The Rise of eSports: A Look at America’s Next Favorite Pastime

How close are we to esports becoming America's next favorite pastime? A lot closer than you might think...

When TwitchTV launched in June 2011, the website brought in about 5 million unique visitors a month. The website, which streams live video as players from around the world play their favorite video game, was designed from the beginning to be a platform for electronic sports.  ESports and professional gaming tournaments have been popular outside of the United States, particularly in Asia, for quite some time, but the new website was seen by some as one of the first major tests to see if eSports could achieve the same level of success in North America. Today, Twitch brings in about 35 million unique visitors a month.

Well, that escalated quickly.

Anyone plugged into the video game industry over the last two years has watched as interest in professional gaming has skyrocketed. Even those outside of the business are beginning to take note.

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America’s Next Favorite Pastime?

There’s a reason Major League Gaming’s logo is a red and blue background with a white controller. The design mimics Major League Baseball’s official logo and makes it clear MLG considers itself a sports league.  Mike Sespo, president of Major League Gaming, once quipped that his eSports league will soon be on par with the likes of the MLB or NASCAR. TwitchTV has not been shy about its goal to become “the ESPN of video games.”  While such statements seemed to be nothing more than hyperbole even as recently as a few years ago, a look at the eSports landscape in 2013 shows that the comparison to mainstream professional athletics might not be far off point.

Today, tournaments like the Starcraft II World Championship Series or the Evo convention for fighting games are as eagerly anticipated by some gamers in the same way a baseball fan might look forward to the World Series. Professional gamers Justin Wong and Greg Fields have become as well known within the eSports community as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning are to a football fan. Some tournaments for League of Legends or Starcraft II now have entire seasons of play spanning many games, culminating in a championship match, similar to college basketball’s March Madness.

If you need any further evidence that eSports is a force to be reckoned with, it’s this: Riot Games announced a couple of weeks ago that its League of Legends All-Star Game in China drew 18 million unique viewers over the web. Last week’s Major League Baseball All-Star game on Fox drew 11 million. The fact that League of Legends numbers are from a global audience should be noted, but there’s no arguing that eSports is already well on its way to achieving Mike Sespo’s pipe dream of just a couple years ago.

Putting the sport in eSports

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While the rise of eSports in North America has been swift, there are still some holdouts even within the gaming community who scoff at the notion that playing video games requires athletic prowess.  But while the idea of clicking buttons on a mouse for a living may still be considered humorous to some, one key entity that’s definitely not laughing is the United States government. Just last week, Riot Games earned a major victory by getting League of Legends players classified by the U.S. as professional athletes. The news means that LoL players from outside the United States can now apply for an athletic visa which will make entering tournaments in the United States much easier.

In order to get the designation, Riot had to prove to the government that playing games takes athletic skill. To explain why a professional eSports player is more athletically talented than the average person, take a look at Starcraft II. Your speed in that game is measured in what is called “APM” or actions per minute.APM is essentially the rate at which you are able to progress in a Starcraft match by entering commands into the keyboard and/or mouse. Starcraft is a real time strategy game where players build an entire army essentially from scratch and then use the assembled pixels to decimate their opponent. A player with a high APM is going to be able to assemble his or her troops and move around the map at a much faster pace than a novice player. APM isn’t everything, players still have to adapt to their opponent’s moves on the fly and account for mistakes. But having a higher APM than your opponent is like say, a wide receiver that can sprint faster than the defensive back covering him. There are things the defensive back can do to stay in the play, but that wide receiver is going to get off the line with an immediate advantage.

You can even go on Youtube today and find numerous videos on how to increase your APM, not unlike someone Googling how to perfect their golf swing. As more gamers tune in to Twitch and other outlets to watch the best in the industry at work, more and more professional players are building a fan base filled with people who have a genuine appreciation for what they can do, not just as gamers, but as athletes.

The Future is Bright

The amount of news coming out of the eSports side of the gaming industry in just the last few months is astounding and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.  When Riot Games announced the viewing total for that League of Legends All-Star game, the company also let it slip that the Season 3 World Championship will take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Gamers will throw down before a sold out crowd in the same space where the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings play. Major League Gaming’s Mike Sespo said his company is now working directly with the developers of major games like Starcraft II and Call of Duty in order to help with features like built-in streaming for the eSports audience.

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Starcraft II developer Blizzard Entertainment recently purchased eSports technology to incorporate into its own games.  When Nintendo tried to prevent Super Smash Bros Melee from being played at this year’s Evo, the company immediately found out the eSports community didn’t appreciate it and the Big N relented.And It’s not just the fans that are commanding more clout.

Some of the best professional gamers are making well over six figures in earnings. Major League Gaming’s Spring Championship Series last June provided players with more than $100,000 in prizes alone. Many high end players not only make money by winning tournaments but by signing corporate sponsorships. Michael Jordan might have pitched Gatorade and Hanes but today’s eSports athletes stand behind products like mechanical gaming keyboards and headsets.

Will there ever be a day where the general public tunes in to watch a gaming tournament in the same fashion we all get together to watch the Super Bowl? That remains to be seen, but there’s no question the strides that eSports has made in the last two years means it’s going to be a very interesting story to follow in the months ahead.

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