On July 21, 2014, the winning team of the fourth international championship (TI4) for Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA2) – an online multiplayer game – received $5 million as prize money. The tournament’s total prize pool of over $10 million is the highest ever in the history of electronic sports (e-sports) and was raised mainly through contributions from the global player community. Gaming was once considered to be the exclusive domain of computer geeks and a leisurely activity. However, with the rapid professionalization of competitive gaming, entry of big businesses and major brands in the industry, and rising global popularity, e-sports are steadily inching towards becoming a serious ‘sport’.
The narrative of e-sports needs to take into account its parallel rise in different parts of the world. The emergence of competitive video gaming was informed by differing value systems, gaming cultures (Wagner, 2006), and physical infrastructure in the west and the east. Competitive gaming started gaining traction in the USA during 1990s with spread of the personal computer (PC) and emergence of popular computer games. This was accompanied by emergence of gaming teams/clans or leagues, comprising of professional gamers who competed in these tournaments. While in its early days, e-sports in the west focused on networked First Person Shooter (FPS) tournaments, South Korea (the birth-place of e-sports in the East) experienced tremendous popularity of Massively Multi-user Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) and Real Time Strategy (RTS) genre of games. South Korea, with one of the most liberalized telecom sectors in Asia (Yun et al, 2002) and extensive broadband penetration, was a natural contender for the emergence of e-sports. Its high-speed broadband network in the ’90s opened up new avenues for providing entertainment content to its citizens. It also presented lucrative business opportunities for tech-entrepreneurs. Riding on the back of this massive infrastructure, S Korea became the world leader in e-sports, with tournaments being telecast both online and on Korean television. The formation of the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) with the active involvement of the government ministries gave impetus to its proliferation within the country and provided it with legitimacy and respectability paralleling that of other professional sports ( DeNicola, 2014).
The launch of World Cyber Games and Electronic Sports World Cup in 2000 signaled the tremendous potential of competitive gaming events. Numerous gaming leagues also sprung up to provide a platform for aspiring gamers. Major League Gaming (MLG), established in 2002 in the USA is possibly the biggest organization responsible for supporting professional gamers and organizing e-sporting events (Jackson, 2013). The popularity of e-sports (especially Starcraft, an RTS with a huge fan following) in Korea is comparable to the status enjoyed by cricket in the Indian subcontinent, with star players/teams enjoying celebrity status, and lucrative endorsement deals.
Another unique aspect of e-sports is that of live gameplay streaming. The arrival of Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) technology (Scholz, 2011) allowed the creation and broadcasting of user content, and had a catalytic effect on rapid diffusion of e-sports globally (Edge, 2013). Players, broadcasters, and viewers who constitute the gaming community have been an inextricable part of e-sports� growth story. Unlike traditional sports, gameplay streaming allows for a two-way communication between the player or the broadcaster, and the spectators. This fosters a feeling of belonging amongst the spectators while also popularizing their favorite broadcasters. The ability to both spectate and contribute (Edge, 2013) leads to building up of �social capital� for the community based on a platform which transcends the limitations of physical space.
According to a recent report, around 71 million people worldwide (half of them in the USA) are active consumers of e-sports related content (SuperData, 2014). Twitch, a web platform for live streaming games, has proved to be pivotal in the expansion of e-sports. Established in 2011, it reached about 45 million users in 2013 (O’Neill, 2014). This has attracted a lot of attention from tech organizations and major brands wishing to invest in the industry. The finals of DoTA2 TI4 were telecast by ESPN, and the television giant is looking to expand its coverage to other games as well (Chalk, 2014). Big brands like Coke, Nissan, Intel, and Red Bull have already moved into e-sports in order to capitalize on the opportunity. At the time of writing, Google had finalized a deal to buy Twitch for $1 billion and fold it within its YouTube operations (O’Brien, 2014).
Meanwhile the global community in e-sports continues to grow. League of Legends (LoL), another online multiplayer strategy game, reached a staggering 27 million daily players in 2014, more than double of its 12 million players in 2012 (Sherr, 2014). The revenue generating models used by these games are quite different from the traditional ones. Some games like the popular ‘World of Warcraft’ charge a monthly fee from its subscribers. In case of LoL, players have no initial charge but can choose the pay-to-play option for certain aspects of the game or for improved aesthetics of their gameplay. DoTA2 follows the free-to-play model wherein the entire game and all its characters are free, and the players may pay for cosmetic visual improvements. These improvements do not affect the performance of a character, thereby ensuring a fair gameplay experience for all. This model of micro transactions has proven to be a success; in 2013, DoTA2 and LoL generated $80 million and $624 million respectively through these micro transactions (Grubb, 2014).
In a groundbreaking decision in 2013, the US government provided e-sports players the same recognition as professional athletes (Tassi, 2013) when applying for visas. Some educational institutions have begun offering scholarships for competitive gamers in both Korea (Du, 2014) and USA (Swartz, 2014). While the industry is yet to mature, given the increasing professionalization of competitive gaming and organizations which foster gaming talent, and the burgeoning presence of the gaming community, it is not implausible that e-sports becomes a viable career choice in the near future.
The professional gaming ‘scene’ in India, while still nascent, has been steadily gaining momentum. Even though the abysmally low internet speeds in India (average speed of 1.4 Mbps in 2013 as per Akamai, 2013) make seamless live-streaming difficult, the gaming community has been growing over the years. While the current e-sports events are lacking in scale, exposure and finances, it is expected that deeper internet penetration and increase in user base would improve the situation. Electronic Sports League, one of the biggest leagues in the world, would soon be organizing local tournaments in India (Arya, 2014). Given India’s demographic profile, it is only a matter of time before businesses and marketing agencies perceive value in investing in this industry, leading to further mainstreaming of e-sports in the country. Meanwhile, at the global level, the complex marriage of competitive gaming, sports, media businesses, and technology continues to evolve within the context of a hyper-connected world.