Competitive gaming or, eSports, is not your big brother’s Donkey Kong Tournament at the neighborhood arcade, rather its genetic code lies in the same iconic 8-bit eighties games where the end goal was to get your initials on top of the board with the highest score or simply beat the kid who had the balls to put in a quarter at the same time as you. The rise of home video game systems made gaming more personal, but the introduction of broadband Internet access opened it up on a global scale. Now, you could play against anyone at anytime, anywhere in the world. As video games moved online, so did free-to-play games as developers figured out that there was more money to be made in software upgrades, monthly subscription rates, and sponsorships than marketing and selling the games themselves. Although the most successful games are still made in the USA, the eSports epicenter is South Korea, who not coincidentally have the world’s highest average internet speed (25.3 Mbps which nearly doubles ours). Competitive gaming got its start in Seoul in the late nineties and has become a national pastime with millions of people tuning in to watch weekly tournaments that have made top video game players household names. The eSports trend then spread like malware thanks to live streaming platforms such as Twitch.tv (bought by Amazon for $970 million in 2014) which broadcasts live game feeds to black screens everywhere, kickstarting a cultural phenomenon across the globe.
The eSports Revolution Will Be Televised
Back in the day, the only people watching you play video games was your bored girlfriend or your dorm room bro who called “next,” (on the game, not your girl). Today, diehard fans will line up for tickets to watch gamers like Faker and Fatal1ty go at it (last year’s League of Legends championship sold out 13,000 seats at LA’s Staples Center, with millions more watching live online). Its newfound popularity may seem like tech rhetoric, but it’s mass appeal is quite simple. Humans love to watch people compete and sports are the ultimate man versus man competition. Whether you’re playing for bragging rights or a million dollar prize, video games have a clear winner and loser. Big networks like ESPN and TBS are now lining up to cover the scene which usually consists of two teams of five players sitting behind game consoles in soundproof booths in front of a two-story screen projecting a view inside the game. Play-by-play broadcasters will “call the action” over loudspeakers as the crowd roars for every triple kill or fast-thinking feat. If you think that sounds lame, you’re in the minority as 147 million people worldwide tuned in last year, generating $252 million in revenue.
Like YouTube stars or Instagram-models, the eSports world is plugged into its rabid fanbase, giving them unlimited access (viewers can actually Skype players during matches) to their heroes, who actually look, talk and are them. It’s the ultimate expression of today’s fascination with digital connection to celebrities and athletes. In video gaming, your mind is the main muscle, so it naturally attracts the dreamers, the doers, okay, the so-called “nerds,” who can slay their real world problems online through brave, heroic, muscle-bound avatars. The average Joe, June or Jan may never have Cam Newton’s throwing arm or Steph Curry’s stroke, but all he or she needs is a computer and internet connection to be the next Jaedong (leader of the legendary Evil Geniuses team). These fresh-faced, joystick jockeys can actually make profitable careers out of playing video games (see, we told you mom), as big-name corporations like Coke, Red Bull and American Express are dumping cash (an estimated $1 billion investments in 2016) into gaming leagues (Major League Gaming), tournaments and sponsorship deals with top players, who now have agents and are forming players’ unions. Even the upper echelons of government and society have taken it seriously as the State Department began granting work visas to foreign professional gamers and colleges have begun offering eSports scholarships to gamers, courting them to come to their schools to represent their eSports teams. Even if you don’t play video games you should take notice because with new money means new opportunity as a flood of jobs in this uber-expanding market includes: broadcasting, marketing, medical, law, along with direct tech-related jobs with gaming industry companies experiencing massive and profitable growth. The parallels with traditional sports are undeniable at this point as eSports are continuing to prove that competitive gaming isn’t going to be “game over” any time soon. But, if you still are a non-believer that eSports could be THE sport of the 21st Century, take note that it recently had its own doping scandal as gamers were accused of using Adderall during a March competition with a $250,000 prize. If that’s not a real life welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment we don’t know what is.