Justin Hebels, an architecture student at the University of Oregon, is an avid gamer who frequently watches professional gaming streams and live online tournaments. Hebels believes that, “Moving forward into a more tech-oriented world, more kids, teenagers and young adults are using videogames as forms of entertainment for themselves.” Hebels continues, “It’s really easy to seek out and watch the games you find to be entertaining, but played at a professional level.”
Growing up playing videogames usually meant trading studying for recreational time. Many parents often thought of videogames as a vortex to distract kids from finding careers, often asking their children if gaming could pay the bills. Until recently, the only way to earn money from videogames was by making them. Now, a growing number of young adults have lucrative careers pressing buttons. Those fortunate and skilled enough to make money playing games have become part of the growing scene of professional gaming.
Hebels describes Electronic Sports, or eSports, as “the term used for videogames being played in an entertainment setting where one would view them as normal sports such as football.” While eSports is steadily growing in the US, the concept isn’t foreign to many countries in Asia, where population density and technical appreciation of videogames provides the perfect breeding ground for both fans and players alike.
Recreational viewership of competitive sports has always been a part of human culture and storytelling. From the simple sports played by our ancestors, to the gladiatorial battles waged on official tournament grounds, people love watching sports almost as much as playing them.
Until now, most sports have taken place within a physical realm, usually requiring peak physical and mental conditioning. However, with the invention of virtual worlds and the Internet, sports have transcended into a digitized battle arena where anyone with a computer and Internet access can wage war.
Traditional sports rely heavily on factors which vary greatly depending on the athlete, such as endurance and body type. While these traits are accepted and celebrated in traditional sports, in the realm of eSports, these elements are eliminated due to the nature of virtual games.
While some may criticize the lack of physical training, professional gamers must exceed at a highly technical level. This results in high skill and teamwork being the spectacle, which can be seen and understood as many of the viewers play the same game.
Most professional gamers start out playing a particular game for fun, but find themselves so engrossed in the game, they end up at the top tiers of skill. For professional League of Legends player George Liu aka “Zekent” of Team 4Not, becoming a professional gamer was “a slow transition that I didn’t pay attention to.” Liu continues, “It didn’t really hit me until people started asking me for lessons and I started getting spammed by friend requests.”
Players at the highest levels begin to understand the game as second nature, resulting in the concept of metagaming, or meta. Meta is used to describe a trickle-down of strategies, gameplay styles, and various other techniques developed during top tier play. The meta quickly changes as professional players always find new ways to outperform and push different strategies into new areas.
While the meta is created and unfolds during professional tournament play, millions of viewers are watching, learning, and eventually copying the same tactics used by the pros. This results in an interesting combination of studying and spectatorship which takes place every time someone tunes into a pro live stream.
The key differentiating factor between eSports and traditional sports is how fans and the community interact with the professional gaming scene. Because eSports exist online, many of the communities are found on websites such as reddit.com and various other online forums.
Many of the professional players are longtime members of these online communities, meaning that interaction with average skilled players and fans occurs regularly. This results in almost total transparency between those who play for money, and those who play for fun.
On reddit.com’s LoL community, many professional players comment on their experiences and openly answer questions in an ‘AMA’ or ‘Ask Me Anything.’ This level of professional and recreational user interaction doesn’t quite exist in many other sports, giving a sense of ‘reality’ entertainment for those who wish to tune in to the personal lives of professional players.
When not playing at official tournaments, many pros are streaming their daily gameplay through websites such as twitch.tv and own3d.tv, creating a steady income through advertising, and giving viewers more to watch.
With streaming becoming easier to manage and watch, there are always matches for people to tune into and take part in the community. The never ending spectatorship allows for huge userbase growth, which has dramatic effects on the eSports industry, and many of the games themselves.
League of Legends is a free-to-play game, meaning that one only needs to create an account, and download the game to begin playing. By keeping the game free, Riot Games, the creators of League of Legends, has amassed huge amounts of viewers and sponsors.
In 2011 Riot Games put forth $100,000 for the Season 1 Championship, which occurred over a three day period. During those three days, Riot Games drew a total of 1.69 million unique viewers. In 2012, Riot Games has increased the prize pool to $3 million, the largest prize in the history of eSports.
With Riot Games pushing the envelope for eSports, multimedia organizations such as Major League Gaming (MLG), Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), and World Cyber Games (WCG) must also step up and provide a streamlined viewing experience. During MLG’s 2011 Pro Circuit, viewership surpassed cable networks such as MTV, FX, Comedy Central, and TBS. With over 15 million hours of video watched throughout the 2011 Pro Circuit Season, MLG is setting itself up to be a media powerhouse for professional videogaming.
With eSports media steadily on the rise, the infrastructure to allow eSports as a career is slowly unfolding. While this is hugely important from a technical perspective, a cultural shift must also take place if professional gamers are to be seen as digital athletes.
Similar to the media-heavy treatment of current sports, eSports will open new doors for multimedia companies to begin sponsoring and covering live events. With the journalistic landscape shifting, the eSports industry seems to be providing an exciting opportunity for those willing to make the jump.
Students like Justin Hebels now have an opportunity to take part in the gaming community by providing discourse, a multimedia experience, and online interaction. Being able to create a website and effectively report on the quickly changing eSports scene may come to be known as eSports journalism, an exciting concept for the academics who can’t seem to stop watching videogames.
While many gaming enthusiasts may never play as a career, those who do have created a whole new sector of entertainment. A new industry is steadily building itself as human culture becomes more acceptable of professional gaming. With huge international appeal and the largely competitive nature of eSports, people from across the globe have been given the opportunity to step into the same playing field and prove their worth.
For young adults who are willing to pour their hearts and minds into playing games professionally, the opportunity to be happy and successful while mashing buttons is still a new concept. Future generations of eSports enthusiasts will owe it to the digital
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The Rise of the Professional Gamer
As an advocate for professional gaming, I decided to report on the emerging eSports market. I interviewed folks who watched eSports, and even some professional gamers who answered my questions through reddit.com