Last weekend 11,000 people crammed into Madison Square Garden, another 9,000 packed an arena in Stockholm and thousands more filled a stadium in Cologne, Germany. And millions — yes millions — watched around the world.
It sounds like a boxing match or a hockey game, but if you guessed either of those you’d be wrong: they were all watching a select few play some of the worlds most popular and best video games.
eSports, or the world of professional video game playing, has ballooned into a $612-million industry where the best of the best are viewed akin to the likes of Sidney Crosby, LeBron James or Peyton Manning. And these cyber athletes are enjoying the same perks as their more traditional sports brethren — cars, money, fame.
In fact, according to SuperData Research, a firm that studies the market, the global eSports viewing audience will reach 134 million in 2015. For some context, in 2010, that number only stood at 8.2 million.
Some 67 million players play the massively popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) League of Legends, or LoL as it is commonly referred to, each month.
Throw in approximately $111 million in corporate sponsorships in North America alone — and consider North America still lags well behind Asia ($374 million) in terms of revenue — and you have a behemoth that has gone from what some used to see as nerds sitting in their parents’ basement to players crushing their foes, and the stigmas attached to the genre at the same time.
And you don’t have to go far anymore to find an epicenter where professionals are convening. Because a vast majority of the game play happens online, professionals can be found in our own backyards.
Mitch Green’s day starts like anyone else’s. He jumps on a bus, heads to his 9-5, jumps back on a bus and heads home.
$612 million – Global money flowing throw eSports in 2014
$374 million – Asia’s contribution to the global market, some 61 per cent.
67 million – the number of players who frequent the game League of Legends each month.
134 million – the size of the eSports viewing audience, up from 8.2 million in 2010.
$111 million – amount money tied up in corporate sponsorships in North America alone.
$9,331,105 – the amount of money fans contributed to the prize pool on top of the $1.6 million base at DOTA 2’s largest tournament, The International.
$1 billion – the amount of money League of Legends generated through microstransactions in 2014.
Information courtesy of SuperData Research
For most, that’s the end of the workday. It’s time for play, to take care of the kids or attend to those weeds on the front lawn. But for Green, he’s just getting started on job No. 2 as a professional Counter-Strike player. And at that second job, the normal everyday Mitch Green takes on the alias Dum0re, his in-game tag or call sign, and his job is to shoot people in the head in the insanely popular first person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO).
Green spends six nights a week with his team, Lunatik. And much like a football team will review game film, Green and his teammates go over map strategies, reviewing past matches for flaws in their game plans, dissect their opponents’ demo footage and practise — or scrim (short for scrimmage) other teams of a similar skill level.
Green switched teams earlier this season after things were looking grim and players weren’t as committed as he was. He wanted to push his game to the next level and did so by joining Lunatik eSports after a successful tryout process.
Lunatik is now on the professional circuit in the ESEA CS:GO League after his team won a $6,000 final just a few weeks back.
Lunatik eSports, one of the team’s sponsors, gives what Green considers "the perfect conditions to play in." What that entails is the cover cost of league fees and some basic travel. It’s not a big team, Green says, so they’re not heading to Europe to play in the ESL just yet, but they’re on the right path.
Since they’ve turned pro, sponsors have noticed, and the team is talking more than just some league fees being covered. Big sponsors mean salaries, travel expenses and the best gear on the market.
"We still need to work at this point," Green said. "But if it gets to the point where our salaries are high enough, then we can travel a lot more and not work as much, or at all."
According to SuperData, only 40 per cent of professional players make a living off gaming, with most making salaries from $12,000 to $40,000 a year. Even former players can still make astronomical amounts. Former professional LoL player Wei Han-Dong earns $800,000 a year just by streaming his play over the internet. He now has a contract that requires him to stream 90 hours a month.
It’s a road Green would like to take, even if it is for a year or so. Green would have to give up his full-time gig as a web developer for Investors Group.
"At this point, if I had a decent enough salary and everything was arranged for me to live in a gaming house, I definitely would give it a shot," he said. "I’m still young. I have an education and job experience. I have something to fall back on now.
LoL — popular multiplayer online battle arena game League of Legends
LCS — League of Legends Championship Series
CS:GO — popular first-person shooter game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
DOTA 2 — popular multiplayer online battle arena game Defense of the Ancients 2.
MOBA — a genre of video game called multiplayer online battle arena, ie, League of Legends.
ESL — Electronic Sports League run by Turtle Entertainment out of Cologne, Germany
ESEA — eSports Entertainment League
FPS — a genre of video game called first-person shooter, ie. Counter-Strike
RTS — a genre of video game called real-time strategy, ie. Starcraft 2
LAN ±— Local area network, technically speaking. LANs in a gaming sense are groups of players playing together in the same building.
AYBO — All Your Base Online – a local Winnipeg company that hosts large video game events and tournaments.
Graeme Carlson sits on the other side of the fence.
As an aspiring team owner in League of Legends, Carlson dreams of putting together a team that can compete on the game’s biggest stage, the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) — the NFL of LoL.
Carlson, a former LoL player himself, didn’t fancy himself much as a PC player, but it took him playing at a local BaseLAN event for him to realize he wanted to make his own team.
"After the first BaseLAN — a massive LAN party put on by local Winnipeg company All Your Base Online I went to — I knew," Carlson said.
