Gaming goes pro
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ESports (short for “electronic sports”) are the fast-growing field of competitive computer gaming. They are professional team sports with big rewards for top players, and a huge online audience.
They have grown out of those early simple computer games into a massively popular worldwide phenomenon, using the latest in graphic and internet technology to put on an entertainment spectacle for fans.
World finals of a game like the hugely popular League of Legends are played in front of tens of thousands of fans in arenas like New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and are streamed live to millions on the internet.
Last year the world’s top 16 eSports players each earned more than US$1 million.
Counties Manukau authorised officer Jackson Jones is a fan who appreciates gaming both at a personal level – as a way of relaxing and having fun with friends – and as a follower of bigtime professional eSports.
Some promoters of eSports touted its value as replacement entertainment for regular sport put on hold round the world due to Covid-19 restrictions.
For 26-year-old Jackson, though, the lockdown made no difference to his life. He still got up and went to work at the Counties Manukau station’s custody suite, he still spent time with his partner, and he still socialised with his friends via gaming online.
He says gaming is a big part of his life, but he rarely plays on his own. “It’s what I do for fun, to de-stress and hang out with my friends. We’re hanging out instead of going out.”
League of Legends – one of their favourites – pits two teams of five players against each other, so he and four friends compete against another team. Each member of the team is playing at home on their own computer, and communicating via software built into the game.
Jackson says they don’t use webcams to see each other, as that would distract them from the game action. However in bigtime professional eSports, players tend to switch on their webcams so the fans can see their faces as they play.
Computer games can be classified by the way the inner world of a game works and the way the player interacts with it. League of Legends – the world’s most-watched eSport – is a multi-player online battle arena game. Players choose to be one of a wide range of champions, who battle against the opposing team’s champions and destroy their “nexus”.
Other games Jackson plays, which are also played at eSport level, include Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch – both of these are first-person shooter games, in which the game is seen through the eyes of the player/protagonist.
The huge world audience for eSports has been built by livestreaming competitions, usually via the platform Twitch. The growth of the genre is evident in the ballooning use of Twitch – launched in 2011, by 2013 it had 45 million viewers. The following year it was listed as the fourth largest source of peak internet traffic in the United States, and was snapped up by Amazon for US$790 million. By 2018 it had 15 million active daily users.
The championship finals are glamour competitions held in large arenas. The opposing teams of five are lined up on either side of the stage in front of their computers, and a massive “jumbotron” – a huge multi-screened television structure hanging from the ceiling – shows the game action to the crowd.
More than 100 million people watched the 2019 League of Legends championship finals in Europe. Qualifying teams from 13 different international regions played dozens of matches in Berlin, Madrid, and Paris over five weeks, culminating in a US$1.1 million championship match in Paris in front of 15,000 fans. The final match was broadcast in 16 different languages and the audience peaked at 44 million concurrent viewers.
In New Zealand, eSports are still in their infancy. In 2019, in terms of prize money, the US led the world, with 5341 players competing in tournaments that paid out a total of US$41.3 million. China, Korea, France and Finland followed in the rankings. New Zealand ranked 39th in money terms, with 85 players competing for $745,000 in prize money.
ESports have made links with the rock music world and the wider world of regular sport. The American band Imagine Dragons wrote the theme music for the League of Legends 2014 world championships and performed it on stage at the finals in Seoul, South Korea.
In California, the League of Legends team Golden Guardians is partially owned by the San Francisco NBA team, the Golden State Warriors.
Jackson supports the American organisation TSM (Team SoloMid), which runs one of the most popular League of Legends teams in the world.
He’s well aware of the clichés around gaming – “it’s still a bit frowned on”. It’s more socially acceptable to say you binge-watched a show for eight hours on Netflix than to be gaming for eight hours. But he maintains gaming requires more active input and is more mentally challenging than passively watching a TV show.
If you’re young, you’ll have grown up with computer gaming. If you’re a bit longer in the tooth, you might have played Space Invaders in a pub or arcade, back in the ‘80s. If so, you were in at the ground level of eSports.
It’s what I do for fun, to de-stress and hang out with my friends. We’re hanging out instead of going out.