Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/12/25/esports_career/

Red-faced, sweating and still in your chair: Welcome to eSports

Prepare for a shock - Trev's an e-jock

By Trevor Pott and Josh Folland

Posted in Games, 25th December 2012 11:04 GMT

Video games are believed by many to be a waste of time - but this is something consistently being challenged by the people who love them. And despite the fact that video games just can't seem shrug off the label of "just for kids", new research (PDF) would suggest that you're never too old for them.

And as the debate over the supposed link between video gaming and addiction and aggression rages on, some video gamers, developers, entrepreneurs and advertisers are seeking to cash in on the serious business (PDF) of video games in an unexpected way.

eSports (short for electronic sports), otherwise known as competitive gaming, is playing video games for prizes, pride and profit. The logic is the same as in traditional sport, yet the medium is entirely different. eSports competitors plug in their mice, keyboards, controllers and arcade sticks and battle for supremacy both on and offline.

eSports games are played on nearly every platform imaginable, led primarily by the PC and Xbox. Other platforms, such as Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii and even mobile phone gaming have found their way into professional circuits. The most popular titles are currently League of Legends (PC) - a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game with 32 million players - followed by StarCraft 2 (PC) - a real-time strategy game with over half a million players.

Other popular competitive titles include Halo 4 (Xbox), the Call of Duty series (Xbox, PC), CounterStrike: Global Offensive (PC), Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition (Xbox, PS3), Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 (Xbox, PS3), and Tribes: Ascend (PC). Each of these games has its own players, teams, events, tournaments and communities. In fact, competitive gaming has become so popular that even a game that's still in development - such as Shootmania Storm (PC) - can be capable of attracting an eSports community.

It's serious business

Dreamhack 2009. Image by Trevor Pott

DreamHack - held twice a year in Jönköping, Sweden - is the world’s largest digital festival.

The origins of modern eSports can be traced as far back as the 1980s, with a Space Invaders tournament that saw over 10,000 competitors. Throughout the '80s and '90s, eSports continued to evolve with Nintendo games such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tetris and Super Mario. This culminated with the Nintendo World Championships, a tour that crossed 27 cities in the United States, awarding a single victor in three separate age groups a free trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and the chance to compete in the grand finale.

As internet connections and home PCs became more and more common, iD Software's Doom and Quake saw much play online. This fostered the creation of online gaming communities and clans, as well as offline events such as the infamous 1997 Red Annihilation tournament where Dennis 'Thresh" Fong won legendary software programmer John Carmack's Red Ferarri 328 GTS Cabriolet after beating Tom "Entropy" Kizmey in a match of Quake 1. Fong put on his entrepreneur hat and went on to create Xfire after his Quake career, a gaming communication tool used by millions of gamers today and Raptr, a gaming social network a few years later.

Recession hits eSportspeople

By the turn of the millennium, eSports was growing fast. Million-dollar events were taking place, professional gamers & personalities were turning into celebrities in their own right, and the community was expanding rapidly. However, 2007 and 2008 saw one of the largest economic declines since the Great Depression and when the effects cascaded through the entertainment industry. eSports was not spared.

Sponsors pulled out to conserve funds, tournament circuits were forced to shut their doors and players moved on to more traditional work. The few steady, permanent jobs that existed in eSports evaporated. For years afterward eSports remained relatively stagnant, kept alive mostly by the passion of the amateur competitive gaming community and a handful of organisations that survived.

That same passion gave eSports new life when StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty went into closed beta in 2010. A significant percentage of the consistently sought-after male 18-34 demographic had played StarCraft while growing up and there was an immense amount of hype surrounding the sequel. Community efforts such as the HDH Invitational demonstrated that eSports was back on the rise. A year later there were multiple games competing for the title of "most popular eSport". Dozens of different tournament circuits and waves of both new fans and players were now entering the scene, injecting money by purchasing merchandise, watching live broadcasts, and viewing advertisements.

