Millions of people around the world are playing their favourite games right now.
The majority do so for fun in their free time. But others are seasoned professionals, celebrated for their gaming prowess – and even make a living through their in-game abilities and accomplishments.
And then there are the millions who aren’t even playing themselves, instead fixated to online video websites as these ‘sportsmen’ face off in imaginary arenas for real cash prizes in excess of $2m.
The name of the game is eSports. And it’s now bigger than ever.
Its most popular games range from FPS goliath Call of Duty to PC-based MOBAs such as Dota 2 and League of Legends. The latter of these has become one of the flagship brands for the sector.
Season three of the League of Legends World Championship took place last year and over 32 million people tuned in to Twitch to watch – that’s almost a third of the viewership achieved by last year’s Super Bowl and a huge increase over the previous tournament, which attracted just 8.2m viewers.
We’re not just talking pocket money, either. The prizes eSports stars are playing for rank amongst the sporting world’s biggest.
“Events such as Valve’s The International for Dota 2 saw competitors share a $2.8m prize purse, while the winner of the English FA cup would earn £1.8m,” says Vas Roberts, sales director at Heaven Media – the digital owner of site eSports Heaven.
A year ago, much of the talk surrounding eSports debated its longevity. But in 2014 that’s simply no longer the case. Anyone who still needs convincing just needs to take a look at the astronomical figures published at the start of this piece.
In the eyes of those involved with the sector, the time has now come for eSports to be taken seriously.
“eSports is about to leave its niche surrounding,” says Jong Hwan Lee, CEO of Clauf, which recently launched its two new eSports platforms: ESGN and ESGN TV.
“The online gaming scene is growing and has become a big and important market. With the passing of time, games in general will become even more accepted in society.”
"When people watch football on TV or meet in pubs, they cheer for the players and teams. eSports is not any different."
Jong Hwan Lee, ESGN
The arrival of ESGN TV is a sign of the times for eSports. UK sports fans are used to 24-hour coverage with the BBC and Sky Sports. But the introduction of ESGN TV – the first 24-hour service dedicated to eSports coverage – is an indication of the potential of the sector.
“Users want it, that is clear. Fans are not only hungry for top-notch tournaments, but are thirsting for extensive coverage and storytelling around their favourite matches, teams and players,” added Lee.
“The core aim is to make eSports mainstream and elevate it from a minor to a major player in the industry. We want to build a global framework that will allow tournament organisers to cooperate with each other and be able to give eSports an easier to understand structure, which will allow outsiders to more easily take an interest in the scene.”
This is the struggle eSports faces – its complexity. The competitive gaming scene is made up of countless leagues and games. And with pro players located all over the world, keeping tabs on eSports on an international scale can prove too tiresome for the average gamer.
Another player in the global eSports scene is Major League Gaming. The US-based outfit says it’s working hard to help ease new eSports fans in through its own network: MLG.TV. Shows such as the weekly eSports Report and MLG: Play, MLG’s online tournament system, set out to educate and help newbies jump into the scene. And plenty of people are watching, too.
MLG reports viewership figures were up across the board in 2013 – a trend the company expects to continue well into 2014.
“In the last year, consumption of MLG’s eSports content was up 262 per cent and has increased 1557 per cent since 2010,” says Adam Apicella, EVP of MLG.
“Viewers consumed more than 54m hours of our online video in 2013 and we expect that to continue this year.”
To the general population, the idea of gaming as a professional sport is alien. And to die-hard fans of football or rugby, perhaps even laughable.
"Using the term sport always causes argument because so many people have their own broadly defined interpretations of what a sport actually is."
Vas Roberts, Heaven Media
“Using the term sport always causes argument because so many people have their own broadly defined interpretations of what a sport actually is. But the skill and dedication the professionals put in deserves respect,” says Roberts.
Apicella adds: “Our goal has always been to present video games as sport, rather than argue the act of playing games is a sport. With our skilled players, passionate fan base and global reach, I think the similarities to sport is undeniable.”
ESGN’s Lee is optimistic for the future of eSports in the mainstream sports scene and argues the culture mirrors that of traditional sports.
“The day will come when eSports will be a widely accepted sport."
“When people watch football on TV or meet in pubs to celebrate their teams, they just watch sports. You cheer for the players and teams. eSports is not any different.”
It’s no secret that the eSports scene in the UK is lacking.
In February 2009, the UK eSports Association launched with big ambitions as the official governing body for the UK. But by December of the same year it was game over for the UKeSA as it closed its doors. Since then, the state of eSports has been a shambles – until now.
Enter the Electronic Sports League, the UK eSports body helping to pick up the pieces and propel the scene to glory.
“We are years behind Western Europe and the US, but we’re slowly starting to make ground,” says Peter Mather, community manager of the ESL’s UK division.
The problem for UK eSports is the lack of any established platforms. But the ESL UK is working to address the issue with its new eSports studio, and hopes to introduce a new wave of high-quality coverage and reinvigorate the UK scene.
"We are years behind Western Europe and the US, but we’re slowly starting to make ground."
Peter Mather, Electronic Sports League UK
But the ESL UK is just one of the names breeding new life into British competitive gaming. Multiplay is another of the UK’s eSports specialists, and host of Insomnia – the country’s biggest eSports festival.
The event first opened its doors in 1999 and Insomnia has grown to become the UK’s top eSports event, which regularly attracts over 5,000 visitors.
And that’s not just good news for British eSports fans, either. “UK eSports is bigger than ever. Companies can get involved in so many ways,” says Nick Baker, eSports manager at Multiplay.
One firm taking advantage is Gfinity. Despite only opening its doors early last year, the company has already scored two of the UK’s biggest eSports competitions. Its Call of Duty and League of Legends Championships secured a European viewership of 2.5m, while its G2 event saw 16 teams from across the world compete at London’s Covent Garden.
“Both events were met with an overwhelmingly positive response from the British competitive community,” says Martin Wyatt, head of content and partner relations at Gfinity.
“Speaking to the fans, it became apparent they had been desperate to attend high-profile events. The passion was staggering, with many of the US players dumbstruck by how fanatical the fans were in the UK.”