This article is pretty much related to, though for those that do not know me, I moved around in the gaming industry from a mere journalist, to a PR for nine different publisher (you can read more about What it’s really like to be a Videogame PR). Earlier this year, I joined a new venture I always had faith in, but many of my former colleagues – and mostly my relatives that already found gaming a hard to understand job field – could not get what eSports is. Maybe you are a gamer already; or love a quick game of Temple Run, or you’re the extreme, loving to explode your enemies with rocket launchers, killing orcs, and leading great armies to victory, but is it eSports?
Like many topics in our daily, there is always this kind of genius that surpasses you mere mortal with such misery and shame that you have barely set up your action plan to see it decimated before your own eyes, without a flinch. As a gamer, your first excuse is that “Yeah, but this guy has no life, he is always playing”. This may be true to some level, but the truth is that this gamer is not a pimply teenager stuck in his basement eating chips and heavily enforced sugar drinks; it is quite the opposite: it’s a professional, like any other. Here, videogames are a serious business, a high-level competition that can lead to fame, so welcome to the world of eSport.
So let us start with the word itself: eSports. By base, it is actually an acronym for the tense Electronic Sport, referring to the act of engaging in regular practice, on the Internet or local network, in a multiplayer based videogame (there is not much of a challenge when you are playing against a computer AI). The use of the term eSport has evolved in recent years, and today it essentially means competitive gaming on a professional level.
In its rather young history, eSports has really only emerged in 1997 with the creation of the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), which laid the basis of this new sport system. Since then, many structures have emerged and strengthened a community of professional videogamers, including the Electronic Sports League (ESL) in Europe, Major League Gaming (MLG) in the United States, or even my humble company, Power League Gaming (PLG) in the Middle East. There is many more in the Far East, but those are a different story, and would require a full-fledge essay or you could watch Valve’s documentary below: Free-to-Play.
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These large multi-gaming organizations regularly have the sole purpose of organizing a program of events that attract players from around the world and millions of live or online viewers. Some games even had such a phenomenal success that their publishers and developers dedicated entire eSports events including Blizzard Entertainment (StarCraft, World of Warcraft, etc), Riot Games (Leagues of Legends) and Valve (DOTA 2). Other studios more modest make use of video game conference, to present their games, and organize tournaments smaller, like my French compatriots with Shootmania Storm at the Paris Games Week.
What is true is apart from the household under 50 years, who usually shake their booty on Wii Fit or your little sister that breaks your ears with Just Dance (do not take me wrong, I play those as well); there is no such thing as sport when playing videogames. Yet, far from the image of the player are associated with, the profile of these gaming enthusiasts have become similar to those of top athletes.
During competitions, cyberathlete must manage their time, sleeping and eating as well as Nadal preparing for the Rolland Garos, to boost up their performance. Visual acuity and physical responsiveness are key for the players, who are likely to crash during the competitions if their lifestyle is rather “trashy”. So yes kids, put down that bag of chips and eat your green beans!
Cyberathletes, as much as regular sport athletes, have abilities that you and I do not have. I’ll give you the easiest of example: when we play a strategy game like Starcraft II, we perform an average of 50 actions per minute with our mouse and keyboard (This figure can reach 75 if you are a good player). Professional gamers however, calculate so many factors in their mind, has a 150 milliseconds response time, and can fire up to 200 actions with excellent fluidity. That is almost inhuman for a normal person!
So do they get anything out of this? In modern time, and it is now possible to make a living playing videogames professionally. By accumulating awards and sponsors, some professional players manage to reach a monthly income higher than a high executive manager… It even reaches sometimes to million of dollars, including the elusive The International DOTA 2 Tournament, which is at the time of writing this piece, reaching a prize pool of over 10 Million Dollars! Nothing to arouse the jealousy of professional football players, but still a massive feat and paycheck!
When it comes to managing these players, an eSports team is modeled on par with a top-level sport team. It sometime mindblowing just to consider that each team is followed by a coaches, managers, agents, and even PR & Marketing executives in some case, bringing support to their talent, by acquiring sponsorship, new tools for their skills (which consist of computer or gaming gear), turns around our champions, and ensure their preparation. A team is a real business with its own identity, its popularity, its sponsors… Heck, I mean look at these guys below – Team Fnatic – who are literally walking billboards full of sponsor logos.
Since I opened this discussion, you should note that the sponsorship is a maybe the most important aspect of eSports. In general, any sporting event is supported by wads of cash by multinationals that are familiar to us (or not), which hope to attract the sympathy of participants and achieve good publicity. Simply put, if Rolex is the official sponsor of golf tournaments, hardware companies like Razer, Dell, Nvidia and more provide a big boost to the eSports organization; boosting their budgets for equipment, financial aid, renting venues, personnel, in exchange for brand visibility. And it’s not only tech companies, but also brands like Red Bull, Coca-Cola, and even Axe coming on board, with a very unique and thoughtful marketing strategy, to seize a piece of the advertising bonanza pie.
However, why now all of sudden? If we look 15 years back, internet connection was in its infancy phase, with multiplayer games confined to a local network and online gaming was almost inexistent; try to imagine a helicopter without a propeller. If we look at the state of e-sports today, we see why there’s good progress and that it is only the beginning! There are two main reasons for this phenomenon.
The first reason is the development side of videogames studios: take the example of Guild Wars II, an MMORPG developed by ArenaNet, which has been out for almost two years now. Its release was orchestrated to attract the ESL gaming community that were hungry for PvP challenges (player vs player). Developers have even gone far to comply with ESL requirements in terms of PvP, in order to join a relatively closed circle of niche eSports games and seduce the huge existing community. Release a game with an eSports ready mode, it will potentially attract hundreds of thousands of players… and of course buy that same title, making it the ultimate marketing blackjack!
The second core reason is the development of the World Wide Web. Our ways of communication have changed dramatically, and players who were already born during the hype seized the ball early: sharing videogame content has increased with the development of streaming, and websites such as Twitch allowed them to highlight their talents, with occasionally scolding and commentary, amassing sometimes thousands of viewers.
If many professional players regularly stream, imagine the results for a global event! Just to give you an idea, the League of Legends World Series have reached out to 8.2 million fans in 2012, and more than 32 million viewers during their 2013 edition! Hallucinating figures that can compete with the biggest TV shows and sport leagues.
E-sports is just as recent as it is promising discipline. Its initial development was based on a solid base of fans desperate to promote their passion. In recent years, the process changes slightly: large groups are turning to this area full of attractions and provide a financial contribution needed to propel the eSports engine at the same level as traditional sports. The road is still long, but as it is commonly said, Rome was not built in a day.
Currently, it evokes more the idea that television, as we know it is doomed to die, and that TV programs ought to transform to compete with the Internet and its interactivity. Some large manufacturers like Samsung are already investing in connected TV. Who knows? Maybe in a few years, rather than watching a football game with friends while drinking a beer, you will watch the stream of the DOTA 2 Championship, quietly lying on your couch. And that my friends, is why I jumped on the wagon.