Published on July 26th, 2012 | by Gary Kirwan
Mind On My Money and My Money On My Starcraft
Referring to videogames as a sport in public historically garners the same concerned looks and incredulous guffaws as calling chess the same. If you aren’t throwing a ball or swinging a stick the perception is that it can’t be a sport. If the ball and stick are virtual does that make it any better? That’s hardly for me to decide, but esports (cyber-sports, competitive gaming, professional gaming, a wealth of terms available) is a thing. Consider yourself informed.
The Dreamhack summer event in Sweden finished recently and once again boasted huge viewership figures for Starcraft 2, League of Legends and indeed all the games involved. This event runs for four days twice a year and holds the world record for the largest LAN according to the lovely people at Guinness. Let’s not sugar coat this, it’s basically a lot of people sitting at inter-connected computers in a cavernous warehouse. The people you bump into on the street (you should watch where you’re going) will likely never attend an event like this. Even those you play the very same games with probably don’t care enough to go witness the event in person. This is not a mainstream sport and could scarcely be compared to a music event. Attendance is still for a very select and dedicated group of people, even within what could be referred to as the gaming community. But figures for the live stream of the games regularly topped the 100,000 mark. And in a world of internet television and iEverythings, this could be the gateway into the mainstream.
Do you know what streaming is? It’s like rivering for beginners? Now you’re being ridiculous but you get half a point for effort. If you’ve ever used Netflix or similar you’ve streamed content, essentially broadcasting content from some mystical location nobody really understands (i.e. the internet) to your computer. In gaming circles this is most commonly used to broadcast yourself playing a game live across the internet to a virtually limitless audience. Why would you want to watch someone else play a game? For the same reasons you might watch a team playing “insert popular sporting pastime here” – they’re better than you. Watching people more skilled than yourself perform the thing you’re not especially good at is a human past-time which stretches back to neolithic gatherer watching neotlithic hunter spear a boar. It’s okay though, I’m sure you’re good at other things. Knitting maybe? No need to be jealous.
As I write this, and probably as you read it, there’s a guy in America broadcasting himself playing League of Legends while he listens to music. And 11,000 people are sitting elsewhere watching him play the game. Why isn’t he at work? Apparently he is. Now your envious hue is reaching hulk-like proportions. It’s understandable. Such is the work of a professional gamer. He needs to practice to stay at the top of the game and so he streams the practice. It’s the equivalent of a band selling tickets to rehearsals – which isn’t done but probably would be if they thought they could get 10,000 people to attend. During the broadcast he’ll run an advert a few times an hour to generate some revenue, small change in comparison to sponsorship deals and tournament wins but with high enough numbers it can start to add up. When the teams are abroad at tournaments, certain streamers not attending have managed to top 30,000 viewers by taking advantage of the reduced competition.
As for tournaments, League of Legends in particular has a year-long tournament circuit and success gets you closer to a place in the grand finals. The most recent European event at Dreamhack netted the winning team €15,000 and a handful of shiny technological doodads for first place and the overall prize pool for the season is $5,000,000. Teams will generally need a sponsor’s support to get to these tournaments and more often than not it will be a gaming peripheral manufacturer (Razer, Logitech, peeps like that) who see some advantage in turning the players into a walking billboard. The events themselves are usually sponsored by the larger technology giants (think Intel) who have the money to throw at these things. The incentive for them being that those who watch and attend the events are the target audience for the company’s products. It all makes good, boring business sense.
The players themselves earn the big bucks from repeated wins. The biggest earners thus far are an American named Johnathan “Fatl1ty” Wendel who has earned over $450,000 from 35 tournaments shooting people in a virtual world, and the Korean Lee “Flash” Young Ho who constructs and destroys inter-stellar military bases at an alarming rate. A nom de guerre which wouldn’t be out of place in a 90s comic book isn’t a necessity but it certainly helps. For the launch of its DoTA 2 game last year, Valve invited the top teams from the original DoTA to an event boasting a first prize of €1,000,000. That’s an attractive figure no matter what way you view it. The bottom line is that if you’re good at a game there’s money to be made, much like everything else in life.
In the East, which has always been faster to adopt these things, this is nothing new. The Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, which gave rise to games like League of Legends and is the prequel to the aforementioned DoTA 2, is still one of the most played games despite being almost 10 years old. Cable television dedicated to nothing but esports broadcast replays, highlights and player interviews every day. Attempts at bringing the same kind of attitude to the west are emerging, and not only through streams. The phenomenon known as BarCraft, showing Starcraft 2 tournaments in a bar where fans can socialise and have a few beers (combining the often underrated combination of games and alcohol) was a success when it launched in Seattle last summer and has quickly spread. In fact, over the course of researching for this article (I try not to do it too much as it gets in the way of making up facts) I even found a forum thread for a BarCraft event a few miles from where I live. The wonders never cease.
But there’s a not insignificant pitfall in the system. Many of these games are indecipherable to the unfamiliar. Even between games of the same genre it can be difficult to see the similarities. The existing communities often don’t help the matter either and there’s a pervading sense of entitlement and often downright nastiness, not helped by the anonymous nature of the internet itself, which is difficult to shake. Unless the developers step up and attempt to make the games and the community more appealing to those who wouldn’t otherwise play the game, esports will inevitably hit a wall. Many of these virtual matchups feature the same kind of skill, team work, excitement and heart-break as any other live sporting event. And it doesn’t get interrupted every other minute for someone to pick themselves up off the ground. But the rules and nuances aren’t immediately apparent. It’s all about accessibility.
We live in a world where your grandparents send you adorable kitten photos with terrible spelling on a range of social media sites and a 2-year old can find a hilarious multi-million view Elmo video on your phone, leading to uncontrollable infant giggling and in turn even more internet videos. People spend their commute time watching movies and the vast knowledge of the Google machine is forever at your fingertips. And everyone has a game. Be it Words with Friends, Farmville, or even those irritated avians, the presence of games in our culture and the always-connected nature of our day to day lives, is growing at an ever increasing rate. If ever there was a time to push esport culture to a wider audience this may well be the hour to start shoving.