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Once a geeky bedroom hobby, video gaming is now a global sport with gruelling training camps, packed stadiums and six-figure prize money…
Once a geeky bedroom hobby, video gaming is now a global sport with gruelling training camps, packed stadiums and six-figure prize money. Is this digital revolution changing the definition of sport itself?
By Rhys Courtney, Associate Principal, Populous
It’s March 2013 and a crowd of thousands is crammed into the Anaheim Convention Center in California. They’re drinking beer, shouting, clapping, waving banners and cheering on their favourites. It’s the kind of sight you’d expect at a rock concert or a basketball fixture. Instead, these people are watching two grown men playing computer games.
The men, both aged 25 and from South Korea, are seated in soundproofed booths on opposite sides of the stage. Playing StarCraft II, a real-time strategy game for the personal computer, they’ve outscored nearly a thousand initial entrants to reach this stage. The images on each of the players’ monitors — a flurry of pixilated humanoids and glowing insects — are being relayed onto a giant display screen visible to the audience. Spectators — many dressed as characters from the actual games — watch every move these cyber-gladiators make, applauding moments of skill and cheering each particularly devastating flourish. There are even ringside commentators offering fevered analysis that’s being relayed around the world. The winners of this three-hour match — one of the finals of this spring’s Major League Gaming Championship — will pocket a cool US$20,000.
Live video gaming emerged in the mid-1990s and is now attracting the kind of crowds that wouldn’t shame second-tier European football matches or NBA basketball games. More than 21,000 fans paid to watch the MLG Championships live at Anaheim over three days. Many more watched in what are know as e-sports bars, just as regular sports fans watch soccer or American football; millions more via live-streamed online channels such as Twitch.tv and GameSpot.
Elite gamers train with the same intensity as professional athletes, seven days a week until late in the evenings.
In global terms, this is just one of many e-sports tournaments. Top-level professional gamers earn six-figure salaries competing around the world — in France’s Electronic Sports World Cup, for example, or Japan’s Tougeki-Super Battle Opera, or Germany’s eSport Bundesliga. There are several US tournaments (including MLG, Championship Gaming Series and Cyberathlete Professional League) and even more in South Korea (including World Cyber Games and the World e-Sports Games). Prize money — sourced from lucrative sponsorship contracts with Coca- Cola, Samsung and the like — can be up to half a million dollars.
South Korea is the undisputed master of professional gaming. This is a country with near-universal high-speed fibre-optic broadband access; where half its 50 million population is registered to play online games; with three 24-hour cable channels devoted to video gaming and cyber-cafes in every neighbourhood. It’s also been home to some notorious computer gaming deaths: one South Korean died in an internet café after playing solidly for 86 hours; another died after a 50-hour marathon. Barely moving for hours on end, obsessive gamers can develop bad circulation and blood clots. South Korea is also the first country that took this new sport seriously. The strongest young players emerge by excelling in cyber-cafes or at local area network parties (in which hundreds of computers are linked up for marathon sessions). They are snapped up by agents — like regular sports agents — who then negotiate sponsorship contracts and sign them up to a team.
Elite gamers move into team houses, video- gaming bootcamp-cum-college dorms. Here they train with the same intensity as professional athletes, seven days a week until late in the evenings. South Korea’s best professional gamers might be celebrities, with Seoul’s most beautiful women falling at their feet, but their ascetic lifestyle scarcely allows them to enjoy their sex-symbol status.
Far from the stereotype of the fat, snack- munching, beer-swilling slob, most professional gamers are surprisingly athletic. Some games require full attention for more than three hours, so that competitors do intense weight training and cardio work to maintain peak physical condition. There have even been doping scandals, with players taking amphetamines before big tournaments. Even game practice sessions can be gruelling.
“I never play for less than five hours a day,” says one-time StarCraft II champion Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson. “Usually it’s eight hours. Ten hours if you’re practising for a tournament.”
Gaming championships have a slowly shifting roster of championship games: StarCraft, Call Of Duty: Black Ops, Halo, Mortal Kombat and the FIFA series are all popular right now. Gamers usually specialise in one particular game. “Each has a very different skillset,” says Robinson. “StarCraft is simulated warfare, requiring several sets of skills. There are ones where you operate with limited information. There are speed skills — how fast you react on the mouse. And then there’s the mental strategy play. Sometimes that might involve deploying lots of weaponry or creating fake strategies. You’re having to make these decisions in split seconds.”
With near-universal fibre-optic broadband, South Korea is the undisputed master of professional gaming.
Fighting games (like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter) or first-person shooters (like Halo or Call Of Duty) are more concerned with purely mechanical speed skills: being able to conduct a high number of small, separate actions at great speed. neurologists describe these mechanical skills as “actions per minute”, or APM. A decent amateur player will manage about 100 APM.
Professionals can reach nearly four times that. Brain scans suggest that the best gamers have lightning reflexes, enabling them to act instinctively, even before their brain has had a chance to engage with the necessary information. These APM figures decline sharply after one’s mid-20s which means that professionals have shorter careers than most physical athletes. Even Robinson, aged 27, considers himself past his prime and now spends most of his time doing commentary and promotional work.
Can this e-sporting phenomenon survive? Attempts to turn poker, or chess, into spectator sports have only been sporadically successful. The key difference is that video gaming is a serious entertainment brand and possibly the only spectator sport where participation outnumbers viewership. Even away from the tournaments top players can earn around $60,000 a year by screening online tutorials. The online battle game League Of Legends has more than 70 million registered players, with three million online at peak times. The 2012 final was watched by eight million viewers in 13 languages with the winning team taking home $1million. As global internet access gets faster and more widespread, surely this sport is going to grow exponentially.
Rhys wrote this piece after speaking at our digital sport event.