Video games, by their very nature, are competitive. Whether you're fighting to rid the galaxy of aliens hell bent on the destruction of humanity, threading a delicate pass to the feet of a digitally rendered Lionel Messi, or simply sacrificing a pawn in the hopes of cornering your opponent's king, there are end-goals that players strive for which will determine whether they emerge as victors or victims.
Whereas most of us play these games for fun there are those who takes things a bit more seriously, so much so that they've even made it their career. Professional gaming (or eSports) is a fast growing industry that attracts premium corporate sponsors, impressive crowds, and provides the skillful few with a chance to compete for serious prize money.
Organisations such as Major League Gaming, GOMtv, and World Cyber Games hold huge tournaments which professional teams from around the world attend, while millions of viewers watch the live streamed matches on the internet. The coverage comes complete with commentators who discuss tactics the players employ and the effectiveness of their strategies, just like you would find on professional sports. In fact the proponents of competitive gaming see it as the next generation of sports entertainment.
'Statistically it's growing faster than any other sport out there and is becoming a global phenomena' says Patrik 'cArn' Sattermon, retired pro-gamer and Chief Gaming Officer at team Fnatic. 'There are around 75 million hardcore fans on the planet right now, and that means people consuming eSport media, talking about the players, and following the events. We have kind of travelled from the basement to being in great exhibition halls and even sports venues.'
Recently at a tournament in America the audience was an incredible 20,000 people watching the action on huge video screens while the players battled at their PCs on the stage. This is the equivalent of selling out the O2 arena in London, and higher than the average crowd attendance of most Championship football teams in the UK. As you might expect an active fanbase of this size is garnering interest in eSports from traditional broadcasters, with news stations in countries that have strong teams actually beginning to include results in their bulletins.
'In Sweden for example,' Patrik explains, 'the two big media groups are running their own events now. You can even see eSport events talked about in the headlines. Of course they have an interest in it too because they are running the league, but also the public service [BBC equivalent] are active at setting up livestream studios and following the events physically. So before it was more like 'we're following this new trend, and what are the kids doing today?' Now they are actually following it as a sport, which is a drastic change.'
Professional gaming: Who's the best at CoD?
A measure of how far the eSports industry has come is the Call of Duty Tournament announced by Activision this year. The prize pool amounted to a cool $1million, with $400,000 going to the the four player team that took the title.
'More people play Call of Duty multiplayer every day than watch the average regular season game of the NBA' stated Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg at the announcement. 'The scale and passion of the Call of Duty fan base is simply humbling, and yet there is no formal way to find out who amongst those millions of players is the best of the best, until now. Watching the performances of the very best Call of Duty players is already a mass spectator sport on YouTube and Call of Duty Elite.''
In his statement Hirshberg hints at one of the major difficulties that eSports needs to overcome if it is to capitalise on the explosive growth that the industry has witnessed in recent years. The issue of fragmentation.
'Long distance we can kind of see eSports maybe being part of the olympics or having very well organised tournament structures where you have a world cup and local qualifiers and all that,' reveals Patrik, 'but right now we are in a state where there are tournament organisers who don't really have an interest in cooperating with anyone else, because everyone are fishing for the same money. I'd say there are a few mainstream sponsors out there and we're all trying to grab them, but more or less still a great chunk of eSports is backed up by gaming gear producers, monitor manufacturers, computer manufacturers, or Intel processors.
'In the long term when we get more structured we'll maybe set up, like the FA in football, gaming associations. We can look at setting up world cups, a very defined ladder where people can go from amatuer to professional, unified contracts and all that. Then, yeah, I think you're going to see it on television, but for now we don't really need it and I think livestream is really fulfilling its purpose.'
Whereas the majority of professional sports these days are tied up behind network paywalls, eSports understands that its audience accesses their product primarily through the internet, and how this can a big advantage when growing global interest. Teams have their own Youtube channels which display highlights of past matches, team blogs, and even player-cam style episodes that show how certain players tackle challenges in games. This allows a very high level of interactivity between the players, teams, and fans, which in the end is essential if the teams hope to increase their fanbase and attract the best new players. Traditional sports teams have the advantage of history or geography to capture fans, but as esports is still so young and the location of teams so nebulous, they have to work hard to make fans adopt them as their own.
Professional gaming: 'something new'
'This is something new,' says Patrik, 'and in many areas completely different to any conventional sport. We are actually learning and failing, then learning from our failings. Obviously signing good, popular players helps. There's also great examples of teams such as Na'Vi in the Ukraine who have a lot of fans from Russia and Ukraine because they don't have any other professional teams to support, and Na'Vi are representing that region in the attempt to overcome the West or the East. I think Fnatic, we kind of lacked identity because at one point we were represented by players from fifteen different countries.
'So you get a part of the local support but mainly we tried to promote ourselves like a successful team doing cool stuff for the community, winning titles, but also sometimes going for promotion tours. For example in 2006 the team I was in were one of the few foreign teams who travelled to China and played a lot of domestic tournaments. That has actually contributed to our reputation over there, so we have a great fanbase. It's about timing you know, but also taking the step to do stuff that activates your fans, such as promotion and using social media a lot. We probably started using it earlier than Manchester United if you know what I mean? This is our world and maybe they are even looking at what we are doing because we were early. We grew from ones and zeros, we've always been online.'
Although there have been videogame tournaments running from as far back as the early eighties, the modern internet powered version is a far more sophisticated endeavor. If the current rate of growth continues then it truly could become a powerful force in the world of entertainment, and provide a legitimate career path for those with the ability and carpal tunnel resistant bodies to stay the course. Unlike pretty much every other professional, competitive sport, it also offers something truly unique in the makeup of its players.
'What I think is particularly good about eSports' concludes Patrik Sattermon, 'is that it's the only thing out there where you can compete against anyone. It's cross gender, cross nation. You can be a disabled person but you can still compete. It activates everybody, it is for everyone.' For more on gaming visit GamePro UK