A South Korean gamer just earned a visa to enter the U.S. under the category of “internationally recognized athletes.” There’s nothing unusual about that until you consider the fact that he is a videogamer, and the second this year to be awarded a visa for videogaming.
Because the very concept of professional gaming is so unusual to most — “people get paid to playgames?” — terminology tends to unduly dominate discussion about eSports: organized video game competitions that pit world class players against each other for cash prizes. (ESports is also known as “competitive gaming” and “cybersports”, not to be confused with simulated sports because computers aren’t the ones making the decisions.)
The problem with terminology, however, is that it often leads to bigger, almost existential questions: Are eSports really sports? Will eSports ever truly arrive? ESports is sports. It’s here, and everyone from companies and investors to fans and broadcasters better start paying attention.
Take Carlos “ocelote” Rodriguez. To those who seriously follow eSports, he is something of a middling talent; the 23-year-old Spaniard has made his name playing League of Legends, the most popular eSport in the world. For a while, Rodriquez was the captain of European team SK Gaming, where he played “mid lane,” a position of paramount importance.
With SK Gaming, Rodriguez competed in tournaments from Guangzhou to Cologne, with thousands watching in crowded arenas and even more via online streams. He is a very good player, but he’s certainly not the best — that honor might go to Hong “MadLife” Min-gi or Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Earlier this year, Rodriguez’ team failed to make it out of the European stage of the international League of Legends championship.
Still, the diminutive Madrilenian reckons he makes about $1 million1. Every year.
If we were to indulge the pedantic tic of most outsiders when they cover eSports, we might use this as a convenient point to begin arguing whether Rodriguez is an athlete or simply a gamer. It’s certainly easy to make a case for the former: Rodriguez trains for hours everyday; has finely tuned reflexes; thinks at a faster, more strategic pace than most of us — and gets paid to do it. But to me, he’s simply proof of how completely irrelevant the debate about whether eSports is sports is.
People like to watch other people play games. That’s been clear ever since a bunch of Cro-Magnons first lined up on the edge of their cave to see who could throw a rock the farthest. Combine this almost instinctual urge with the spectacle-making powers of broadcast television and mass consumerism, and it’s no surprise that just about every playground game has turned into a multibillion-dollar-a-year spectator sport — from baseball and cricket to basketball and football (in its many incarnations).
But nowadays, kids who play, say, baseball, are a minority compared to the ones playing videogames. In the U.S. alone, more than half of the population plays videogames and, on average, every U.S. household owns one gaming console. The worldwide gaming market will total $93 billion in 2013.
When the current generation says “playing a game,” they really mean “playing a videogame.”
Kevin Morris is a Contributing Editor at The Daily Dot, a newspaper about the Internet — and the first non-gaming publication to launch a dedicated eSports section. Previously, Morris worked as a Carnegie Fellow at the ABC News investigative unit and as translator in Chengdu, China. Follow him on Twitter @kmmokai.
Keep in mind, however, that eSports and videogames aren’t entirely synonymous. Some games really don’t lend themselves to competitive play: The winding narratives of a role-playing game, for instance, require an almost hermitic devotion to see them through. Games that become eSports are usually fast, strategic, and violent: In Starcraft 2, players control mini-armies and their resources in real time. In Halo, you play an over-bulked space warrior with an arsenal of weapons.
There’s no standard for what makes an eSport an eSport. There’s no worldwide eSport committee that adjudicates with binding authority. An ordinary videogame simply becomes an eSport when enough people want to watch others play it. The few games that pass this threshold become wildly popular: More than 32 million have signed up to play League of Legends; the second most popular eSport, Dota 2, saw 6.5 million players over the past month.
It’s not just a hobby. It’s becoming a real business. Sponsors likeCoke and Red Bull and other major corporate players are dumping cash into online streaming, tournaments, and sponsorship deals with top players. Gaming companies are making millions from game sales and more frequently in-game purchases and merchandising. Prize pools for last year’s pro tournaments totaled $12 million across the industry — and that’s only a drop in the bucket when it comes to money in eSports.
The industry is in something of a renaissance right now. In the past, TV networks, such as G4TV, occasionally flirted with eSports. During the 1990s and early 2000s, however, leagues and tournaments appeared and then folded, imparting an aura of fragility over the industry, which hardly made it appealing to broadcasters or advertisers. ESports struggled to find financial footing.
ESports might have disappeared from television. Yet the phenomenon itself never went away, thanks to the Internet.
From San Francisco’s financial district, a company named Twitchbroadcasts eSports to the world — all via the Internet. Since splintering off from livestreaming site Justin.tv in 2011, Twitch has boasted viewership numbers that would make ESPN envious, including a monthly audience of 45 million unique visitors. The annual tournament for Dota 2 brought in a half-million viewers on Twitch, and 4.5 million viewers in total.
Compare that to the average of 13 million people who watched the Boston Red Sox defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in this year’s baseball World Series. Americans have played baseball for more than 150 years. The first Dota game was released in 2003.
The structure of eSports is being built on the fly. Where there’s demand, fans and games are finding ways to make things work. The industry couldn’t muscle its way onto cable, so it created an independent ecosystem of livestreamers. Since mainstream news organizations do little more than poke and prod eSports like it’s some extraterrestrial oddity, Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook rose up to fill the news void. While major sports awkwardly flirt with social media, it’s already in the DNA of eSports.
Earlier this year, Rodriguez was dropped to a substitute role on SK Gaming, a demotion that isn’t likely to kill his career. He’s been jokingly called the “David Beckham” of eSports, thanks to the way he effortlessly turns his modest talent into a self-promotional machine. Rodriguez, too, diversifies his income: he makes money from tournament winnings, sponsorship deals, and merchandise he sells via an online store.
In a recent interview with Spanish newspaper ABC, Rodriguez recalls how angry his parents were over his videogame obsession: “I got scolded a lot, because they saw me come home, do homework in just an hour and then throw myself into playing until 10:30pm every day.” As a modest talent who’s now earning millions, Rodriguez sure is making that discussion a lot easier for the thousands already following in his footsteps.