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Esports

How esports made gaming a feverish billion-dollar sport

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It has a legion overflowing with 292 million loyal viewers. By 2020, the still flowering sport is predicted to draw in over $1.5 billion in revenue – with a year-on-year growth of 41%. In just under two decades, it has gone from hosting 27 competitive tournaments to over 2000 worldwide. With sponsors from Coca-Cola, Ford, and American Express, you’d presume I was promoting the NFL or football (that’s ‘soccer’, to translate for our American audience… *tuts*)

In fact, for any of those that sneer at professional gaming, this prevalent industry catapulted into the public’s peripherals is eSports – a skillful collection of competitive gaming that spans countries, nationalities and PC games. A sport where technical updates can be a literal game-changer. There’s no single league. It consumes hours of dedication from its players, with the stressful clicks of their cursors and controllers brewing the Beckham’s and McGregor’s of its future, today. Broadcast avidly live to the world through Twitch and other online streaming, teams attempt to win matches in competitive leagues for big-money prizes and more.

The 2024 Paris Olympics is eyeing it as a medal event. And the 2022 Asian Games is way ahead of them. Needless to say, eSports hasn’t simply been “gaming” for a long time. This is the sporting spectacle of the century.

 

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You’d find them in the dark enclosure of arcades. Through a haze of cigarette smoke and over the cursing cheers of first-brand nerds, they circled gaming machines. A pool of their very own breed of a fight club. It’s the early 1980’s and public esports is being born. From Pac-Man to Donkey Kong, gaming enthusiasts would gather to witness and gamble on the skilled professional players attempting to beat high-scores and come out as the best player.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990‘s, gaming tournaments spawned across the globe. Atari hosted the first in 1980, with the space invaders Tournament; Walt Disney founded a high-score record keeping organisation in the summer of the same year. Guinness World Record took note. Time magazine even covered it as a generational sensation: teams of attendees at gaming championships trying to match one another with the same intent competitiveness of any Ali fight or Manchester United match.

The competition was clearly prevalent. And with the birth of internet connectivity, the reach of yet-to-be-termed eSports grew. The 1990’s saw the birth of true PC gaming. Quake, Counter-strike and Warcraft tournaments appeared across the United States. LAN party battles were engulfing the western world. For the first time, games were televised; British GamesMaster broadcast contestants on Channel 4 battling it out. But still, the concept of eSports seemed almost taboo; perceived as a less competitive sport, more an exaggerated hobby.

Nevertheless, the community was strong and multiplying. With tournaments touring the United States, massive crowds from all walks of life were magnetising to watch gaming behemoths who were once regular strangers battling it out. Every year, the audience grew larger. The prizes were grander. Crowds once reserved for the culmination of traditional sporting events were chanting pedestalled gamers names as they knocked enemies from scoreboards or landed legendary wins. Gone was the confines of gambling over winners in arcade basements. Here was a following; a new competitive sport emerging from the fandom. The future.

Across the ocean, varied eSports were growing independently in South Korea. Gaming was heavily popular to match the rates of unemployment amongst the populace, and, by the year 2000, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture had created an esports division to regulate the intensely popular tournament’s and games that were commencing across the country.

The prize for the first truly recognized esports tournament in 1997 was a Ferrari owned by the lead developer for Quake. Considered the original esports game, 2,000 participants attended. By 2006, the Worldwide Webgames Championship had 71 contestants battling for $1 million in prize money and television coverage in South Korea had become so popular it grew to include competitive matches for Starcraft; the margin is a matter of years less than the fingers on our hands. Still, scepticism was present, tainting viewership – was it really a sport? Since there was a clear lack of physical presence, as is accustom with traditional sporting matches, it seemed that nobody was watching.

MLG was the first gaming tournament to televise true esports: a competition on Halo 2 in 2006, which failed in encouraging long-term mass viewership. Without the recognizable shots of fans cheering in the docks, the general conservative public saw esports as simple voyeuristic pretention. However, said absent audience just didn’t have awareness or access to these broadcast events. Only at tournaments and events could one catch the behemoth of the esports community.

Then in the late 2000’s, social media and online streaming services emerged. And with that, a format to broadcast and channel the sport.

Suddenly, one was spoiled for choice with where they found esports. Depending on your gaming preference, there’s a channel for you. While but a growing runt in gaming, MOBA’s, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, has become one of the most prevalent and popular genres within esports. League of Legends, a MOBA game you have definitely heard of unless living in a post-civilisation society, has accumulated 67 million monthly players. Thanks to online streaming services such as Twitch, these players have an outlet at which to broadcast their skill. Enthusiasts need not travel to tournaments and events to show their support. Popularity has infected the world. Support shines through on chat rooms and social media more every day. By 2020, 303 million people are expected to watch all esports.  

