How Videogames Became a Sport, and Why They’re Here to Stay (Hint: Money!)

When you think about the world of competitive gaming, what comes to mind?

Screaming? A peak competitive environment? Advanced and some might say “insane” training regimens? Or, kids refusing to grow up and get real jobs? “Not a real sport” played by “not real athletes” that will never take off?

By definition, those last two have evolved from misconstrued to plain inaccurate. The competitive multiplayer game Defense of the Ancients 2 (or DOTA 2) has the youngest average age of it’s players at 25. Certainly not children. defined the term athlete as a person trained of gifted in exercises or contests involving agility, stamina, or strength. Point e-sports, but it goes on: an athlete is a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skills. While the average person would hesitate to use the words “physical” and “videogames” in the same thought, until someone develops telekinetic powered controls, gaming will continue to take physical attunement, and some of the most fine-tuned hand-eye coordination.

Humble Beginnings

Electronic sporting events have taken the same route that every other professional competitive scene has; a slow rise filled with moments where understanding (or lack thereof) built hurdles, before something broke through and it changed the way viewers around the world are entertained.

In the late 90’s and early Aught’s, consoles and PC’s began servicing a new breed of gaming, online multiplayer. I can remember hanging out in the computer store rigging up lans, and playing Starcraft/Warcraft with people all over the world (and my brother who would normally be sitting right next to me). With the launch of flagship franchises like Halo, and eventually reliable systems like Xbox Live, the tournaments mutated into massively scaled sporting events.

Major League Gaming was founded in 2002, and quickly became the premier circuit in North America for Halo and other popular first-person-shooters. Across the world, player-vs-player (or “PvP”) competition grew. Korea still boasts Starcraft as their pseudo-national sport. Numerous eastern countries have many television channels dedicated to broadcasting the events and matches.

“Swifty,” a popular online gamer, streams his gameplay on Twitch.

Now we’re blessed with many more avenues to which we can enjoy e-sports. Twitch – an online gameplay streaming service – owes a lot of its success to getting on the hosting band-wagon early. League of Legends (one of the most played games in the world) has leagues in almost every region, and there’s always one event or another to tune into. Last year’s League Championship Series saw SK Telecom, an undisputed powerhouse team, win the title and a 1 Million dollar prize, excitedly viewed by 36 million people.

It’s huge, and it’s only getting bigger.

“Professional” Gaming

The first hiccup people have—from an outside perspective—is with the athletes, and these gamers using that term as is. Older generations (not all, but most) are still having a hard time grasping the idea that an individual can strive for a career in professional competitive gaming. But believe me, their regime and work-ethic can put a lot of “professional” athletes to shame.

I reached out to good friends of mine at the UBC e-sports Association—the world champion of the League of Legends Collegiate Series, a league much like college sports where universities from all over North America compete, earn scholarships, and gain an education—to find out a little bit more about the state of e-sports today. I asked the President of UBC e-sports Association, Victor Ho, what an average day in the life of a professional collegiate cyber-athlete was like.

“A normal day consists of practicing mechanics on a solo level, scrimming other teams with our team, watching pro-level competitive play and analyzing strategies as well as deliberating upon strategies amongst practice partners and the team, talking to other collegiate e-sports players, and reviewing gameplay,” said Ho. “Much of their time is dedicated to practice and analysis of current meta-games within each game in order to ensure success. (Training) takes up a huge portion of their time, but our players have been able to balance their lives fairly well.”

It’s clear that the dedication to their craft is at a high level, much like that of their “normal” collegiate counterparts. And this is only a small look at where e-sports has evolved in an education institute.

“E-sports is a type of entertainment that anyone can get in to,” said Ho, which is an astoundingly clear, and supportive point-of-view to hold. There is a lot at stake with physical sports, and there’s a clear floor (in almost all cases) where your capabilities as a moving being are stacked up against others. With e-sports, it’s something that anyone can practice at, something that any potential can be reached with effort and dedication.

The state of e-sports today is that of a prodigy. It’s young, it’s aggressively unapologetic, and it’s so full of potential that even UBC—one of the highest rated post-secondary institutes in North America—is putting a lot of eggs in this very one basket. There’s always something bigger brewing. It’s something that we as fans of e-sports keep thinking is coming just around the bend, but then we get there, and we immediately see potential for more.

With each successive season, there are bigger turn-outs, more registered teams, higher ratings, more prize-money, and millions of new fans to the world of competitive gaming. In statistics made public by the analytics company that studies e-sports, since August of last year, people have watched more than 800 million hours of e-sports coverage on just the Twitch platform alone. This includes live-events and rebroadcasts.

Money Matters

The top five games (over their lifetime) in the history of e-sports are as follows;

  • DOTA 2 – $64,397,286 Prize Money – 1,495 Players – 613 Tournaments
  • League of Legends – $29,203,916 Prize Money – 4,083 Players – 1,718 Tournaments
  • StarCraft II – $19,320,227 Prize Money – 1,541 Players – 3,667 Tournaments
  • Counter-Strike: GO – $14,811,020 Prize Money – 4,997 Players – 1,570 Tournaments
  • Counter-Strike – $10,764,492 Prize Money – 2,582 Players – 571 Tournaments

That’s where e-sports is today; it’s in a place where I still feel like I have to spend the majority of this feature—that’s supposed to be about where the sport is at currently—explaining it. Still.

A poster for Starcraft II, a game popular among e-sport competitors.

The next step is easy, in theory. As the days go by, more and more national and international organizations begin to look to e-sports as a viable option for investment and opportunity. The Score – one of the premier sports news outlets – has launched an e-sports department in the last year. Even YouPorn has purchased and sponsored a League of Legends team.

There will be television channels on cable, dedicated to e-sports, at least as long as cable survives. Places like Twitch and YouTube Gaming will continue to slowly grow in viewership and membership, as they have for the past decade plus. And more corporations will buy into the idea that the already established count of millions upon millions of fans, all over the world, will only continue to multiply and provide ample audience for advertising and sales.

As an early fan of e-sports, I’m rather thrilled about where it’s going.

What’s Next

I asked Victor Ho what he was most excited to see in the coming years within the world of e-sports, and collegiate competition.

“Many American schools are starting to really get involved in e-sports. Schools like UC Irvine are building e-sports arenas. Robert Morris University will always be seen as the pioneer in this sense, but what were really excited for is for this to happen not just in the United States, but also in Canada,” Ho said. “UBC e-sports Association is putting its efforts into making this a reality at UBC, and I really hope that our efforts are rewarded because I want this to be big. I’m also personally expecting Overwatch to be big (more than it already is), so we are looking out for that.”

New games, like Overwatch, are being made everyday, and plenty of them with heavy emphasis on competitive aspects. Multiplayer and completely original PvP game-modes will continue to push the boundaries of e-sports and grow the audience for world-wide professional gaming.

With the grand adoption of the electronic sporting into the world of traditional sports imminent, it’s nearly impossible to see the an end to the journey of e-sports.

When you consider that the excitement during these specific competitive events are some of the most amazing, and explosive reactions/crowds I’ve ever seen (and I’m a die-hard sports fan), in tandem with the ease of access to world of gaming, anyone can find something to enjoy.

It’s 2016, and e-sports continues to surpass itself.

Eventually, those not already obsessed with what is the most intense form of competition the world has ever seen will come around, and it will become the main event in global sporting events.

Move over, soccer.