Carlson started Lineage eSports later in 2014. He’s been slowly removing himself from playing and focusing more and more energy on running teams, overseeing three teams at the moment.
Carlson wants more than that, however. He is in the hunt for a challenger team, basically a team that tries to qualify for the LCS. He’s ready to offer salaries, equipment and a place to live to do so. But there are challenges in the way.
"We’ve been looking into it for a while now," Carlson said. "The only issue is, the game is growing so fast that there are so many people looking to buy teams and get into the LCS. It really just comes down to money. You’re seeing people with multi-millions who are bidding on teams. It’s tough to compete."
Each player who makes it into the LCS gets a base salary for $25,000, with cash incentives based on where they place in the 10-team league. And top players cost more. Notoriety is huge, as are the endorsements that come along with a player who is well-known and well-watched.
"When they’re under your brand name, they’re already bringing x amount of fans. They can cost upwards of $100,000 for the average LCS player. Challenger players, who no one has ever heard of, will work for cost of food and living."
Carlson isn’t looking to house players locally, however.
eSports audience numbers
2010 —U.S.: 8,230,769 / Worldwide: 1,975,385
2011 — 16,004,274 / 5,001,335
2012 — 35,624,587 / 12,228,571
2013 — 71,509,193 / 23,834,336
2014 — 100,616,651 / 29,664,266
2015* — 134,258,120 / 32,101,256
"It’s much easier for us to get work visas in the U.S.," he said.
Carlson said success could come as quickly as six months down the road, but getting a team together can be the biggest stumbling block.
"We’ve had a team before, but then one player gets an offer from another team that’s willing to pay more, and they’re gone," he said. "At that point, the rest of the guys don’t see much point in sticking around without those top players. I can’t blame them – if I could, I’d pay them more. But I can’t. I’m an engineering student. The only reason I can do this at all is because I have outside sponsors willing to pay certain amounts as long as we recognize their brands and products."
Carlson says that no one thinks of eSports as a sport. He feels the term is used because it is an "amazing buzzword" that describes what it is.
"We play video games because there is entertainment value behind them, there’s a competitive scene and there’s money involved," he said. "It’s a buzzword. It’s catchy and easy for people to understand. It’s like watching chess or poker."
David Alberto has worked for the last decade at bringing guys like Green and Carlson together to compete for prizes and glory.
Alberto sits on the board of directors for AYBO, which is slowly crawling its way back to the top of the event hosting scene.
"We were growing to be the biggest one for a while, but it stopped a few years ago but it’s pick up again," Alberto said. "The slow down was due to not being able to find a larger venue. The other part was lack of new competitive games coming out."
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Alberto said games like LoL and CS:GO have been huge for them.
"We are on the cusp again of seeing growth," he said.
Baselan, the semi-annual series hosted by AYOB, currently runs PC and console tournaments over two weekend-long events each year, including games such as LoL, CS:GO, StarCraft 2, and Halo 4. It’s upcoming BaseLan 29 in October will be the most sponsored eSports tournament in Canada, with big name backers including Asus North America and MTS.
Alberto says the eSports phenomenon is a beast in its own right and people are now viewing some of the biggest names as they’d view the likes today’s biggest athletes in the traditional sense of the word. And it’s definitely helping them on the business side of their own venture.
"They are following their careers, cheering for their teams," Alberto said. "What has happened, with the emergence of streaming, it’s allowed us as a company to see what these guys are doing on a regular basis."
Clamping down on Peds
eSports has become so big, and the money flowing through it so large, that one of the world’s largest competitive gaming leagues, ESL, introduced performance-enhancing drug testing recently at ESL Cologne 2015.
Yes, the words you associate the likes of Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez and, if you’re Canadian, Ben Johnson, are the same you find in eSports.
Ritalin and Adderall are used to boost concentration, while drugs normally used to treat anxiety, such as valium, keep those who take it more calm. In July, one of the world’s most popular and successful Counter-strike teams admitted to using Adderall, a drug commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, after winning a major event.
"These drugs can help you focus, especially when your playing in front of thousands of people, they allow you to just zone in on the game," Green said. "But at the same time, it can hurt your communication. But I think it’s kind of ridiculous, I don’t think it gives players a competitive advantage. It’s too early to say, but I do respect the fact that they they’re taking it seriously."
Nationale Anti Doping Agentur (NADA) was on hand to administer random drug tests at the world’s largest Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament.
"Overall we’re very happy with how it went, and will continue working towards having doping control at our most important events," a spokesman for ESL said in a release.
ESL said every test they administered at ESL Cologne brought back a negative result.
Short on girl gamers
The gender inequality that exists in other sports is within eSports as well.
As of 2014, only two women were on the top 200 list of highest grossing eSports players. According to SuperData Research, a company that provides market date on digital games and playable media, only 13 per cent of the eSports audience is female.
"But if you look at it overall, a third of gamers are going to be female, and up to 45 to 50 percent for some genres," Llamas said. "You’re starting to see more integration, it’s become a much more welcoming environment. On one hand you have more casual games, ones more universally understood and inviting. On the other hand, you have more women playing because games are becoming more accepted. The more participation effects more participation on an exponential level."
eSports’ core audience has made women coming into the fold a little slower, according to Llamas.
"As more eSports players are women, you will see more woman in the core games," she said. "But it’s the initial invitation, feeling like you’re not going to be the only woman, that’s going to bring more woman to the sport."