Video Games Becoming a Spectator Sport

Sports Venue Tech
May 1, 2015

London — The video game, Call of Duty, is increasingly becoming a spectator sport, The Telegraph of London said It’s one of several ‘eSports’ that are streamed live online and watched by millions around the world.

To Callum Swan it is a profession. Swan, or “Swanny” to give him his gaming name, who is 22 and comes from Durham, is one of the dozen or so professional CoD players in Britain, and among the top 15 players in the world. Swanny was with the three other members of Team Epsilon.

On a stiflingly hot March day in Los Angeles he was found in LA Live, where 32 teams from Europe and America had assembled for three days to compete in the Call of Duty World Championship for $1 million in prize money.

While the uninitiated might imagine that video games are essentially solitary pastimes, CoD can be a team sport, where teams made up of four players compete either online or at tournaments. In one half of the auditorium, banks of monitors had been arranged on a series of stages, where the preliminary rounds were being played.

At the back of the hall was the main stage, dominated by a huge video screen. Below it, the two competing teams were enclosed in a glass-windowed booth, wearing headsets and matching sweatshirts emblazoned with sponsors’ names. Along one wall, pairs of commentators – or ‘CoDcasters’, as they are called – sat at a row of desks, dressed in suits and ties, broadcasting on internet streams.

The Epsilon team, managed by an eSports company in Belgium, had spent a week in a rented house in Lakewood. They upgraded the Internet connection, shipped in new monitors, and been preparing for the competition by playing online against American teams – universally acknowledged as the best.

Last year the World Championship finals for a fantasy-strategy game called League of Legends drew 45,000 spectators to the Seoul World Cup Stadium to watch 16 teams from South Korea and China battle it out for a $2.13 million prize pool, with a further 27 million people watching online.

Watching on the big screen – the beauty of the settings, the hyperventilating commentary of the CoDcasters, the incessant sound of gunfire, the cheers of the crowd – the game is a mixture of the baffling and the hypnotic.

Playing the game, Swanny told me, he doesn’t notice whether he is in Baghdad or China, crouching behind a wall or a burnt-out car. “All I notice is the lanes in the maps, how the maps are positioned and the strategic importance of buildings and things.”

The phenomenal growth of eSports has been driven by Internet streaming, which has made it available to anyone around the world with an internet connection.

Founded 12 years ago – at a time when eSports were first gaining a foothold in South Korea, was almost unknown in America, and virtually non-existent in Europe – Major League

Gaming (MLG) started by promoting live gaming tournaments in small venues around America. As the business grew, MLG established a professional CoD league, selling programming to cable stations and streaming online on YouTube and Twitch, an internet channel where players can stream home-made content, sharing advertising revenue according to the numbers of viewers they attract. In 2014, MLG launched its own channel, MLGtv – “the ESPN of eSports,” as the company’s chairman, Mike Sepso, puts it – which streams online league games and live tournaments, as well as round-ups and news programs featuring pundits abiding by the strict sartorial code of suits, ties and neat haircuts. “It’s professionalism,” Sepso said. “This isn’t just kids sitting around playing games. This is a serious business.”

MLGtv attracts 27 million viewers a month, drawing its revenue largely from mainstream consumer advertisers – fast-food chains, grooming products, car manufacturers. Sepso puts the company’s value “in the hundreds of millions” of dollars.

“The video-game industry is substantially larger than the movie industry and record industry,” he went on. “On the current rate of growth I expect the sports component to outpace both those industries in the next five years.”

In March an eSports company called Gfinity opened Britain’s first purpose-built venue at a cinema in Fulham Road, London, hosting tournaments that are streamed on Twitch and MLGtv.

The great misconception is thinking of games-playing as an activity that, as Swanny put it, “favors the introvert.”

“The social aspect is something that draws a lot of people,” Swanny said. “There are people from every walk of life, every nationality, every ethnicity and because it’s an emerging thing there’s the buzz of sharing an interest and contributing to its growth.”

Perhaps not surprisingly it is largely a community of young men. There were no women in any of the teams competing at the World Championships, and few in the audience, although a number stream on Twitch.

The top-earning CoD player is 22-year-old Matt Haag, who plays for Team Optic under the name NaDeSHoT. Three years ago Haag was flipping burgers in McDonald’s. He now has 1.6 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, 1.1 million followers on Twitter, and reportedly earns close to $1 million a year.

No Epsilon player earns anywhere near as much. With a basic salary, and money made from weekly online tournaments, players can make $30,273 - $45,409 a year. The real money lies in sponsorship and the advertising revenue to be made from building up a fan-base by streaming on YouTube or Twitch.

Swanny had mixed feelings about streaming. There was a difference between the professional player and what he called ‘the entertainer’ – the difference, it seemed, between being a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of the cast of Hollyoaks. And Swanny considered himself first and foremost a professional.

At the age 22, Swanny was already wondering just how long he had left at the top of the game. The oldest players in Call of Duty are about 25 or 26; conventional wisdom holds that after that reaction times begin to slow down.

“But if I’m realistic I’d say I could continue competing at this level for longer than anyone else and that’s purely because of my dedication to the game. I’d still be willing to put in the same hours, if not more, to ensure I maintain a spot at the top.”
Posted: 5/1/2015 2:24:04 PM

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