The idea of playing games competitively has existed for a long time, but only relatively recently have ‘eSports’ come into their own as a spectator sport. With games like Starcraft 2 and League of Legends gaining popularity in the West; a sprawling community of players, commentators and dedicated fans is growing ever larger day-on-day, hour-upon-hour.
Once a niche subsection of gaming culture, eSports exploded in South Korea with Blizzard’s Starcraft: Brood War, where matches are televised 24/7 and the best players earn over $500,000 a year from sponsorship alone; and that’s not counting product endorsements, tournament prizes, TV appearances, DVD sales and other income-boosting perks being a pro gamer affords.
In South Korea, eSports and the broadcast of them is as commonplace as a Barclays Premier League match on Sky over here - really. American-born commentator (or “caster” as they are known) Nick Plott, who currently lives in Seoul, has this to say:
“We live in this world where it's one of the most watched things on TV, completely culturally accepted. It’s not a taboo, it’s not weird and there’s an ecosystem there that supports it.”
eSports as an entity has been growing consistently on these shores and over in the States since the early 00’s, though continues to grow at a steady rate in both Europe and America. Brood War’s sequel Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is gaining significant Western interest in the competitive space, perhaps due to recent strides in high-quality internet streaming, as well as the game’s graphical gorgeousness, strategic and tactical depth.
2011’s MLG (Major League Gaming) spring championship saw some 4.7 million unique viewers over its course, and hit a peak of 437,000 concurrent viewers. And these numbers are only continuing to grow at a quite phenomenal rate as the eSports scene continues to develop, sponsorship becomes more prevalent and, ultimately, revenue increases.
Other heavy hitters include League of Legends, a team-based game (as opposed to Starcraft’s 1v1 model) which was inspired by a fan mod of another Blizzard game, Warcraft 3, which itself enjoyed a few years as an eSport in the latter half of the 00’s, before fading from public interest. League of Legends lacks Starcraft 2’s wide Western coverage, but a recent explosion of interest in the east (where eSports is already widely watched) saw viewing figures sky-rocket. The self-hosted Season 2 World Championship in October 2012 saw 8.2 million total viewers with a peak of 1.1 million concurrent, a significant portion of those viewers coming from China.
For those behind the controls, gaming is no longer a hobby (though some will still refer to it as such) as much it is a way of life, a career, a reason to get up in the morning. Competing at the very highest level in eSports requires a huge amount of dedication, perseverance, resilience and - where some of the most accomplished Starcraft players manage around 300 ‘actions’ per minute (equating to 5 actions a second)- oodles of skill. Pro gamers at the very top, meanwhile, have a status quite unlike anything we’ve seen from within the industry. Some of the top players on the scene, truth be known, have an almost celebrity-like status akin to some of our most famous sports stars; hundreds of followers, groupies and all. Their dedication often reaps the rewards, of course, with prize money often exceeding $1 million for the winners and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the runners-up in the most high-profile of tournaments.
But even so, eSports’ relative infancy in this space does come with its own set of barriers. Whereas getting into eSports as a fan in South Korea is as easy as turning on the TV, it’s a little more daunting for the rest of us in the west. TeamLiquid.net serves as a central hub for all things Starcraft, with upcoming events both big and small advertised and a plethora of live streams including everything from amateur matches to pro awaiting your perusal. News pages for the likes of Major League Gaming, Dreamhack, Intel Extreme Masters and World Cyber Games (some of the few major western eSports proprietors) are also musts for those of you ready to envelop yourselves into the world of eSports itself.
The idea of playing games competitively may have existed for years, but never has it been more exciting than with the explosion in popularity and growing maturity of eSports. In addition to League of Legends challenging Starcraft’s long-held eSports supremacy (competition breeds quality, after all), the next year should see another heavy-hitter enter the fray. Valve, which has enjoyed cult eSports success with Counter-Strike, is taking to the stage with Dota 2, a League of Legends-esque game with an already well-established fan-base and fanatic faithful ready to lead the way.
Like any sport, eSports isn’t about the individual components of play; it’s the passion, the excitement and the skill that makes it what it is. It’s the heart-break when a calculated attack leaves a defence vulnerable to attack and ultimately, defeat. It’s the jubilation that’s felt when those countless mouse-clicks and tens of hundreds of ‘actions’ lead to sweat-coated victory.
Whatever the fate of individual games may be, eSports as a whole is just heating up, and we couldn’t be any more excited for what’s to come.