Unlike the previous attempt a decade earlier, in 2010 a true industry started to form. Players, developers, sponsors and entrepreneurs studied the failures of the past and learned from them. Players once again began forming teams that practised together regularly and sought sponsorships to attend events. New vendors sponsored more events, contributing to prize pools and attracting more players. Teams evolved into marketing agencies, paying their players salaries so they could practice for eight or more hours a day; businesses began creating newprofessional gaming-grade peripherals to give players an edge. Tournaments evolved from small LAN parties to massive conventions with tens of thousands of attendees, dozens of sponsors, and hundreds of staff, broadcast live via the internet and/or TV to a worldwide audience.

So you wanna be a playa?

Josh Folland (right) at MegaFPS 2007

Josh Folland (right) at MegaFPS 2007

To have a sport - electronic or otherwise - you need players. Success depends on both skill and capturing the imagination of the viewing public. A typical skilled professional gamer practices 8 to 12 hours per day. They must invest heavily in their equipment; consumer grade input devices and displays are crap. Better response times, ergonomics, tactile feedback and overall reliability come at a premium price: a proper gaming mouse can run to more than $70 (£43) versus $10 (£6) for your run-of-the-mill office mouse. A few milliseconds of latency here, a bad sensor over here… it all adds up to a significant advantage.

Players pursue eSports for the same reasons as any conventional athlete; money can be a factor, but a love of competition is the most frequently cited driver. In a brief interview, Kevin 'coL.qxc' Riley - an American professional gamer for Complexity Gaming who has a bachelor's degree in computer science - said: "I decided to pursue pro gaming because I find the competition to be more engaging than programming or working a 'regular' job."

Salaries for a professional gamers vary quite heavily, some as low as $500/month to the six-figure mark at the other end of the bell curve.

Direct sponsorship isn't a professional gamer's only potential source of revenue. Some professional players can supplement their income by offering coaching; typically a Skype call with an hourly rate where the player identifies flaws in a student's gameplay and helps them correct their approach. Players can also earn revenue from streaming. Riley mentions that while he does stream and provide coaching services, this does not constitute much aside from his salary. He also reminds us that "success as a player depends mostly on tournament results, but success in the scene as an entertainer or coach doesn't. There's a lot of opportunities open right now for ex-professional gamers, but the scene is still so young that there aren't many retired players yet." Unlike the more established traditional sports, there are few talent scouts in eSports. Success depends as much upon self promotion, the ability to schmooze as it does your raw skill. "I would like to see the scene get bigger. More players, more everything," says Riley.

Teams

starcraftd

Starcraft in South Korea is a national sport

Breaking in to eSports isn't easy. Unsponsored and teamless players, along with sponsored players who do not receive a salary big enough to pay the bills, face a catch 22: they have to attend school, work and so forth. This pulls away from practice time, making it harder to get that "big break" win at a tournament. Sponsored players can have many, if not all, of the costs associated with eSports "taken care of", allowing them to focus entirely on practice. This makes for more tournament wins, and also more time in the spotlight. Sponsorships can cover free gaming gear (mouse, keyboard, headset, etc); admission, travel & accommodation to events; permanent housing or even a full-time salary. Some teams can take a portion of its player's tournament winnings to help cover costs such as housing.

Professional eSports teams are effectively full blown marketing agencies; the product they are selling is the players themselves. The economics of this are no different than traditional sports: professional gamers endorse products, attract crowds and need both success and notoriety to be seen as safe investments. Funding comes from sponsors, selling team-branded merchandise and advertising revenue on things like the jerseys their players wear to events or the banners they display on their websites and live streams.

Tournaments

Tournaments are the bread and butter of eSports. Large tournaments are sponsored by vendors that advertise in the venue and on the live broadcasts. This (as well as event admission fees) pays for prizes, renting the venue, flying invited players out, operational expenses, etc. Tournaments can be held online or offline; online tournaments are 'quick and dirty' and only really good for qualifiers and lower-stakes games.

