tournaments might even help sell that software. But this looks like a niche business with good PR, not the next big wave in esports.

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