‘E-Sports’ can now drop the ‘e’

Video game tournaments attract major sponsors and offer huge prize monies. It’s time to take them seriously.

A packed Benaroya Hall watches as the two final Dota 2 teams compete for the first place. [Reuters]

Earlier this month, Novak Djokovic won $3m after beating Roger Federer in the men’s bracket of the oldest and arguably most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Wimbledon. Later in July, however, there was an even bigger prize up for grabs, to be awarded to the team who could crush the others’ pixels fastest.

DOTA 2, a popular online video game made by Valve Corporation, has just wrapped up its fourth annual tournament. Teams from the Americas, Southeast Asia, China, and Europe were in the running for first-place prize of more than $5m. A Chinese team by the name of NewBee took home the prize.

It is the largest single prize and prize pool – more than $10.9m – of any video game tournament in history.

In 1981, the now-defunct Electronic Games, the first US magazine to exclusively focus on video game news, was published. Its second edition reported on what was then the first large-scale video game tournament. The winner would officially be crowned world champion of the single-player arcade game, Space Invaders.

“[Atari’s] nation-wide tournament, with regional events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fort Worth, Chicago and New York City, attracted well over 10,000 participants. By the time Bill Heineman emerged as World Champion in an expert show-down, hundreds of favourable articles and stories about electronic gaming had been [aired and printed],” Electronic Games reported. “The ‘Space Invaders’ Tournament established electronic arcading as a major hobby.”

But it did more than that. The 1980s saw a boom of interest in electronic gaming in the US and elsewhere. By the early-to-mid 1990s home consoles such as the Super Nintendo dominated the market and were the entertainment systems of choice for the first truly international video game tournaments and would-be world champions.

With the proliferation of personal computing and the increasing utilisation of the internet at the turn of the millennium, players were soon sharing virtual experiences with one another from opposite sides of the globe. Where the players went, competition soon followed. Recent video tournaments have attracted major sponsors, prize pools, and audiences.

A virtual world with real dollars

Sponsorship deals from video game development companies or computer hardware manufacturers were what initially made tournaments, and eventually, professional players, possible. These events, collectively dubbed “e-sports”, also attracted a unique – and growing – audience.

In terms of revenue, video games now outperform both Hollywood and the music industry in the UK. Major League Gaming, the largest tournament organiser of its kind in North America, claims they will soon rival traditional sports broadcasting.

“We’ll be bigger than the [US National Hockey League] in terms of viewership and revenue in about two years,” MLG president and co-founder, Mike Sepso, predicted at a press conference in 2013.

Head to Head – Will the internet set us free?

Cable sports mega-broadcaster ESPN isn’t shying away from that possibility, either; earlier this year it partnered with MLG to air a Call of Duty tournament. Having established itself as a major spectator sport in recent years, it should come as no surprise that – as well as having the largest prize-pool – this year’s DOTA 2 e-sports event also broke records in concurrent online viewership. Even before reaching its grand finals stage, peak concurrent viewership approached 950,000. As a comparison, the 2014 Super Bowl attracted, at its peak, 1.1 million online, and the most recent FIFA World Cup attained a peak of 1.7 million simultaneous online viewers.

As expected, traditional marketers are keen to get involved in e-sports’ untapped markets, especially as they are made up in no small part by the supposed holy grail demographic: affluent youth. Big advertising dollars, such as offered by Coke, are being injected into tournaments, making them bigger and better. This flows on to create a larger audience, thus making these video gamers even more attractive to third-party marketers.

Such gargantuan tournaments have increased the number of players who are able to make a living off their prize money. Online video streaming of players commentating on their own games while playing allows them to generate a steady flow of advertising revenue between major events – besides, just like any other sport, regular, full-time practice is required if one wants to remain competitive. Combined with a sponsor or two, “gamer” has now become a job title.

Dropping the ‘e’

Sports, traditionally conceived, evokes an image of the great outdoors. Grass. Sunshine. Physical exertion. Probably a ball or single object of importance, if not a single objective. However such games, especially team games – which many video games are also – include a seemingly unknowable number of tactics.

Shrewd sporting tacticians have been hailed as among the most salient forces along the road to victory. Relatively static rules might govern the limits of allowable action, but innovative strategies are continually contrived to challenge the opposing side.

Garry Kasparov: ‘A game designed for me’

The same is true for non-traditional sports like video games. The “meta-game”, as it’s referred to, the collective strategies within a given digital game and the interactions thereof, is – as any full-time gamer able to secure a pay cheque will tell you – ever evolving.

Further, they can be extremely complex: while there may be a single, defining objective to the game – to destroy the other team’s base, for example – there are many smaller objectives that could lead there, and thus many, many actions which require careful planning, precise timing, and skillful execution.

Park Sung-Joon, a South Korean StarCraft player, is famous for completing an average of 818 actions per minute of gameplay in one match. Think touch-typing, but with mouse movements too. Even if we accept that video games can require skill, oft-argued is that they lack physical exertion and are played indoors, and so should surely be disqualified on those two counts alone. But not all other traditional sports require physical exertion and an outdoor playing area.

Golf requires a bit of whacking and walking, though not technically the latter when buggies are involved, but so too do video games and pool. Yes, in one you are walking across expansive lawns and the others towards or around a desk or table, but they aren’t so vastly different to be considered altogether dissimilar. Pool isn’t regularly played outside, either – nor is squash, gymnastics, or track cycling. That they happen indoors doesn’t detract from their sportive nature.

So, need e-sports keep the “e”? I think not. They require the same sorts of skill-sets as those found in traditional sports, are social, not just technical displays or events, are financially viable, and they are only growing in popularity and recognition.

Still, the term might linger; we still call them “e-mails”, not “mails”, don’t we?

Tom Burns is a Melbourne-based writer who studies bioethics and neuroscience. His work has been featured online and in print in Australia and abroad.