Unless you are directly involved in the gaming community, you may be oblivious to the rapidly growing phenomena known as eSports. And, assuming you aren't a self-proclaimed techie, your ignorance could be forgiven. But If there was ever a time to sit up and take heed of the eSports juggernaut, then that time is probably now.
Fans cheer at an eSports event - Dota2's The International
Put simply, eSports is a competitive form of gaming that, like other 'real life' sports, can earn you a living. In fact, it can do more than earn you a living. The documentary 'Free to Play' (available on YouTube) showcases the power of eSports to not only attract huge crowds, but to propel gamers to stardom and, believe it or not, even promote them as modern day sex symbols. The idea of serious gamers being desirable to the opposite sex is so far removed from age-old stereotypes that it may seem, well, unbelievable. Only a decade ago the general consensus was that serious gamers were socially awkward creatures, consisting wholly of acne-riddled teenagers confined to the darkness of their parents' basements. But things have changed. Considering the all-inclusive nature of modern gaming - championed by family-orientated consoles such as the Wii - it seems ridiculous to let such negative portrayals linger. The gaming world has evolved, and with it so has the image of the modern gamer. The negative stereotypes are relics of a quite different past, probably best left in the 1990s along with dial-up modems, dungarees and the soul patch.
In Asia - particularly China - the sport/gaming hybrid is fast realising its huge potential. The popularity of top Asian gamers is comparable to the hero worship professional athletes in the Western world are subject to. The enthusiastic fans seen in Free to Play certify this. One insightful anecdote from the documentary tells tale of gaming icons being introduced to the South Korean football team as a form of inspiration; An unorthodox meet-your-heroes experience, so to speak. The immense popularity of eSports in China is understandable, considering their dominance in it. Like any sport where the national representatives prove to be the crème de la crème, popularity rockets in said country, and in China, the eSports bug is spreading fast.
Despite the ever-growing popularity of eSports, there are still doubts about the validity of gaming as a genuine sport, coming in particular from those (us?) Westerners who are perpetually obsessed with physical prowess. After all, no elite fitness is necessary to excel in playing computer games, right? What is necessary in eSports, though, is foresight. It's tactical nous. It's the ability to operate under extreme pressure. The biggest game played in eSports currently is Defence of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2) which is popular - in part - for its rewarding of players who can perform optimally as part of a team. To sports fans, certainly sounds familiar. Furthermore, if other sit-down activities which rely almost entirely on mental strength, such as chess, are regarded the world over as sport, then elite gaming which encapsulates huge cash prizes and spectatorship should be no different.
The monetary side of eSports has certainly been on an upward spike over recent years, as you'd expect with its growth. The latest DotA 2 International tournament, the most recent bout having taken place in July of this year, involved a prize pool totalling approximately US$11,000,000. This astronomical sum provided cash prizes for teams - compiled of five gamers - finishing anywhere right down to a very humble 14th place. That is some serious cash to be split between 70 gamers. To give some perspective, the runner up of Wimbledon 2014 men's singles, Roger Federer, received a cash purse of £880,000. Undeniably, in the financial sense eSports is competing.
A screenshot of the game 'Dota2'
What is particularly interesting about money in eSports is that it's largely raised by the gaming community. Of the approximate US$11,000,000 prize pool for the most recent DotA 2 international tournament, over 80% of it was raised by the community. This serious financial commitment shows that the desire is there for competitive gaming to grow.
So, it transpires that the sense of community in competitive gaming is not an illusion. While football fans in the UK may feel at one with their beloved club, as I admit I do, we aren't really in sync with our heroes at all. After all, there is only a minute chance of ever pulling on your favourite team's jersey and becoming a performing part of what you love. Right now it is that which sets eSports aside - its reluctance to become exclusive.
eSports is currently a level playing field where anyone good enough at gaming has the potential to become a genuine star. The next big thing could just as easily be your best friend's shy little sister, as it could be a wealthy businessman with a taste for technology. In a way, considering its self-sufficient and inclusive nature, eSports is a Utopian phenomenon; anyone can contribute, and anyone can reap the rewards. That's not to say financial contributors are deluded. Of course they know they might not significantly benefit from their input. But isn't that how great things begin? As the famed Greek proverb goes, "A society grows great when old men plant trees they know they shall never sit in."
Article written by Ryan Hill based on an idea by myself.