ESports 101: A Guide to the Booming Business of Competitive Gaming

AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File
AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File

The internet generation doesn’t have drunken punch-ups; it has forum “flame wars.” Millennials don’t watch television; they watch “streams” and “VoDs.” Instead of protesting in the streets, they engage in hashtag activism. And when it comes to sports, yes, they have their own as well: competitive gaming, or, for the initiated, “eSports,” where the very best players come together to compete for prestige and prize money. A lot of prize money.

You’ll be familiar with the stereotypes surrounding hardcore gamers. The phrase conjures an overweight basement-dweller, replete with furry neckbeard, shrouded in body odour. While no stereotype can exist without at least a grain of truth, in my experience as a veteran eSports reporter a hardcore gamer these days is just as likely to be an image conscious gym-nut as anything else.

As the stigma has eroded, gaming has proliferated through the mainstream and has become less of a clandestine subculture. Those who were once sneering from the outside are now furiously knocking on the front door, begging to be included.

ESports channel a competitive element that exists within us all. It won’t require you to leave your house and go huffing and puffing round a football field but it does require a different kind of dedication. Top-level players routinely practice their skills for many hours a day. Intensive training prior to a tournament is referred to as a “bootcamp.” Increasingly, players live in houses alongside their teammates to ensure an optimal environment for training.

The best players earn a salary enough to live comfortably, but they also receive cuts of large prize funds from their wins. At the highest level of competition, professional competitive gamers can become millionaires overnight. At Valve’s Dota 2 tournament The International, the winning team received a prize in excess of $6 million from a total prize pot of $18 million.

If you’re not convinced and think this is all a bit silly, don’t worry, You’re not alone. Even John Skipper, the president of ESPN, which broadcast part of the aforementioned Dota 2 tournament on its online platform, tried to play down the concept of eSports amid a backlash from angry traditionalists. “It’s not a sport — it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition,” he said, when asked about it. He added: “Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”

Well, since then, ESPN have gone on to broadcast eSports on multiple occasions, and they have recently advertised for a full time eSports editor for their website, suggesting that they understand exactly where the future is heading. Indeed, only a short while ago the Turner network went all in on the idea of eSports broadcasting.

In 2016, they will start televising their first eSports programming on the TBS station, and speaking as someone who attended the meeting at which this was finalised, I can say first-hand they won’t be cutting corners. ESports will be receiving the same level of attention as any other sports programming, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the huge NCAA Men’s Basketball League broadcast dubbed “March Madness.”

Ever cynical, I asked one of the Turner executives about the sudden interest in eSports, and their answer was wonderfully succinct and honest. “Relevancy,” they said. ESports taps into the Holy Grail of demographics in a way that few other pursuits do right now: fans are typically 14 – 24 middle to upper class males with high levels of engagement in their hobby.

Esports fans have disposable income, they are passionate about supporting their teams and favourite players, and, by extension, the companies that support those teams. From a broadcasting perspective, the audience is a dream. An eSports fan will regularly watch a twelve-hour broadcast of a tournament. No other sport can boast such a devoted and captive audience.

In addition to this, a Newzoo report showed that in 2014 eSports reached 89 million viewers worldwide and had close to $200 million worth of investment from sponsors and investors. Like sports teams before them, eSports organisations are becoming playthings of the wealthy. Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli owns a League of Legends team.

There’s also a seedy underbelly to eSports, one that sees naive young adults get exploited for the profit of wannabe businessmen who wouldn’t last five minutes in the real world. Some of the scandals are sensational. I’ve reported on players being effectively held hostage by terrible contracts, organisations going so far as threatening to take away a player’s mother’s house because he wants to move to another team.

It can be a grim and unforgiving business at times, and with so much money available to those that know how to sell the product and rapid growth, there aren’t many watchdogs around yet. The worst abuses and excesses often come to light when it is too late to do anything about them.

Recently, one of the industry’s leading tournament organisers, the Electronic Sports League, introduced mandatory doping tests at their competitions amid claims that high-level competitors were all hopped up on Adderall. There have also been numerous instances of match fixing, one in North American Counter-Strike play shaking the sport to its foundations, with some of the biggest names being found guilty and remaining banned to this day.

With so many aspiring professional players being underpaid, and team owners pocketing the bulk of this new investment money, stepping outside the boundaries of what is ethical to make extra money is likely to be a feature of eSports until it is rectified. You can expect a lot of news from me on these sorts of stories here at Breitbart Tech.

Finally, as with the rest of digital culture, there are people trying to nanny others and impinge on free speech and creative expression. Twitch TV tells streamers how much skin they can reveal, or what games they can play, recently banning any gameplay footage of the game Hatred.

Riot Games has an Orwellian system in place that bans the professional players and managers who participate in their league for any bad language used in playing the game outside of competitions. Just like their mainstream sports counterparts, eSports professionals have to enjoy Twitter mob-fuelled drama around popular players who state their honest, if occasionally unpopular, opinions – especially when those opinions jar with the politically correct consensus.

If the money, power, corruption and drama in eSports haven’t whet your appetite yet, it might not be for you. But I reckon when you see what a fascinating, uplifting while at times murky world professional eSports can be, you’ll come to love it as I do. ESports are here to stay – and Breitbart Tech will be here to guide you through the maze.

Follow Richard Lewis on Twitter @RLewisReports.

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