LONDON (Reuters) - Paying to watch people play computer games may seem curious to some, but it is catching on not only in sporting arenas but also on the stock market and business world.
While many financiers have been glued to the Rugby World Cup, London has also hosted the equally competitive, if less strenuous, League of Legends E-sports event last weekend.
About 24,000 youngsters streamed in under a cold autumnal sky to Wembley, the home of English soccer, to see teams take each other on in a computer game.
Fans cheered as players lined up on opposing computer keyboards ready to wage virtual war, while in the background coaches prowled around in the manner of soccer's Jose Mourinho. Over the road, fans huddled outside the Wembley Hilton hotel for autographs of their favourite players.
E-sports is a generic term for events ranging from virtual warfare games to computer-simulated soccer matches, often played for big prize money.
Market research firm Superdata said the global E-sports audience stood at 134 million viewers and was growing, while organisers said 6,000 turned up each day to attend the four-day League of Legends tournament that ended on Sunday, with some paying nearly 30 pounds for a ticket.
Analysts and executives said this offered an array of lucrative opportunities, although it was still early days.
The League of Legends event is run by Riot Games, a company in which Chinese online entertainment and media group Tencent Holdings owns a majority stake.
Whalen Rozelle, director of E-sports at Riot Games, said that while League of Legends was not yet profitable, the company was confident it would be.
"I absolutely foresee a day when the E-sports industry will be incredibly profitable. It will just take time," he said, speaking on the tournament sidelines.
STOCK MARKET EXPOSURE TO E-SPORTS
Shares in Tencent are up about 30 percent since the start of 2015, while those in Activision Blizzard, which is also setting up an E-Sports tournament for its "Call of Duty" game, have hit record highs this year.
GFinity, which hosts E-sport events, floated on the London stock market last year and while its shares are not as actively traded, they are still nearly 50 percent above their debut flotation price of 17 pence.
Gary Paulin, co-founder at brokerage Aviate Global, said the E-sports trend could also give a lift to Logitech, by spurring sales of Logitech's joysticks, and Modern Times Group given Modern Times' acquisition of a stake in E-sport company Turtle Entertainment in July.
Roche Brune Asset Management fund manager Gregoire Laverne and SYZ fund manager Giacomo Picchetto also tipped video games publisher Ubisoft as being able to benefit from the trend via a bigger profile for its games such as "Rainbow Six".
Media group Vivendi announced last week it had bought stakes in Ubisoft and rival Gameloft, and Ubisoft shares are up 60 percent so far in 2015.
To be sure, those holding stocks with links to the sector must be prepared to ride out the ups and downs. Ubisoft had profit warnings in 2013 and 2010, due partly to delays in the releases of some games.
Logitech in July reported lower first quarter revenues, but it has been starting to focus more on the video games sector to offset a decline in personal computers.
Thomson Reuters StarMine data brings up more positive readings for others involved, forecasting earnings growth for both Ubisoft and Activision above that of the broader stock market.
Fans attending the League of Legends showdown included 23-year Arthur Picaud from France, 24-year old Tabitha Hastie from London and 22-year old overseas Chinese student Zeyu Liu, who was supporting Chinese E-sport team EDG.
"Right now, E-sports is a nascent idea, but we would like to think that if we're successful, it will be a rising trend that will lift all the others," said Riot Games' Rozelle.
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Angus MacSwan)