Nvidia sponsors annual Canadian eSports event/LAN party Fragapalooza

Lag is a serious concern when talking about online gaming; a 40ms advantage can mean the difference between victory or defeat. Most offline tournaments do not have this problem, given that they are playing on a LAN. Offline events also lend themselves much better to the "live theatre" aspect of an eSports production. Logistics are simpler in a physical tournament: it's easier to get players into postgame interviews and build a storyline for the duration of the tournament. Professional camerawork can be done; the emotions playing across the faces of the gamers are as important to the audience as the action taking place in the game.

The North American Star League (NASL) is a popular example of professional online tournament hosting. Popular offline tournaments include MLG, Dreamhack and the GomTV-run Global Starcraft II League (GSL). Smaller, local LAN parties may host qualifiers for larger tournaments, or smaller tournaments of their own. Live viewership of these events has also demonstrated impressive growth. Earlier this November, MLG hosted the Fall Championships of its 2012 circuit, which has seen a 334% growth in viewership over the 2011 season.

Your humble scribes have attended LAN tournaments as staff as well as professional gamers. These events carry serious engineering considerations rivalling any other major entertainment event. On the networking side, broadcast traffic is a real concern; slap 10,000 poorly configured PCs on a single subnet and the traffic you sniff is enough to make a systems administrator weep. Breaking up the broadcast domain isn't easy. From experience, every single link on the LAN is absolutely flattened for the duration of the event. If you want to bridge subnets you need powerful routers - preferably ones that QoS windows file sharing right into the ground.

Malware propagation and power are additional concerns, ones that LAN organisers take seriously. It is not unheard of to face blown power distribution boxes or have unprotected PCs crater within minutes of hitting the LAN. Dreamhack is explicit about the need for firewalls and anti-malware. Its organisers also limit each seat at the tournament to 275W total power draw. From experience, that's about right; a lot of gaming rigs will surpass that while in game, but not everyone is in game at the same time. Assuming that the various connected systems average out to 275W continuous draw, then Dreamhack 2012's 15,427 unique hosts would have pulled over 4.2 megawatts of power. If that isn't impressive enough, Dreamhack 2012 sported a 40Gbit internet connection.

Sponsors

Sponsors include vendors, advertising agencies, or any entrepreneur who feels they will find decent returns by investing in eSports. Ben "FishStix" Goldhaber, community outreach manager for Twitch.TV, supports events through live broadcasting. He monetises the streams through advertisement, allowing individual pro gamers, teams or tournament organisers to place certain aspects of the live broadcast behind a paywall. HD bitrates, subscriber-only content, chat functionality, access to VoD archives, and so forth have all proven to be "things to make that HD ticket more enticing," says Goldhaber.

Twitch.TV has a mailing list with 1 million subscribers, offers social media promotion, and sees over 1 million hits per day to the front page. Twitch.TV can display promotional content unique to a given stream and offers round-the-clock technical support alongside an extremely robust streaming network. Attracting an audience to your stream is something that remains "deep magic" to most in the online marketing world: Goldhaber claims that less than 1 per cent of active streams are monetised, but they account for the vast majority of total views. "If you go and look at the directory [on Twitch.TV] at any given time, any streamer getting big viewership is probably going to be a partnered streamer. It's pretty rare that someone comes out of the blue and hasn't talked to us first."

As eSports becomes more popular, demand for game servers increases. Game servers are not the only source of revenue for data centre operators, dedicated communications servers for applications such as Ventrilo or Teamspeak are also popular. Players pay to rent these private servers in order to game with their friends on servers they control; in turn these companies often sponsor tournaments to drum up business.

Game developers

Dev studios looking to develop an eSports title need a game that is exciting, relatively easy to understand (the blue guys blow up the red guys), is accessible (free to play/"freemium" model or one-time buy-in), and needs an infrastructure that supports it (private matches, spectator tools, overviews, etc). Bart "HiRezBart" Koenigsberg, eSports community manager for HiRez Studios, maintains that there is value for developers in engaging with the eSports community: "[Our] eSports initiatives clearly are working because [they] haven't given up yet."

