The new jocks

The rise of competitive gaming

Graphic by Sam Sector

The sports section of the Manitoban may begin to change in the near future. Alongside Bison briefs, you may begin to see profiles on local professional gamers, or the results from the latest League of Legends tournament.

All jokes aside, competitive gaming, also known as eSports, has rapidly risen in popularity over the past decade. Competitive gaming has grown from an activity reserved for enthusiasts to encompass legitimate sporting events with millions of dollars at stake, and there is no doubt that it is now a mainstream and quickly growing industry.

Valve Corporation, the company responsible for the Steam video game distribution platform and the Half-Life and Portal game franchises, hosted the International, a Dota 2 tournament, in early August at the KeyArena in Seattle, Wash.

This event boasted the largest prize pool of any eSports event held to date, offering over US$18 million for competitors from 16 teams. It is estimated over 20 million viewers worldwide tuned in to watch the competition, and 10,000 fans filled the KeyArena. Competing teams came from the USA, Europe, and China.

An interesting fact about the International is that over US$15 million of the prize money was raised through viewer contributions with the purchase of a virtual compendium. This in-game item allows viewers to engage with the competition by providing virtual prizes unlocked by accurate tournament predictions and the completion of various challenges. The compendium cost viewers US$12.50, 25 per cent of which goes towards the tournament’s prize pool. As the prize pool increases, new virtual prizes for fans who purchased the compendium are unlocked. In 2014, US$10 million was raised through fan purchases of the compendium.

Other high profile eSports events include the League of Legends World Championship and the Electronic Sports League Counter-Strike: Global Offensive World Championship. Both of these events will be held in Germany this year, in Berlin and Cologne respectively.

Matt Doak is founder of BecomeTheGamer, a local startup currently being developed to connect local players to resources to improve their gaming ability. Fully immersed in the local competitive Dota 2 gaming community, Doak believes the ability to capitalize on eSports is helping drive investors to sponsor big events like the International.

“The biggest transition I’ve seen is that eSports are no longer driven solely by the companies that develop the games. eSports betting companies are in, eSports tournament companies are operating with massive success, and viewership has skyrocketed. Seemingly out of nowhere eSporting events are now executed with the same professionalism as mainstream sports,” Doak told the Manitoban.

Businesses are even investing in arenas built specifically for eSports events. Last spring, Gfinity and Vue Cinema opened the Gfinity Arena in London, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom.

“It’s exciting to see eSports becoming so popular, but I think it will still take a while before people accept it as being normal or compare watching an eSports tournament to a game of football or baseball,” said Filip Podkański, a U of M alumnus and competitive video game enthusiast.

“People still seem to look at me funny when I say I’m going to watch a Counter-Strike tournament on a Saturday morning, while if I say I’m going to a bar to watch a soccer game I get a completely different reaction.”

Robin Scott, a local who plays Ultra Street Fighter 4 and Team Fortress 2 at the competitive level, experiences a similar reaction when discussing competitive gaming.

“[I] have played on soccer teams, ultimate frisbee teams, done cross-country running competitions. And when I tell people about those things they think it’s awesome, but when I mention I also play a game competitively I get made fun of, and labeled as a ‘geek’ and that somehow invalidates my other qualities” said Scott.

“I think that people who compete in eSports are ahead of the curve. Like it or not, it’s becoming larger, and now there are scholarships at universities to be a player on their university team. These scholarships are handed out to talented players. It won’t be too long before there’s highly paid ‘cyber atheletes’ that will attain somewhat of a celebrity status in society.”

For anyone interested in getting involved with the local eSport community, Skullspace offers a free eSport LAN event every Thursday at 6 p.m. Contact Matt Doak at matt@becomethegamer.com for more information.