THE CY­BER-ATH­LETIC REVO­LU­TION

Brush up on your gam­ing lingo, be­cause e-sports is re­turn­ing to rel­e­vance.

HWM (Malaysia) - - THINK - by Zachary Chan

One of the first ma­jor ini­tia­tives to bring video games out of LAN par­ties and into pub­lic lime­light hap­pened in 1997 with the for­ma­tion of the Cy­berath­lete Pro­fes­sional League (CPL), promis­ing mone­tary prizes for gamers and a chance to ‘go pro’. Be­sides the CPL, other high-pro­file tour­na­ments and leagues sprouted up such as the World Cy­ber Games (WCG), Elec­tronic Sports World Cup (ESWC), and Evo­lu­tion Cham­pi­onship Se­ries (EVO). Each op­er­ated within their own for­mat, fo­cus­ing on dif­fer­ent game com­pe­ti­tions, and have had their moments of suc­cess.

The pe­riod be­tween 2005 and 2007 could be said to be the peak of the in­ter­na­tional e-sports scene. The CPL in 2005 took gam­ing global with a year-long world tour for­mat that started in March and ended in Novem­ber, vis­it­ing cities from Is­tan­bul to Sin­ga­pore with the fi­nals in New York. Its to­tal prize pool of US$1 mil­lion was then un­heard of for play­ing video games. In 2007, the WCG had a prize pool US$4 mil­lion, and would seem to only con­tinue to grow.

Much like pro­fes­sional ath­letes, the ‘cy­berath­letes’ of e-sports en­joyed celebrity sta­tus, ben­e­fit­ted from cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships and were sought af­ter as brand am­bas­sadors. This spawned a craze for gam­ing-grade pe­riph­er­als from mice and key­boards to graph­ics cards and head­phones that were de­signed and tuned for com­pe­ti­tion. If that wasn’t enough to en­cour­age the av­er­age Joe that their skills would im­prove ten-fold, you’ve got pro­fes­sional en­dorse­ment from top play­ers; the most well-known then was Jonathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wen­del.

Then came an age of de­cline. The CPL spi­raled down­ward into a mire of con­tro­versy; its most re­cent tour­na­ment for StarCraft II in 2013 of­fered a prize of only US$6,500; the WCG was of­fi­cially can­celled as of early 2014. Many other ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions still ex­ist, but at a di­min­ished ca­pac­ity with low­ered prize pools and min­i­mal spon­sor­ship. E-sports re­treated from the lime­light, go­ing back to its niche com­mu­nal roots.

The only ex­cep­tion seems to have been South Korea, where the love of StarCraft birthed and sus­tained tele­vised pro­fes­sional game broad­casts that claim to ex­ceed view­er­ship of ac­tual sports. South Korea has its own na­tional level StarCraft tour­na­ments— Star­league and Proleague—that flour­ishes to date.

For the rest of the world, the de­cline of e-sports can be at­trib­uted to the fact that it wanted too much to be like ac­tual pro­fes­sional sports. The ideas were there, just that the for­mula and plat­form wasn’t right. Both the CPL and WCG grew into huge events, com­plete with big name spon­sors, in­ter­na­tional lo­ca­tions and glitzy tour­na­ment are­nas. This for­mat proved non-sus­tain­able since the phys­i­cal event it­self would just look like a bunch of guys sit­ting around ta­bles. The ac­tual ‘ac­tion’ hap­pened on screen.

There was also the prob­lem where e-sports didn’t ac­tu­ally help sell video games. Tour­na­ments al­ways re­volve around a few stal­warts such as Counter-Strike and StarCraft that have years of build­ing their pop­u­lar­ity and fan base. Each game is a dis­ci­pline in it­self. While both War­craft and StarCraft are real-time strat­egy games built by the same de­vel­oper, they are as dif­fer­ent as ap­ples are to or­anges

in terms of game­play. As tour­na­ments con­tinue to fo­cus on decade-old games, spon­sors be­gan to pull out be­cause they can’t pro­mote newer ti­tles. Pub­lish­ers tried to cut deals to push their own games as com­pe­ti­tion ti­tles or cre­ate al­ter­na­tive tour­na­ments them­selves, fur­ther frag­ment­ing the e-sports scene. An ex­am­ple is the afore­men­tioned 2005 CPL cham­pi­onships, where the of­fi­cial game—Painkiller—was nei­ther an es­tab­lished mul­ti­player game nor did it have a pop­u­lar fol­low­ing. Painkiller was never used again in another tour­na­ment and in 2006, CPL re­placed it with the more pop­u­lar Quake III Arena.

It would take a few years for e-sports to fight back to rel­e­vancy and for tech­nol­ogy to catch up to pro­vide the in­ter­ac­tive dig­i­tal plat­form it needed to thrive on. In­stead of forc­ing video games on the main­stream pub­lic, the var­i­ous tour­na­ments worked within their com­mu­nity to build au­di­ence. Soft­ware and net­work­ing sup­port for com­pe­ti­tions were im­proved; games are able to put creative power into gamers’ hands to pro­duce their own con­tent from re­plays to live game- cast­ing; so­cial net­work­ing and stream­ing ser­vices meant that gamers could pub­lish their con­tent for a world­wide au­di­ence. Lastly, a mi­cro­trans­ac­tional model gave pub­lish­ers an av­enue for profit.

Ever heard of Twitch.tv? No? That’s prob­a­bly be­cause you’re not a gamer. But let’s look at sta­tis­tics for a bit. Twitch.tv is a video game stream­ing plat­form. Call it the YouTube of gam­ing if you will. The ser­vice only started in 2011 and by 2013 has grown to 45 mil­lion unique vis­i­tors, streams 6,000,000 broad­casts with 12,000,000,000 min­utes of video watched ev­ery month. Ac­cord­ing to a Fe­bru­ary 2014 Wall Street jour­nal ar­ti­cle with sta­tis­tics from Deep­Field, Twitch.tv is now the 4th largest source of In­ter­net traf­fic in all of the U.S., beat­ing Face­book (6th) even.

Another ex­am­ple is Dota 2, a pop­u­lar on­line arena bat­tle game which head­lines a tour­na­ment called The In­ter­na­tional. If you haven’t heard of it be­fore as well, we’ll chalk it up again as be­ing a non-gamer. But within the Dota 2 com­mu­nity, this is the big­gest event of the year. The In­ter­na­tional 2014, which hap­pened in July, boasted a prize pool of over US$10 mil­lion, the largest sum ever of­fered in the his­tory of e-sports. What’s more amaz­ing is that this prize pool was not backed by any ma­jor spon­sor, but was crowdfunded al­most en­tirely by the Dota 2 com­mu­nity them­selves. Gamers who pur­chased an in­ter­ac­tive pro­gram guide for the tour­na­ment called a ‘Com­pen­dium’ con­trib­uted US$2.5 to­wards the prize pool. The fi­nal pool amounted to US$10,930,814, with the cham­pi­ons purse to­tal­ing US$5,028,308.

That’s a lot of Com­pendi­ums sold and a lot of gamers out there.

The fact of the mat­ter isn’t re­ally about gam­ing or e-sports go­ing main­stream, but the chang­ing of the norm. We live in a gen­er­a­tion that prob­a­bly has more gamers out there than non-gamers, and they are set to be­come the new main­stream.

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