The Sport With No Athletes
‘Welcome to the International’ – Gabe Newell, 2013
Hello everyone. Hope you’re well. I’m excited to do this article as it’s about something that is on the rise in the world of video-gaming. It is called a ‘sport’ yet it does not have any athletes and has an audience of millions worldwide. This isn’t any conventional sporting event like the World Cup, but there is that feel of competition about it. ‘There are many stories to be written about trends in the gaming industry this year, from Kickstarter to casual gaming to multi-screens and more. But there’s one aspect of the industry which has simply exploded over the past year, and it deserves a bit of a retrospective to see just how far it’s come’ (Tassi, 2012). He is right. This is electronic sports, otherwise known as esport.
Before we begin, I’d like you read this BBC report (http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zygq2hv). The report highlights the growth of esport on a general level, but the important point is that esport is a big, booming multimillion dollar environment. There is much more to playing games than meets the eye. The report argues the case of whether esport should be considered an actual ‘sport’. This post will instead take a more neutral ground and look at the history and impact esport has had on videogame culture.
One the things we’ve looked at is that there is a big audience for watching people play videogames (see last post on Let’s Plays). And then we learned that, if really successful, people could forge this into a full-time career (e.g. Pewdiepie). But the thing is that watching other people play games is not just exclusively confined to YouTube. I mentioned very briefly about Twitch, a website that allows real time live streaming of people playing. You are watching as the player is playing, completely live. There exist numerous streaming channels in which people can readily stream their gameplay and have an audience watching them who can comment simultaneously.
Get ready to rumble…
Esport has taken this to a new level. It is now a show for the masses. As the BBC report (2014) states, ‘40,000 fans in a football stadium, some of them in fancy dress, all of them glued to the action on giant screens.’ These events now take place in large venues, with gameplay now projected on large LCD screens to amplify the moment. I’ve never been to one myself but I imagine it’s a lot like going to a music festival, where thousands of other like-minded people watching events as they unravel. It’s a new kind of sport: one where you don’t need to be physically fit to run a distance or kick a ball, but enough to be able to react to motions on your screen. In fact, it is spectator sport: it’s as much exciting for the audience as it is for the players.
Esport are organised competitions featuring many different gamers, either by themselves or in groups (usually called ‘clans’) to compete in front of an audience. Many different esport competitions exist, including The International, European Gaming League, Major League Gaming and more. The players involved are considered the best in their league. After all, people pay to watch the best play the best for the greatest spectacle. You never expect it from gaming, but real drama can be made. The audience ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ at every bit of skill, mistake or showboating.
But how did e-sports, starting out relatively small, achieve global status with an audience of millions? There are a few factors which have helped it develop into this juggernaut of gaming.
1) The Early Gaming Competitions
What constituted to esport of today could be traced back to the 1970s. Edwards (2013) writes, ‘competitive gaming has existed almost as long as video games themselves. Even the earliest arcade games inspired some fierce competition. Early on, a lot of that competition took the form of friends challenging each other to best their high scores, but it didn’t take long for organized tournaments to begin popping up.’ In 1972, Stanford University hosted an ‘intergalactic spacewar Olympics’ for its students. Perhaps the moment came in November 1980. Atari, the game developer and publisher, hosted the Space Invaders Championship and attracting over 10,000 people. It was the first ever large-scale videogame tournament for and helped to promote Space Invaders (which is still widely-played today). Due to the design of the game, the emphasis was on creating as high a score as possible. What this significance of this was that, many years in the future, ‘this tournament, and others like it in following years, sowed the seeds of what would eventually become esport’ (Edwards, 2013).
From the 1990s, gaming competitions were increasingly common and was where it really took off. ‘The popularity of competitive events was then catalysed in the 1990s by the boom in PC games including StarCraft and Quake’ (Jarvis, 2015). One of the reasons for this was the rise of PC gaming, which allowed greater multiplayer capabilities. After all, videogames has its roots within in computing. The 1997 Red Annihilation tournament for the first person shooter Quake ‘is widely considered to have been the first real instance of esport, drawing over 2,000 participants. The winner received a Ferrari previously owned by John Carmack, lead developer for “Quake.” Just a few weeks after Red Annihilation, the Cyberathlete Professional League, one of the first major gaming leagues was founded. Later that year, the CPL held its first tournament. By the next year, it was already offering $15,000 in prize money. The CPL was just one of the more prominent of many new tournaments and leagues founded during this period’ (Edwards 2013).
The new decade also saw the phasing in of new game genres for the tournaments. Esport became readily involved with first-person shooters and real-time strategies. One of the most famous titles of this genre was StarCraft: Brood War. ‘With its asymmetrically balanced races, each with their own unique troops and abilities, StarCraft offered nearly limitless strategic potential and became one of the driving forces of the esport world, though it would not reach the height of its popularity until after the year 2000’ (Edwards, 2013).
