E-Sports: It’s in the Game

In the basement of the Clocktower Brew Pub on Bank St. in Ottawa, at least once every couple of months the room is filled with cheering teens and college students. Like at any sporting event they root for their favorite players on the many screens and raise a glass to player defeats. But this is a different kind of sport. It’s not played on a pitch, a field or a diamond. It’s played in a completely different world, the virtual world of competitive gaming: eSports.

The eSports scene can include any game on any system, but at present it focuses mostly on three games. Starcraft 2, or SC2, is an economy-based, one-versus-one type game. League of Legends, or LoL, and Defense of the Ancients 2, Dota 2, are five-man, team-based, multiplayer online battle arenas. You and your squad of similarly skilled teammates, control one “hero” apiece to defend your towers against your opponents.

These three games have carved out their place because of their ability to provide a great player versus player experience. Once the computer has been beaten only other people, human players, can offer skilled players a true challenge.

“It’s just something that anyone could do,” said Severin Madsen, a student attending Washington State Clark College. “You don’t have to be the cream of the crop athletic wise. It’s just the thing that either inspires them to try it out themselves, or just try new things. This isn’t something I have to spend my whole life on or a lot of money on. I can just jump into it.”

Many people are doing just that. What has helped eSports to become a target for companies looking for new marketing opportunities and thousands upon thousands of sponsorship dollars is the staggering viewership numbers. It’s not the playing that has garnered so much attention, it’s the watching. Hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch the best of the best, the consummate professionals, battle each other for thousands, if not millions, of dollars in prize money. They do it alone in their rooms with a bag of popcorn at five in the morning, they do it in groups around a big screen at home, they do it in bars all over the world and they do it at the events where large crowds gather at convention centers and arenas to cheer on their favorite players.

The Season 2 World Championships for League of Legends had 500, 000 concurrent viewers. That number does not even include the areas where it was broadcast on television, China and South Korea. The 2012 Major League Gaming Spring Championships had 4.7 million unique viewers. A lot of television shows would do anything for those kinds of numbers.

Things are really starting to heat up in the scene as more and more opportunities for growth are being found every day. James  Lampkin is the Marketing Manager for Teamliquid, one of the biggest eSports teams in North America and the largest website dedicated to eSports outside of Asia. “We’re just starting to strike up what I think we can do,” said Lampkin.

“We’re just getting our feet wet with marketing opportunities. The real push right now for me in my position and others in other organizations is to convince larger brands that this is something worth getting involved in. In the past it was a struggle, but because of the numbers and the metrics we’re able to use it’s a way stronger argument to make.”

Those staggering numbers have also made this a lucrative venture for many young aspiring gamers. In 2012 alone, Starcraft 2 players combined to make over $2.5 million in prize money.

While that may sound like a lot, Dota 2 held a single tournament where they gave away $1 million  over the span of a weekend. LoL did the same thing a little over a month later, except with $2 million. This doesn’t even include other revenue streams for players such as salary, coaching, sponsorship and streaming. In 2010, the first year that Starcraft was a part of the MLG pro circuit, the very first tournament  had a prize pool of $7 000. The 2012 Summer Championship handed out $76, 000. Not all of this is due to advertising. There have been social media programs, pay-per-view streaming models and alternative sources like apparel.

Now is the time that eSports will truly be tested. If it’s hard to get into watching a game and not as enjoyable for those who can’t appreciate how much skill it takes to play because they haven’t played it themselves, how well will it work on television? There are some people who don’t see how.

“I think it really depends on how well foreign players do,” said Rishi  Vala, a commerce student at Queen’s University who plays Starcraft 2. “In the eSports scene foreigners are everyone who isn’t Korean. “As of right now, people in North America and Europe are more attached to players they understand, that they can connect to.”

But there is also some optimism.

“For one thing nearly everyone from my generation and a bit older can relate to gaming,”said Pauel Urbaniak, a student gamer from Lübeck, Germany. “Playing video games is playing video games.”

The problem heading into the world of television for eSports is that the main reason people keep watching could end up being one of the reasons people tune out. Even with good commentary it would be difficult to explain just why what a player did was so amazing. Why should viewers care that someone got a ‘penta kill’ or split his marines perfectly?

“It’s definitely harder [for someone who’s never played],” said Lampkin. “Because everyone has run, or seen someone running. So they have some background in it. The barrier to entry is certainly a lot higher. That being said I’ve still seen a handful of people come into the scene without having played the game and still get in touch with it.”

What about the future though? At some point the game might change to something unrecognizable, or after years and years and years of playing it just might not fun anymore. What happens then?

“I’ve enjoyed playing games since I was a kid, so it’s not really about age that games are interesting to me,” said Luis Conceicao, the president of the Ottawa University Starcraft 2 club. “I may not have time to play as much when I get older. If I have a family, kids and a full time job, I may only have time to spend an hour a night to play a game. But I will always have some time to devote to it.”

While eSports may be all about video games, it’s not a game. Lives are made and dreams are shattered within the confines of the soundproof booth. Only those with the drive to compete, the ones with the capacity to reach for their dreams with everything they have, can survive in the world of competitive gaming. Just like any other sport.