Game dev studios are supporting eSports initiatives by investing in tournaments and events (often as a loss-leading marketing exercise), integrating third-party functionality into their game (embedded live streams within the game client, for example) and working with members of the eSports community to balance games and solve critical bugs which would otherwise prevent uptake on professional circuits.

Riot put up $5m in prizes for its League of Legends Season 2, gaining over 1 million live viewers worldwide, and cementing its position as one of the dominant entities in the modern eSports landscape. Riot has enjoyed a particularly successful relationship with eSports; its continued engagement with the community has led to refinements in the game that have increased uptake. The increased uptake has in turn dramatically increased revenues and exposure.

The rising importance of eSports is part of a larger challenge facing game developers. Just as the job of systems administrators is now as much about dealing with people as technology, developers no longer operate in a vacuum. While game devs facing a design feedback loop between developer and player, dev studios are increasingly turning to the community more directly for start-up funding.

Obsidian Entertainment has raised over $3.9m for Project Eternity through Kickstarter, Double Fine managed a little over $3.3m. They are both beat by Android console hopeful Ouya, which raised a hair over $8.5m. These ventures do not always end successfully.

Communities

eSports communities are as diverse as any other - and understanding their culture, memetics, digital haunts and motivations takes a lifetime of immersion. eSports communities exist primarily online; popular websites include Reddit's r/starcraft and r/leagueoflegends, TeamLiquid, avid users of social media.

A young cyber athlete battles a cosplay model during Canada Cup 2012 at CosPlay 2012.

As in traditional sports, eSports communities attract the virtuous as well as the idiotic. Sexism is a problem among video gamers, despite the growing popularity of professional female gamers and female pundits with all the geeky bona fides.

The eSports community has a sense of vigilante justice about social issues, emailing sponsors directly to get people fired, suspended and so forth. The morality of these "witchhunts" is as hotly debated a topic as are the bigoted remarks and actions that trigger them. The eSports community also has a reputation for positive initiatives, demonstrating that pigeonholing communities measuring in the millions is as difficult in the digital world as it is in the real one.

Why we do it

Both of the writers of this piece have been involved in eSports in various capacities for years. In that time we've experienced people participating in various video gaming communities for every reason imaginable.

We have close friends who play video games as a means of exploring human interaction in a safe environment, free from fears of rejection or ridicule. One particularly notable example is a positively gregarious and outgoing person when placed in front of a keyboard; humorous, thoughtful, evocative ... and virtually mute when spending time with his friends in the real world.

Others are driven to video games - and eSports more specifically - for the thrill of competition. Some wish to be the competitors; to crush their opponents and see them driven before them. Still others wish to be part of something larger than themselves, to cheer on the home team and mock the fans of rivals.

The camaraderie built within video gaming communities is no different than that of more traditional sports. Your writers met at a LAN party - several in sequence, over the years - and forged a lasting friendship as a result. Josh Folland was best man at Trevor Pott's wedding; we've also started a business together. Trevor Pott met his wife through friends from a LAN party... We can both list many other relationships that can be traced directly to local LAN events.

LAN parties in general - and the larger tournaments and eSports events more specifically - are exciting, fast-paced affairs that rival other entertainment events. They are also rarely just about the video games; we've participated in tournaments for everything from paper airplane making to who can hang from a wall the longest.

Professional gamers - especially in South Korea - are treated like rock stars - and yes, there are groupies.

There are also internet stalkers, streams of hatred on Twitter and webpages dedicated to trashing you out of pure jealousy. For those making a serious go of it, being a professional gamer is hard work. For an industry this young, it is often the friends you meet along the way - not the money that may or may not materialise - that make the incredible stress and effort worth it.

The road to relevance

Developers are starting to take eSports into account. Three years ago, the only game on the horizon with a hint of developer support for eSports initiatives was Blizzard's StarCraft 2. At conventions such as Gamescom E3 2012 earlier this year, many studios showed off new games with eSports-oriented features. Treyarch demoed the CoDCaster system, a spectator mode that gives the user an omnipresent view of the battlefield. CoDCaster incorporates overviews, scoreboards and even a first-person "we see what you see" view to be used to record or live stream matches and add colour commentary.

