There is an audience, but the question is whether the audience is anywhere near matching the money flowing into it.
Fighting games have had tournaments and leagues for decades, which evolved naturally from arcades hosting local tournaments and fans organizing their own tournaments. People competed for pride and bragging rights as much as they did money. The first EVO, years before it was even called EVO, had 40 people competing in two versions of Street Fighter in 1996. Later, you’d have people sometimes traveling cross-country for a Smash Bros tournament that might be run out of the house of one of the players.
Even the fighting game scene has seen some questionable influxes of money. Game publishers have long been sponsors of fighting game tournaments, but it was seen largely as their own advertising and promotion. It made sense for Capcom to help sponsor EVO, because EVO drove interest in Capcom’s own fighting games. It made sense for companies like Netherrealm to want to get in on fighting game tournaments, because it was a mark of legitimacy, which could help sales.
But in recent years, we’ve seen the push towards esports not as advertising but as its own profit-making goal. Red Bull seems to love throwing money at sponsoring fighting game tournaments. Capcom has an official league for Street Fighter, the Capcom World Tour. Dragon Ball FighterZ has its own World Tour. Prize pools are increasing, as are player salaries. But what is going to happen when the money well starts to run dry?
EDIT: The section below wanders a bit off topic of the article and main theme of the post, but remains tied to the esports theme. And I spent way too long writing it to want to just delete it, so I’m sticking it below a notice of sorts.
There are even some esports collateral damage stories, with both Street Fighter V and Dragon Ball FighterZ suffering from seemingly blind focus on the perceived esports market. SFV is the more public disaster. Capcom openly focused on the multiplayer and esports side of the game, sacrificing single player and casual content. This drew criticism and hurt sales. The bigger issue though is SFV’s obviously rushed and incomplete release state. It didn’t even have a functioning shop, and the first few months saw repeated delays on promised DLCs. Perhaps Capcom would have been unwilling to delay the game regardless, but in this particular case they had committed to using SFV for the next season of the Capcom Pro Tour and had to have the game released in time.
The situation with Dragon Ball FighterZ is a bit weirder because everyone involved who will comment on matters denies making the decision. Some rights owners can get prickly about “unofficial” tournaments. Nintendo, for example, took a pretty big PR blow when they ordered EVO pull its Smash Bros tournament. Dragon Ball FighterZ, despite being a new game, already had its sponsored big money World Tour league in place. Late last year and early this year, tournaments that were not part of the official World Tour started receiving notices that they were not allowed to run DBFZ. This was somewhat baffling. While it hurt those tournaments to lose access to one of the hottest games at the time, the move had to have hurt DBFZ even more. Not only was there a PR backlash at the game being pulled, this greatly hurt the visibility of the game at a time when more exposure would lead to even greater profits. There was popular belief that this decision would drastically cut short the life of DBFZ. It was bad enough that Bandai Namco had to perform damage control, putting the director for Tekken 7 in charge of its “eSports Strategy Team” where he could immediately publicly assure everyone that Bandai Namco supported the tournament community.