2) LAN Parties and Gatherings
LAN stands for local area network. This means instead of using the internet to connect machines, they were connected physically by cable. Essentially they were all in the same location connected together. Theoretically, there was no limit to how large a LAN was besides room spacing and technical aspects, so you could have small LAN parties or huge ones numbering hundreds. Initially, they started off as nothing more than a few friends gathered at one house with inter-connected systems and playing games until dawn. Sometime of that, some people figured that this could be taken to a much bigger level. Where you had a few friends in one house, you now had hundreds and hundreds in a larger venue all connected and playing games.
Large-scale LAN parties required people (players and spectators) to have shelter, food and additional services, which is why they took place in large venues. Takeaways such as pizzas, pies and soft drinks were passed as ‘food’; anything that did not require much cooking technique was received. Often there was a dedicated support team responsible for the running of the party. In 2013, DreamHack, a LAN gathering based in Sweden, boasted a record of have 17,403 connected systems. As a result of the significance and popularity of these parties, numerous companies have become sponsors; mainly technological firms such as NVIDIA and Alienware.
DreamHack LAN gathering inside a large venue
It is a rule that participants are required to bring their own systems to use. Many dedicated PC enthusiasts have therefore brought their systems to showcase to others. Often they have been built custom-made and were decidedly powerful. It’s like going to a car show, showing of the flashiest set of wheels and gaining the respect of your peers.
Most esport competitions now follows the LAN model. The benefits of this includes better quality and lower lag due to using physical cables rather than wireless connections. It also required that players are present in person, which adds to the competition of arena feel. It is much better to see players perform in person if you are lucky enough to go to tournaments live. Dota 2 and League of Legends have both implemented LAN options after initially being released as online play only.
3) Online Battle Arenas Rules the Roost
Around the time of the 1990s-early2000, there was a collection of different genres that had dedicated leagues and tournaments. By 2010, one such genre had dominated the Esport landscape. It is called multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA). MOBA has elements of real-time strategies built in but with some differences. Players control only one unit as part of a team. Games consist of two teams who have to destroy the other team’s base while protecting their own. These games can take up to an hour to complete as teams find a way to gain the advantage, therefore being both long and entertaining enough for the audience. It is like watching a gladiatorial battle raging between the best in the business.
Titles of this genre such as Dota 2, League of Legends and StarCraft are box-office draws. This is where the main attraction is, where the best players are found and where the big money is. Shooters like Counter Strike and Call of Duty still enjoy success but still pales in comparison. In fact, they seem boring compared to MOBAs. What makes them so popular is that it requires careful coordination and teamwork. This is why it makes watching exciting because a lot of the time you are watching people with extensive game experience, who have invested a significant amount of time to perform on the big stage.
Dave Cerra (cited in Lockley, 2014), lead producer on EA’s MOBA Dawngate says, ‘Awesome isn’t it? MOBA or ARTS (action real-time strategy) or whatever we want to call them are the most exciting thing in gaming. Their popularity is the result of several different things that have evolved and converged in the world of gaming. And as with any skill-based competitive experience, these games are intrinsically motivating: players play them to get better and express mastery, not just to consume content. All of this boils down to: once you get into MOBAs, they’re just a ton of fun. The traditional MOBA top-down isometric view is easy to watch, allowing the player to participate in the game as a consumer of the experience in addition to a participant. The games are more fun with friends so they spread socially.’
The International. An esport tournament for Dota 2
According to Twitch, MOBAs make up over five billion minutes of content viewed every month. That tells you everything you need to know about the popularity of the genre and where it sits within esport. A consequence of this is that players of the genre are treated ‘like superstars. There’s even a League of Legends fantasy league. Forget Ronaldo, Messi or Bale. Now you can fill your pro gaming roster with the likes of Doublelift and Wildturtle. Or pit team Fnatic against SK Gaming’ (Lockley, 2014).
David Nicholson (cited in Lockley, 2014), vice president of Jagex’s Transformers Universe says these games aren’t just for die-hard esport fans. ‘MOBAs appeal to a wide audience of gamers, wider than their esport profile might initially suggest. They are both aspirational and accessible because people cannot only watch the elite gamers playing them; they can jump online with friends and others at a similar skill level and have a fun experience. The good MOBAs are very well balanced in terms of learning curve; you can play a game and enjoy yourself as a beginner, but also see where and how you could improve.’
