At the 2015 Winter X Games in Aspen, there will be much that is radical – snowboarders, monoskiers, slopestylers and snowmobilers, all performing remarkable feats of athleticism, strength and dexterity. Usually in mid air.
But most radical of all, there will also be men and women hunched over computers, blowing away imaginary baddies (and goodies) with imaginary machine guns, while thousands of real people watch and cheer.
What’s more, they will be handing out medals for all this imaginary carnage – just like all the other sports. Which begs the question: is computer gaming really sport at all?
esports – or electronic sports – is the umbrella term for organised, competitive computer gaming, usually between professionals. Competitive computer gaming has been around since the days of Pong in the 1970s. But that gang of youths gathered around an Atari console in some lucky bleeder’s bedroom has become 40,000 fans in a football stadium, some of them in fancy dress (image 1), all of them glued to the action on giant screens (image 2). Imagine the PDC World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace, times it by six, take away most of the booze and you get some idea of what major esports events are like.
As with traditional sports, esports consists of many different games. But those games don’t necessarily mimic traditional sports. For example, in Aspen the game of choice is Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter in which you choose to be either a terrorist or a counter-terrorist. No, you can’t be Lionel Messi. But the most popular is League of Legends, a multi-player strategy game whose Wikipedia description sounds like it was written by the lovechild of JRR Tolkien and C-3PO. To the uninitiated, it sounds as impenetrable as cricket.
Big business – online & in arenas
But there are plenty of people who get esports, in all its forms. In 2014 there were 205m viewers, according to Newzoo, which conducts market research for the computer games industry. The 2013 League of Legends world championship attracted 32m online viewers, more than double baseball’s World Series and even trumping game seven of basketball’s NBA finals. The 2014 League of Legends world championship attracted 40,000 fans to Sangam Stadium in Seoul (image 3), which hosted a football World Cup semi-final in 2002.
But while South Korea is considered by many to be the cradle of esports, it is now doing enormous business in Europe and North America. In July 2014, 11,000 fans watched an esports event in a Seattle basketball arena. The event offered the highest esports prize pool so far – $10.9m, more than golf’s USPGA Championship – and was streamed by US broadcasting giant ESPN.
£1m salaries for top players
But esports is more normally broadcast by specialist streaming platforms such as Twitch (image 4), which was recently purchased by Amazon for almost $1bn. In 2013, Twitch had 55m visitors a month and 600,000 users generating content. Not surprisingly, many of the world’s biggest corporations have got involved. esports revenue is expected to grow from $130m in 2012 to $465m in 2017, according to Newzoo.
Top esports players (like Carlos ‘Ocelote’ Rodriguez – image 5) are feted all over the globe, and can earn upwards of £1m a year. But they are like traditional sportspeople in lots of other ways. They compete as part of slickly-operated teams (image 6), which in turn compete in regional leagues. They might train for 14 hours a day. They study strategy, technique, the opposition. They demonstrate remarkable reflexes and mental agility. They deal with enormous pressure, experience euphoric highs (image 7) and shattering lows.
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