Image: Tuula Ylikorpi, 2014

Competitive video gaming is rapidly establishing itself as a spectator sport, both virtually and in real life, but has received little attention from mainstream media. Will professional video gamers be the sports stars of the future?

WE ARE all familiar with the stereotype of the teenager spending an excessive amount of time playing video games. But what if that teenager is in fact in the middle of a tough practice session, getting ready for a major tournament, with the overall ambition of becoming one of the world’s best players – and earning big money in the process.

Extreme as it may sound, this is close to becoming a possible scenario. Competitive video gaming – widely known as e-sports – is swiftly evolving to a whole new level as a spectator sport. For instance, consider two events from this past summer.

In late August, TV2 made Finnish television history by broadcasting the final of the Counter Strike: Global Offensive tournament from Assembly, the main competitive gaming event in Finland. The final, which was the first live e-sports event to be broadcast on national TV, was presented as a full-fledged sporting event: it was accompanied by an on-air commentary that discussed the strategies of the two teams and explained the progress of the match. A live audience cheered when the players showed remarkable feats of skill and teamwork. The match was followed by a live audience of 72,000, and for a long time afterwards, it was the most watched programme on Yle Areena.

Globally, however, the most high-profile e-sports event of this year took place in Seattle, where the tournament The International was organised for the fourth time in July. Over 11,000 spectators came to KeyArena, the city’s basketball arena, to watch as the world’s best teams fought for the world championship of Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle arena game.

The event also caught the attention of the mainstream media, because of the tournament’s prize money: the winning team took home 5 million US dollars, while the overall prize pool was 11 million US dollars. This makes The International one of the biggest sporting events in the world. While such sums may have come as a surprise to e-sports amateurs, in reality this was just one more step in video games becoming a professional spectator sport. The numbers keep growing – in terms of prize money, events organised and number of players who devote their time to practising and competing, in the same way as traditional athletes do.

Computer games have, of course, been played online for as long as the Internet has existed. But what has made wider audiences possible are the streaming services that allow broadcasting matches to thousands of people, watching from the comfort of their homes.

Twitch makes it possible for individual players to broadcast themselves playing games.

Virtual fanbases

The e-sports audience today is counted in tens of millions (over 71 million people watch e-sports, according to SuperData, a digital games market intelligence company). While traditional media has been slow to wake up to the phenomenon, e-sports has found its audience online, especially through websites that broadcast video games.

The biggest such site is Twitch, which has grown pretty much hand in hand with the rise of e-sports in general. Founded in 2011, the site broadcasts major tournaments, but features also other gaming-related programming. For a casual web surfer, the most bizarre aspect of Twitch is that it makes it possible for individual players to broadcast themselves playing games. Many popular streams consist of the gamer playing a non-competitive game such as The Sims, commenting on the game and chatting with the viewers. Some draw in major audiences.

This may sound like a strange activity – to watch other people playing games – but the fact is that in late August Amazon bought Twitch for a staggering sum of 970 million US dollars. You don’t need to be a market analyst to conclude that the online retail giant sees a promising future for streaming video games, and competitive gaming in general.

Anyone can create a Twitch account, start their own stream and try to attract big audiences. For professional players, Twitch is essential in connecting with their fans, who tune in to watch them play and practise. For a small fee, they can show their support to a particular gamer and subscribe to their stream. This can amount to significant income if the number of subscribers goes up. The fanbase can be an important financial support for professionals, given that it’s only a relatively small number of gamers who can support themselves with the tournament winnings and monthly salary from their e-sports organisation.

In Finland, there are only a handful of professional players, all of whom play for international organisations. Finnish organisations have fewer resources but do their best to allow their players to concentrate as much as possible on playing games. For example, at Finnish e-sports team RCTIC the players keep their tournament winnings, their travel costs are covered, and the team’s sponsors provide them with their products. “Of course, we also provide coaching, just as in any sports,” says Jere Alanen from RCTIC. “We provide as professional conditions for gaming as possible.”

The great majority of Finnish e-sports gamers play semi-professionally, and the road to becoming a full-time professional is extremely difficult. “In Finland, it’s easier for an ice hockey player to get to the SM-Liiga than it is for a video gamer to become a professional,” states Teemu Hiilinen, an e-sports advocate and commentator (he also did the on-air commentary for TV2’s Assembly broadcast). “That’s why I tell everyone who dreams of making a career out of this not to neglect school but to play as much as they can on the side.”

Finland is thus far behind South Korea, the first country where competitive gaming became a mainstream spectator sport. There, games are a commonly seen on television (there is even a channel that’s mostly dedicated to e-sports), and the popularity of StarCraft, a real-time strategy game, has reached such proportions that it has been called the national sport of the country.

Athletes of the future

Getting to compete in the upper echelons of e-sports takes years of hard work and dedication, and most competitive gamers started playing seriously already at a young age. Players also tend to “retire” early. According to Alanen, gamers commonly quit at around the age of 25, or even earlier: “Partly this is if players don’t reach the level they aimed at, and they lose motivation.” Many games also require extremely quick reactions, which might pose a problem for older gamers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world of e-sports is also very male-centric, as few women compete at major tournaments. One reason for this is that it’s less common for girls to have extensive experience with competitive games as they often enjoy games that are less competitive by nature, observes Raakel Hämäläinen from the Finnish eSports Federation. Moreover, attitude towards girls who play video games is usually not as supportive as with boys.

“But things are changing, and here in Finland equality is seen as important, so there are good conditions for women and men to play together,” says Hämäläinen. “I’ve never heard any negative comments about women gamers from experienced players or event organisers in Finland. Rather, they’ve been supportive.” Still, she acknowledges that when playing online girls are more likely to experience bullying and belittling than boys.

As attitudes change and games are increasingly recognised as a valid pursuit, some e-sports enthusiasts estimate that competitive sports could eventually become a wide watched spectator sport. There seems to be an obvious obstacle to this, however: most e-sports matches are hard to follow for a novice. Compared to ice hockey or football, where the game’s progress is easy for anyone to comprehend, many video games are so complex and situations change so rapidly that for a casual viewer it’s difficult even to tell which side is winning.

This is because e-sports games need to have a level of complexity and depth so that practising the game pays off, and so that differences between players’ skills can be observed. But what could be developed in the future is the way matches are broadcast, to make them more approachable to newcomers. “During the Winter Olympics, Yle had prepared videos that presented some of the rarer sports such as half-pipe, and explained the idea of the sport and what the viewers should pay attention to,” Hämäläinen says. “The same approach could definitely be used with e-sports. With a glance you can usually get a good overview of the match, if you know how to read all the information on the screen.”

Given the trend of the past few years, it seems clear that professional videogaming is not only here to stay, but will continue to attract growing audiences. “Gaming is one of the most significant cultural changes of the 2010s, and its impact on the economy and how people spend their leisure time will still grow substantially,” says Hiilinen. “Professional gaming will inevitably become more common also in Finland. This is only a positive development.”

Teemu Henriksson