An indication to its growth is by looking at how much money has been thrown in. The financial incentive is staggering with sponsors and developers pumping in. For instance, Dota 2 awarded $28,132,976.00 over 336 tournaments and League of Legends $19,337,457.12 from 1301 tournaments. The International 2014 gave $5,028,308.00 to winners Newbee; conversely Empire and fnatic got $21,862.00 for finishing last place. As of 2015, Wang Jiao (handle ‘Banana’) amassed a total of $1,192,049.90 in winnings (with 98.99% from Dota 2 alone). He’s basically a millionaire.
4) Dedicated Channels and Live Streaming
From 2000 onwards, such competitions have seen an increase in establishment. This has been able to supplement an additional increase in terms of professional teams and players, creating a stage for competition. In other words, a set of dedicated leagues helps creates and maintains the culture of esport. More and more people are getting involved, which means that for game developers, they are increasingly implementing design features that support this competitive play (e.g. competitive league ladders).
The advancements in broadband and streaming channels like Twitch are crucial to the growth of esport in reaching out for a wider audience. As can be expected, the internet remains the main standard for coverage of tournaments. For a time, there had been sparse coverage from many major news organisations, unless they’re doing a feature with a technology focus (like the BBC article). If you wanted reports from tournaments, best places were official websites dedicated to videogames in general.
Coverage of tournaments usually plays out like you would find in other sports coverage. Ever watch live football? You have a commentary team in a studio who discuss the day’s events and provide analysis. Then you have the commentators reporting on the actual games as they progress. Afterwards, there are interviews and feedback from players. It is near enough the same in esport tournaments. Commentary and analysis is provided by knowledgeable people, perhaps even former players, so that you get that ‘competition’ feeling. They can provide a report into goings on.
Nowadays, streaming of live events over the internet remains the top option for many audiences worldwide. For example, 1.7 million viewers watched Dreamhack Winter 2011. An even bigger audience of 27 million watched the League of Legends tournament in 2014. ‘These kinds of numbers show esport has come a long way. Just last year, 4.5 million concurrent viewers on Twitch was a new record for the streaming platform. Riot Games drew more than twice that number for its finals, and likely hit that total on most of the 15 days of the World Championships tournament’ (Lingle, 2014).
Twitch TV. Users get to pick coverage options of live play
Twitch remains the main streaming channel, although there are alternatives such as Hitbox and Azubu. Additionally, the tournament itself may have an official channel for people to view, such as Major League Gaming’s MLG.tv. For the Twitch service, users could also stream their own gameplay (independent to any tournament) by agreement with the service. This is similar to how users on YouTube work, too. For TV coverage of The International 2014, ESPN simulcast the tournament. Not surprisingly, the viewership numbers from online streaming far surpasses that from TV.
Summary: A League of Their Own
Esport have certainly come a long way since the days of Space Invaders and Pong. It is now a multimillion dollar business endorsed by large companies, played by the best professional players and watched by an audience in the millions. It’s a quite remarkable evolution that owes a lot to the development of the modern internet but also to a host of other things.
Competition with other players in videogames is nothing new, but the recent surge of esport tournaments is. We now are seeing tournaments played with the best professional player against the best professional player, making for an exciting spectacle. We can also attribute technological advancements and increased financial support as factors that have allowed it to expand, but also because there is a player base and audience that are actually into this. Without the players, there is no show.
If you truly want to see how much impact esport has had on society, look no further than South Korea. It is a country where esport tournaments remain highly popular and a serious business. ‘Massive venues such as the Busan Bexco Stadium and Haeundae Beach are constantly packed to the brim with thousands of fans, keen to see their favourite teams and players battle it out. When considered alongside the massive success of Korean pro gamers in a multitude of esport, it’s easy for the average foreign fan to look upon Korea and see it as a haven for esport’ (Manisier, 2012). It is so popular that the government has created a specialised department, the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) to oversee the regulation of esport.
This post was not set out to argue if esport could ever be considered a ‘real’ sport. I think that belongs in the same bracket as asking if videogames makes people violent. I do ask, though, if esports is any different from traditional sports. Millions in the UK watch their football team play (either at the stadium or on TV). Is that any different from people watching professional players and teams play (either at the venue or on TV/internet)?
Instead, I tried to showed where esports now stands as an entity in its own right. For as long as there is a demand, esports will keep growing.
BBC iWonder’s article, ‘Is Computer Gamin Really a Sport?’
Tyler Edwards’ article, ‘eSports: A Brief History’
Matthew Jarvis’ article, ‘Understanding eSports: A Bfief History of eSports’
Samuel Lingle’s article, ’27 Million Watched the League of Legends World Championships’
Greg Lockley’s article, ‘MOBA: The Story So Far’
Alex Manisier’s article, ‘The Surprising Esports Culture of Korea’
Paul Tassi’s article, ‘2012: The Year of eSports’