E-mail, e-stores and e-books have revolutionised the way in which we communicate, do our shopping and entertain ourselves. We browse the internet for news, we watch TV content online and we spend quality time with our friends without ever leaving the comfort of our homes. The rate at which Internet technology is growing is simply astonishing. Bear in mind that if you were tweeting a couple years back you were either mad, or a bird-charmer. Lexicon aside, such revolutionary changes in our lifestyles have shifted the way in which we see most things, but apparently… not SPORTS!
If you ever dare to mention “e-sports” to a fan of sports, be prepared for a pummelling. They will laugh at you, they will ridicule you, and they will hate you! They believe that a true sportsman sweats on a pitch (or court, or track, or whatever other place they like to sit around) and trains everyday to fulfil their dream of winning the World Cup (or Superbowl, or the Olympics, or any other major event). Most of these hardcore fans don’t know, however, that chess is a legitimate sport discipline, or that bridge-players are regarded athletes. They readily declare competitive gamers nerds or geeks, and (in most cases) think of Super Mario, PacMan or Tetris when they hear “video game”.
In fact, e-sports or competitive gaming is “the bomb” nowadays. Major tournaments attract cyber-athletes from around the globe, as well as big sponsors. We’re talking about MSI, Monster, Intel, Gigabyte and others. Such sponsors mean huge prize money, and you shouldn’t think about extra pocket money, you should think of a pay check. Major tournaments require coverage, this leads to the creation of online services devoted to e-sport coverage. These services, in turn, attract millions of viewers every day, and these users generate income. E-sports has become a flourishing business with more and more investors craving a piece of this sweet cake. The funny thing is, this is just the beginning… But let’s move in time a bit, where it all began.
From Space Invaders to MOBAs
The first known video game tournament was held at Stanford University in 1972. The players competed in Spacewar, a game in which each player pilots a spaceship and needs to destroy his opponent. The main prize in the tournament was a one-year subscription to the Rolling Stone magazine (wait till you see the prize money from 2015). However, it was the 1980 Space Invaders championship held by Atari that established competitive gaming as a genuine hobby. The Atari championships attracted more than 10,000 players from the United States. Later years brought even more recognition for video games, and skilled players from that time have seen attention from major magazines, including Times or Life. High scores from games such as PacMan or Donkey Kong were included in the Guinness Book of World Records.
It wasn’t until the last decade of the 20th century that gaming gained its momentum. More advanced and demanding games attracted new players, who started forming gaming clubs. These clubs were aimed at providing play-partners and simply connected people with common interests. Internet cafés quickly became popular among young people as they provided a pastime activity, which revolved around their favourite hobby, and promoted competition. Local Area Network (LAN) games were at their prime in the 1990s, and titles such as Quake, Starcraft, Counter-Strike and Unreal are now perceived as classics.
The biggest revolution, however, came with the dawn of the new millennium. Broadband Internet fuelled the world of online gaming, and incited big businesses centred around e-sports. New game genres sprouted, and new armies of players joined the competitive scene. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) started to prevail in the gaming market, and brought such titles as Everquest or World of Warcraft. The latter attracted as many as 12 million active subscribers every month. MMORPGs, however, as they were centred more on adventuring, exploring and defeating AI controlled opponents, didn’t attract competitive players. These players were drawn to the dynamic, highly competitive Mobile Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre. A genre which requires dedication, skill and, most importantly, teamwork from the players to be successful. As of 2015 there are two major titles which compete for the title of the king of MOBAs, and the scene is pretty much divided between these two games. DotA 2 and League of Legends (LoL) attract millions of players from around the globe and produce massive Internet traffic and income. LOLs owners, RIOT Games, planned to create their own Internet network around the US in order to maintain a stable platform for the fans of their game. This, perhaps, best shows the scale of today’s gaming industry. An industry propelled just like regular sports, by the viewers, who will pay in bulk for good content.
Due to the fact that video games haven’t found their way to mainstream media (at least not successfully), many streaming sites and Internet television channels devoted to gaming have been established. Such sites create massive web traffic and attract millions of viewers during major gaming events (over 50 million simultaneous viewers on one streaming channel during the 2014 International) and get huge revenue from ads.
Apart from the coverage of big tournaments, single players sometimes have thousands of people watching them play during peak hours. Streaming has become a full-time job for some players as the streaming platforms allow viewers to donate to their favourite streamers. These donations range from anything between 1$ to 15,000$, and even though the latter are very rare it’s not uncommon for a streamer to get 50 donations per hour. That’s why many players choose to stream for long hours, attracting even more viewers, as the streamers become a reliable source of entertainment.
The biggest streaming site, Twitch.tv, was launched in 2001 and has since then attracted avid gaming fans. Since the shutdown of Own3d.tv in 2013, Twitch has become the go-to platform for all game streamers and viewers around the globe. What attracts most viewers is the fact that there’s always content to watch, either live or as video-on-demand. Twitch has got an extensive database of recorded streams, ranging from game walkthroughs, coverage of gaming competitions, and other game-related events. In late 2014, Twitch.tv was acquired by Amazon.com for an astonishing $970 million. Involvement of such a big player shows that multinational companies are beginning to see the potential of electronic sports.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for a gaming layman will be the money involved in e-sport competitions. Even though individual players benefit most from donations from their fans, gaming organizations get most of their revenue from tournaments. The prize money of the 2014 DotA 2 tournament, the International, was $10,930,698! The winning team got 46% of that sum which amounts to over 5 million dollars, that’s over 1 million dollars for one player. The prize pool for the 2015 International has already exceeded 10 million dollars while there are still 3 months to go. Most of the prize money for the tournament is crowd-funded, and funding players get in-game benefits for their contribution. Other tournaments with remarkable prize money involved include: DotA Asian Championships – over 3 million $, the International 2013 – 2,8 million $, Smite 2015 World Championships – 2,6 million $ and LoL 2014 World Championships – 2,13 million $.
Bright future for competitive gaming
With the growing publicity of e-sports we can safely assume that there is a bright future for competitive gaming. Major tournaments will continue to attract masses of viewers who will crave more entertainment. These viewers will then seek more content through streaming channels which are active on a daily basis, such as channels of players. But even today, there almost isn’t a day without some tournament coverage. Perhaps TV stations will become interested in gaming and e-sport will become part of popular culture, just like football. Maybe in the near future children will wear t-shirts with names of their favourite cyber athletes. Nevertheless, there are big financial possibilities in e-sports and some big players, like amazon.com, are starting to acknowledge them. We can only hope that e-sports will become as popular as e-stores and e-books, only time will tell. And as we’re waiting, let’s tune in to our favourite Twitch streamer and enjoy ourselves. Shall we?