And here we are in the butt-end of 2017. Having such a vast fan-base, with more people watching the 2014 League of Legends finals than that of the NBA and MLB finals COMBINED in the same year, why isn’t esports being taken more seriously? Valve’s esports tournament has a $10 million prize; the League of Legends 2015 finals sold out LA’s 15,000 seat Staple Center… in one hour. Hasn’t it done enough to turn recognizable sporting institutions heads?

 

‘GG’ lag

There is a general consensus among the community that perhaps esports isn’t being regarded as a legitimate sport, nor it’s ‘cyberathletes’ as deserving of their income and fame as more traditional sporting counterparts.

Writing this article, I’ve been exposed to the magnitude of scepticism o-zoning the sport; there’s even been a heated debate on the simple ruling of its very spelling for years: esports or eSports? For those curious, after waiting tediously for an official ruling, the Associated Press finally concluded that it was epsorts. Still, my writing software has been in a disarrayed frenzy.

‘There are some people you’ll never please,’ Dom Sacco - editor and founder of Esports News UK - tells me, ‘I think we’ve got some way to go until it becomes more mainstream.’

Back in Seoul, the cradle of esports, cyberathletes (termed during that fateful pro-gaming year of 1997) are both relishing and suffering from the same sportsman scrutiny of any Rooney or Tiger Woods. There are debates of esports internal ethics, reports of players using performance-enhancing drugs – even examples of player exploitation in certain instances. Major sporting network ESPN has extensive coverage. A 21-year-old South Korean professional makes up to £2 million a year in income.

They’re rock-stars, selling out stadiums and having an average of 300,000 viewers per a normal gaming season. For the DoTA 2 2014 International tournaments, the prize pool bulked in at $11 million, a larger amount than the spoils of a professional golfing league winner.

Whether the conservatives recognize it or not, that certainly echoes the traits of a true sport – as Sacco said, it’s just evolving, esports is still in its early days.

Speaking again, Sacco says about British inclusion in esports, ‘Over the past few years I’ve seen the UK scene go from strength to strength. We still don’t have the prize pools I’d like to see over here at an amateur level, but we have more pro gamers in some of the top teams around the world than we did a few years back. Tournaments like the ESL Premiership, UK Masters, epicLAN and Gfinity Elite Series are helping to put the UK on the map.’

 

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‘The rise of streaming sites like Twitch and social media like Twitter makes it easier than ever to watch esports matches and follow your favourite teams and players,’ Sacco says, ‘The big will get bigger, it will continue to grow over the next few years… and only the strongest and most unique will survive.’

Recognition of esports in social culture continues to grow. As far as Russia, their Ministry of Sport officially classes esports as a disciplined sport. In the United States, competitors are classed as athletes. In terms of sports philosophy, the definition of sports is filed as a unified play between participants. Whatever the sport, it reflects the culture of its time. Peasants undergoing extreme labour would be able to brandish their physical prowess through sporting examples of their strength.

Today, the culture is much different. The virtual has become our reality, and those that can navigate and react quickly on its format are but the neo-athletes of our generation. Considering the Olympics' marathon wasn’t even an Ancient Greek tradition, rather a modern inclusion, it does make one heavily ponder what may be classed as suitable for the sporting event. Baseball, bowling and roller sport are appearing as new sports for the 2020 Summer Olympics, yet the concept of esports glowing under the Olympic flame still seems as pixelated.

Gamers in the UK alone spent nearly £3.3 billion on computer games in 2016. Viewers of esports grows and broadens its global reach on a daily basis. While the Olympic charter is vague on what constitutes a relevant sport, many fans claim that esports don't need to be a participant – it already has its own X-games and is flourishing perfectly well without the awareness of the conservative public.

‘For me, it’s all about increasing people’s awareness of esports and what makes it great,’ Sacco concludes, ‘the number of jobs and courses in the industry is increasing and it’s only going to get bigger.’

Matt Kamen of Wired UK later informed me that although esports is the competitive platform of various games, it isn’t simply “gaming”.

‘While the industry is adjacent to gaming, it’s really grown into a separate beast. The two are linked, but esports requires massive dedication to one game in particular to succeed, while gaming allows players to spread their focus more.’ You can kick a football around all day but you’re not a footballer until you’ve put in the blood and sweat of dedication to be recognized. And with esports, the numbers don’t lie. Its audience recognizes them for their reaction and varied skills.

To regard the Olympics debate a final time, in 1894 it’s modern founder Pierre de Coubertin discussed that the participants of the event required three testing traits: body, mind, and character. Working 16 hours days to practice their game, there’s no denying that the modern cyberathlete certainly reflects these characteristics. Coubertin’s attention would be perked. It’s just a matter of time until the modern culture logs on and joins them.

We are but currently waiting on the loading screen.