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