Battlefield 2 (click to enlarge)

The last building - Command and Conquer: Generals

These kinds of features are being created because developers are paying attention to feedback from their communities. Community engagement managers will monitor forums directly and through deep web monitoring of community outlets such as Reddit. Filtering the signal from the noise is difficult, leading some developers to hire eSports consultants to assist with everything from marketing to development direction.

"HirezBart" Koenigsberg says that statistics play a huge role in the development of their titles. These statistics provide insight into fine details such as game balance - a critical factor of design prevent uptake by the community if not executed correctly. "We try to make changes that are based on community feedback, and then if the numbers support them, then they tend to happen very quickly," says Koenigsberg. "If the numbers and what the community is saying are at odds, then that's when it becomes a tricky proposition to make the right change."

HiRez has shifted its development focus towards creating eSports-oriented titles, ensuring that its titles stay true to "may the best player win". This has earned it a fiercely loyal community.

Games are constantly slipping from the limelight into obscurity in the world of eSports. Futureproof designs such as the "freemium" model ensure that relevant, new content is constantly being injected into the game in a way that is accessible to both the casual and hardcore player. Riot's overwhelming success with League of Legends has proven that this works extremely well - and it's a success many other developers are hoping to mimic in the coming years.

Over the last two years, nearly a dozen new tournament and event organisations have emerged. Scheduling conflicts have been commonplace, and the growth that the industry has seen over the past two years has been so explosive that it now faces oversaturation. There is simply too much content to watch and stay on top of - each tournament circuit has its own unique storyline to follow.

A handful of these organisations have partnered up to unify international competition, cooperate on planning logistics and dates, as well as consistent rulesets and a universal ranking system to be applied across all organisations. These kinds of initiatives will alleviate the oversaturation by adding continuity to the eSports season, as well as improving the overall quality of the events.

New sponsors are entering the industry as well; eSports gaming communities have an array of new clothing lines sporting slogans, brands, memes and more. Twitch.TV is constantly improving and is intent upon expanding its service to as many platforms as possible in an effort to maximise reach.

It is also looking to expand data centre coverage to improve stream stability and the overall user experience. "We've seen explosive growth since we launched Twitch.Tv," says Goldhaber. "When we first launched, we were getting about 8 million uniques a month. In October, we breached 23 million uniques. We've essentially grown three times over in about 16 months or so.

"It's been a struggle to keep up with that, but that's why we raised venture capital - Justin.TV and Twitch.TV still remain relatively lean companies (Justin.TV had one single raise, I think it was 7 or 8 million dollars in the first four or five years). We didn't raise because we were short on cash, but we did raise because we want to get more data centres all across the world, build more apps for your Xbox, your Playstation, your mobile phone, Windows 8, etc," says Goldhaber.

Every day new players are entering the eSports community. Teams are making roster changes, tournaments are making huge announcements and new games are being released or updated in ways that can completely change the way the game is played. Regardless of the changes, one thing remains constant: eSports is filled with people who are extremely passionate about what they do. It looks to have a promising future. ®

Bootnote:

Josh Folland has won several tournaments over the course of his eSports career with professional teams that he managed. He is an established figure within the Starcraft community, amongst many others. He is an in-demand shoutcaster for eSports tournaments and can hold his own in everything from "micro RTS" games such as StarCraft to twitch games like Quake III. He knows more about video games than any human being should, builds his own gaming controllers and is occasionally tapped by dev studios and vendors to help explain this eSports thing to them.

Trevor Pott lives in digital sin by using his overpowered gaming computer for Minecraft and occasionally enjoys "macro RTS" strategy games like Total Annihilation. Trevor has only ever won a single contest sponsored by a vendor - Intel - and that was for assembling a PC the fastest. His aversion to video game tournaments is well documented; there is speculation that it may be linked to getting repeatedly shamed by Folland in everything video-game related, ever. ®