Written by Alex Bullock.
The story of Cheon Min-Ki began in fairytale fashion. Without a father from the age of fifteen, his family were one of millions in South Korea living in abject poverty. Then, as so many have before him, he found his escape in sport. A few years later, a manager looking to form a new team saw him play, and recognised the potential. He signed Min-Ki up, and the group of teenagers were soon playing to tens of thousands of people.
Sadly, things are rarely that simple. Having lied about sponsorship deals and paid for housing from his own pocket, manager No Dae Chul approached his new protégé with a plan: “throw a few games”, he told him, “or we’ll lose TV coverage”. In reality, he was fixing the matches for personal gain. When the team eventually confronted him, he scarpered with pay in arrears. Min-Ki, jobless and facing a criminal investigation, detailed the whole affair on Facebook, and jumped from his apartment window.
Cheon Min-Ki wasn’t a football starlet or baseball prodigy. He was a professional League of Legends player.
For a community which has seen no end to its success, the tragedy is particularly jarring. The rise of games like League of Legends and Defence of the Ancients (DotA) has been so rapid, not even the video game media quite understands them. Between them, the two titles now clock around 75 million monthly players, more than twice as many people as bought Grand Theft Auto V: notionally the biggest entertainment launch in history.
In parallel, the extraordinary success of website Twitch.tv has created a new economy in interactive entertainment. The video streaming service started little more than two years ago now generates more traffic than Facebook or Hulu in the U.S., is included with YouTube in conversations on monetisation, and forms a key element in the next batch of games consoles. A generation of consumer technology is being driven by eSports.
Individuals have competed in video games almost as long as games have existed. Local arcades would have their resident Street Fighter champion, and TV shows even aired competitive Space Invaders, as seen in Charlie Brooker’s How Video Games Changed the World. The beginning of games developer Valve’s recent documentary, Free to Play, makes a point of harking back to these roots. “When I started,” laughs Na’vi manager Alexander Kokhanovsky, “we were playing for 24 bottles of beer as a first prize.” The film concludes with their victory in the first ever million dollar tournament.
It was the concerted involvement of games makers which would completely reshape the scene. Competitions set up by Doom creator Id Software in the early 90s saw the invention of ‘speedrunning’ – using glitches and exceptional skill to complete games as quickly as possible (one such marathon just raised a million dollars for charity). The emergence of the internet fostered communities around games, but it took companies like Valve and Blizzard to exploit them. eSports, as a moniker and an idea, has proved the last step from obscure hobby to distinct culture.
“eSports, as a moniker and an idea, has proved the last step from obscure hobby to distinct culture”
The groundwork was there, but it took players to realise the potential. Tournaments sprang up in isolation, but the games didn’t always lend themselves to rigorous competition. And it was the communities rather than the developers who first realised it. Fan modifications to Blizzard games Starcraft and Warcraft established the now ubiquitous ‘multiplayer online battle arena’ format, or MOBA. One of those fans, Steve ‘Guinsoo’ Feak, now works for League of Legends developer Riot Games. The man he chose to replace him, known only by his tag ‘IceFrog’, leads development on competitor DotA 2.
The format bears many of the hallmarks of Blizzard’s most famous output, the epic World of Warcraft. Where most competitive games in the past were sports or war games, MOBAs so far have been set in fantasy realms with their own lore and narrative. The element of role-playing a character in a battle of good versus evil seems at least part of the appeal. League of Legends, the most popular game of its type, has also invested the most in characterisation and story.
That ‘free to play’ mantra has been integral. Paid games such as Starcraft 2 have a loyal fanbase, but it was these free games which widened the audience. For so long, there was an opinion that it couldn’t be done. The challenge for companies like Riot was turning a burgeoning new audience into a sustainable cash source, without impacting on the core experience.
So while many publishers continue to warp the concept of a truly free game by making progress conditional to payments – or in-app purchases – eSports titles have hit upon a novel idea: selling optional, aesthetic improvements. Players can choose to buy new skins or accessories, altering the appearance of their character, or to obtain new characters more quickly. But you’re not paying to win: you pay for cachet.
When free-to-play games take it too far, Jim Sterling is the internet’s inquisitor. The Escapist’s reviews editor has proved an ardent critic: when mobile game Dungeon Keeper forced players to pay to proceed (or wait up to 24 hours), his response was quoted everywhere from blogs to the BBC. Yet on eSports, he readily admits he’s stumped.
“All I can do is confess I don’t get [eSports] either. That is not to say I think it is bad – in fact, I find it fascinating. However, I won’t ever really be able to appreciate it.”
For such a large community, there is a distinct sense of exclusivity, even insularity. It’s certainly not an easy subject to get to grips with. Videos are always available online, but the choice is dizzying: separate professional and amateur leagues exist in Europe, North America and Asia, with dozens of unrelated tournaments offering extra incentives to top teams willing to travel. It’s one thing to attract casual players; quite another to support hundreds, if not thousands of livelihoods.
English football offers a comprehensive league structure, but in eSports the line of progression is even clearer. For the amateurs, the games boast a series of tiers. You can play ‘normal’, unranked games, or you can play ranked matches, either individually or as part of a team. Win these games and your ranking increases – commonly from bronze, to silver, to gold, etc. – as does the calibre of your opposition. Reach the highest echelons of play and theoretically, you’ll either get a chance to join the big leagues, or play your way to the top teams’ attention.
But even the allure of a gold rank for a silver player is enticing: you’re always a few good performances away from a higher level of play. Individual skill is important, but team play more so, and charismatic ‘streamers’ – players who air their sessions live – imbue the games with new personality and celebrity status.
For the people who never enjoyed PE, or even those forced out of established sports, eSports are a chance to satisfy competitive instincts in a digital arena. This is chess for the Game of Thrones generation: games of mental sparring as much as physical agility, where learning and iteration are key.