It all started with two players, two paddles, and a ball the size of a single pixel. Since Pong’s debut more than four decades ago, however, competitive gaming has been taken to a completely new level, culminating in the recent phenomenon that is “esports”. It’s the name given when when video games are being played online at a professional level, sometimes attracting millions of spectators from around the world in what has now become a virtual Colosseum for the masses.
Although esports has arguably existed since games themselves were first invented, for the past two decades, this scene has undergone rapid expansion. This is mainly thanks to breakthroughs in web-based technology, allowing gamers from across the globe to connect and compete while also opening the doors to spectators sat in front of their computers screens.
Today, esports is a fast-growing empire worth millions. This was demonstrated last year at The International 2014, a sell-out tournament that saw 10,000 fans flock to Seattle’s KeyArena to watch their favourite teams go head-to-head. With the winners having taken home almost half of the $11,000,000 prize pot – a record sum that has already been eclipsed by the prize money for the upcoming 2015 tournament – this has helped to spur a growing influx of players reaching for this new form of stardom.
As professional player Isaac Charles explains, placing yourself on that first rung of the ladder starts with getting yourself exposed. “The best way for an enthusiastic player to make their way into a national/international level esports team,” he says, “is to show talent and potential in their given game.”
Isaac – known to his fans as “Boombox” – is a tournament-winning player for UK-based team, FM-eSports. His daily routine is usually centred around the hugely popular online strategy game, StarCraft II. The series, developed by Blizzard Entertainment, has always been a prominent stand-out in the esports scene, especially in South Korea where many consider it to be a national sport. Playing host to some of the world greatest StarCraft II talent, Isaac spends the first part of his day sourcing videos from the major Korean leagues, which he’ll then spend a healthy chunk of time mining for tricks and strategies to use in practice. For FM’s Counter-Strike team captain, Neil Finlay, it’s a similar story, using what time he has between training sessions to study the competition.
As Isaac explains, “When we have an official game we will always try and learn as much about our opponent as possible. Before we play practice games we regularly sit down as a team and go over any changes or suggestions.”
However, whether commanding armies in StarCraft or gunning down terrorists in Counter-Strike, when playing in a live tournament setting, Isaac and Neil both feel the same pressure. “As cliche as it sounds,” Isaac says, “at some points the pressure from others to perform well is greater than your own, so you just have to focus on the game and channel that out.”
Although they don’t face the same physical challenges as other athletes, it can be argued that the psychological strains on professional gamers is a tougher burden to bear, as gaming coach and performance psychologist, Robert Yip, explains.
“Esports athletes have been brought up within the online sphere of instant transparency. Anything they do, negative or positive will be instantly sent and shared around the world. This places them in an unenviable position whereby they cannot escape given that their livelihood relies on them being online.”
Although football players and other sportstars performing poorly will be subject to abuse when on the field, Robert argues that “the esports athlete also has to deal with the mass amounts of criticism through Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.”
This also happens in sports like football a lot, though these players will often have media teams and other support staff on-hand. However, as Robert explains, esports athletes are “major marketing tools” for their teams and constantly need to be in the spotlight to appease sponsors and boost brand recognition. The fact that many of these pro gamers are still very young, can sometimes exacerbate these pressures.
That’s another thing you’ll notice about esports. Bar one or two rare exceptions, the majority of professional players are either in their late teens or early twenties. When playing games like StarCraft on the world stage, they demand an almost inhuman level of dexterity, a pinnacle of performance that fades the older a player gets.
A “decent” career, according to FM manager, Bret Weber, will last ten years on the tournament circuit. That’s not to say there aren’t options available to retired players within the community, though. Much like former sports stars, many esports icons will transition directly from playing to becoming commentators, analysts, and pundits. Together, they all play an essential role in bringing high profile leagues and tournaments to life, making them more entertaining and, to an extent, more accessible to a wider audience.
Needless to say, visual spectacle can be crucial to a game’s enduring appeal, alongside other, more substantive features. Cardell Kerr is the creative director working on Infinite Crisis, a game which has recently ascended to the tournament circuit.
He explains that “a good esports video game has to be several things. It has to have to have deep enough gameplay that it’s possible for skilled players to noticeably distinguish themselves from regular players and it has to be fun to watch. If it’s not fun to watch, it doesn’t matter how deep the system is or how excellent its top tier players are, because there will be no audience.”
Aside from promoting their game to a potential crop of new players, Cardell explains that the esports environment has been the best place to test Infinite Crisis and see what areas need improving. “We’re constantly working on the balance of the game,” he says, “and nothing tells you how fair and balanced your game is than pro-gamers tearing it apart to dominate each other.”
Developers aren’t the only ones working in the gaming business who have been affected by the expansion of esports. Ukie is the United Kingdom’s leading trade body within the industry and works with multinational developers and publishers as well as the government to help boost the profile of esports.
“The rise of esports has been a sensation all over the world for some time now,” Ukie CEO, Dr. Jo Twist explains, “the mainstream media has not taken much notice of it, but this is certainly changing.”
Over the past couple of years, esports coverage can continue to creep in from the fringes, with the BBC and even The Sun now reporting on the growing scene.
Mainstream exposure doesn’t necessarily signpost the next big milestone for esports, however, as Bret and Cardell argue. They see increasing public awareness as an organic albeit inevitable process with more people flocking to online streams rather than esports transitioning to television networks.
“I’m not sure TV will ever be relevant to esports due to the fact it is the first internet birthed sport,” Cardell elaborates. “Every other sport has simply been popularized by the internet, as opposed to owing their existence to it.” For him, the next big milestone for esports is for them to continue “selling out multiple stadiums worldwide, on a consistent basis.”
There have already been sell-outs in major venues across the world, including the previously mentioned KeyArena as well as Seoul’s Sang-am World Cup Stadium and the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. With fans around the globe turning out in their thousands, to Cardell, this is the most effective way of putting the message across: that esports is here to stay and it’s only going to get bigger.