This weekend I spent a few hours cheering on one of my favourite athletes as she competed on the world stage. She’s a professional, but doesn’t take part in traditional sports like football or sprinting. Instead, Scarlett is one of thousands of people who play video games professionally – an eSports athlete. Some play part-time, juggling school or work, but others play video games as their full-time career. The best – like Scarlett – command impressive five or six figure salaries, and win hundreds of thousands of pounds over the course of their careers.
It’s a remarkable state of affairs, but let’s break it down. What is eSports, where is all this money coming from and why doesn’t every gamer sign up to win the big bucks?
eSports simply means electronic sports: players competing, individually or in teams, on virtual battlefields. There are dozens of games with big competitive scenes, from strategy games like StarCraft, to battle arenas like League of Legends or DotA 2, to shooters like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty. Each player will tend to specialise in a given game, series or genre – for example, Scarlett is a masterful StarCraft II player.
Players start by playing these video games casually, online or with friends. If they show a talent for a game, they’ll move onto online competitions then offline tournaments held in arenas or trade shows as their skill improves. At the highest level, eSports athletes will be competing in arenas of thousands of fans – just like traditional sports.
These tournaments are broadcast over the internet – and in some countries, even shown on TV – to millions of watching fans. (The largest broadcasting company, Twitch, was recently bought by Amazon for £585 million.) Commentators explain the immediate action and deeper strategies to the audience, allowing even newcomers to understand the skill that separates these pro players from the millions that play the game casually.
eSports is a global phenomenon. The UK boasts a moderate scene, with a few big tournaments and teams, alongside many pro players and commentators working across the world. In the most developed eSports nations, like South Korea and Sweden, eSportsathletes are minor celebrities, appearing on the front pages of newspapers and scoring lucrative sponsorship deals for local brands. In the United States, some professional gamers have even been granted athletic visas.
As eSports has grown over the past ten years, a burgeoning industry has sprung up around it. Sponsors fund players, as well as teams and tournaments, in exchange for valuable advertising to a largely young and well-off demographic. Many sponsors are computer and computer accessory companies – such as Razer, Acer and Intel – but more mainstream companies like Red Bull, American Express and Samsung are involved as well.
These sponsors, working with game developers and broadcasters, produce tournaments with massive prize pools. A typical medium-size tournament will pay out thousands of pounds to the top finishers, with the biggest offering prize pools in the millions.
If there’s so much money to be made in eSports, then why am I writing an article about it when I could be playing in tournaments and rolling in the dough? Just as in traditional sports, the competition is fierce.
Playing at a high level demands physical and mental skills, plus dozens of hours of practice each week. Each game requires a different blend of skills – hand-eye coordination to control the action; a strategic mind to adapt a plan of attack based on new information; communication to coordinate and react as part of a team.
While competing professionally requires a lot, eSports is a meritocratic system. If you are good enough, you can enter open tournaments to play against the pros and make a name for yourself, no matter where in the world you are – all you need is a PC and an internet connection. If you continue to succeed, invitations to pro gaming teams and further tournaments are sure to come.
That’s the path that Scarlett followed. She won one small tournament to get a paid trip to compete at a larger one. She upset some big, established players at that tournament, and the exposure prompted an offer from a small team. Scarlett continued to excel, and soon joined a bigger team – Team Acer. With the help of her teammates, she competed and won her local Canadian championship, then a North American championship worth $24,000. In five short months, Scarlett had gone from being a complete unknown to being the hottest player in North America.
I think it’s this immediacy that makes eSports appealing. If you’re good enough, you just might be the next Scarlett – smiling on stage as thousands of people watch you dismantle an opponent in a flurry of fingers and mental acuity.
Thanks to Navneet Randhawa for contributing to this article. Image sources: Scarlett at Red Bull Washington by Annie Elle, LoL World Championship at the Staples Center by Marv Watson.