Professional sports are all about high impact hits, nail-biting turnovers, unbeatable strategies, well-timed spells, and most importantly, experience. We are talking about electronic sports or professional gaming. This week marks the 2015 DOTA 2 International Championship being held in Seattle, Washington, and we here at The NYRD have caught the fever, so put on your Boots of Travel and take a journey with us as we explore the rise of eSports and the phenomena that is Defense of The Ancients.
DOTA -or more accurately DOTA 2- is a Multi Online Battle Arena or MOBA. There a lot of acronyms in professional gaming, so for any newbs you will have to bear with us. The original game, which started as a mod for Warcraft III has exploded on the professional gaming scene. The basic concept is that 5 heroes compete against 5 heroes in a multi-lane arena. The first team to destroy the opponent’s ancient, or main building, wins the game. A lot can happen in the 30 to 100 minutes it might take to complete the game, including a fair amount of less-than polite talk about your mother. Maybe that is why its popularity in the gaming world has exploded, but hopefully not, because we here at The NYRD support mothers… We supported yours last night.
Each year the DOTA International Championship has broken records for eSports prizes. In 2013, the prize pool was over 2.8 million dollars. In 2014, it soared to over 10 million, with the winning team taking home more than 5 million. For this year, the pool has reached over 18 million, with Saturday’s winners expected to take home about 6.5 million, and we’re not talking in gold or experience points. Prizes are awarded in real American dollars, thanks in no small part to the help of the DOTA community which helps crowdfund the tournament through purchases of an in-game compendium. This game is so successful that it is free to play, but people still spend their money on it. However, DOTA fans are only one source of income for the Valve, the game’s parent company. There are now billion dollar sponsors clamoring to get a piece of the l33t action.
Coco-Cola, Intel, and others are getting on the pwnage and for good reason. According to the International Business Times, the amount of people who currently watch eSports is about the same amount that watches NHL hockey, and some analysts believe that by 2017 that viewership could rival the NFL. That means that currently, almost 71 million people watch eSports and half of those viewers are from the United States. In 2013, about 14.9 million people watched the World Series and 26.3 million watched the NBA Finals, but 32 million people tuned in for the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship. The championship sold out the Staples Center in LA. This year, the DOTA International sold out the Key Arena in Seattle in a matter of seconds. Tickets were so hard to come by that scalpers were selling them online for hundreds of dollars above asking price… Not that we here at The NYRD tried unsuccessfully for hours to get them… or anything like that. We never wanted to go in the first place, anyway.
Though this modern craze over competitive gaming may seem relatively new, the truth is that is has been going on since the Windows 98 era, a simpler time with simpler graphic requirements. Amateurs and enthusiasts alike would gather to compete in small lan parties, where players would link their computers together over connecting cables. Back then the only sponsor was the money in people’s pockets and that one guy who always brought the case of Mountain Dew. However, that all changed in 2012 when Blizzard released StarCraft II.
Around the world, but especially in America, professional gaming become something more than just a bunch of nerds sitting around in someone’s basement. Suddenly, it became not only a globally competitive sport, but a spectator one as well. Players began casting their matches. Commentators also started streaming and giving rudimentary analysis and play-by-play over headsets for the enjoyment of others. Perhaps more importantly, people were watching.
Some might argue that this casting craze is what really helped elevate eSports to its current level of popularity. Twitch.tv arose to become the most prominent eSports streaming site on the Internet, even if it sometimes crashed right in the middle of the match you are watching, or get hacked, because it’s the Internet. Anyone who has been paying attention, has watched Twitch go from a collection of casters to a full fledged eSports channel to rival any cable network that broadcasts those other sports that you can’t stream over the web. Their production value this year has been top notch, but also might not hurt if they gave correspondents and commentators are least a few lessons in journalism or broadcast. Gamers are great people, but they are not always the most social of interviewers.
eSports has really started picking up momentum, especially in Asia. The South Korean military even started its own StarCraft team, and there is a story that a Korean StarCraft team was had to give a pep talk to the Korean World Cup Soccer team before one of their games. These days there are a multitude of online competitive games to play: DOTA, League of Legends, StarCraft, Smash Bros., Call of Duty, and some serious cash to be farmed in professional gaming. The highest earners play DOTA, with Zhihao “Hao” Chen having the highest overall winnings with an all time earning of 1.2 million dollars. That could change depending on how he and his team do in this year’s tournament. Unfortunately, it is not all Cheetos, carpal tunnel, and bling.
Many professional gamers, especially those who live in China, live together in practice houses sometimes playing their dedicated game for over ten hours a day. For anyone who might want to believe that this is not a sport you would be wrong. Teams have trainers, psychologists, media, and communications specialists. They train and work as hard as any professional sports team. It can be grueling, stressful, and full of rage quits. More than one team and player has cracked under the pressure of losing a match that cost them nearly a million dollars. A fact which could be compounded by a competitor’s age.
You don’t have to be an adult to compete. One of DOTA’s best known players, Ludwig Wahlberg, known to fans as Zai, started playing at the age of 16. Unfortunately, the career expectancy on these players is also shorter than that of professional football players. Reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination naturally degrade with age, and most professional gamers will not be able to play competitively beyond their late 20’s. As a side note, that is the statistic we quote the most often over voice chat when we are being tea-bagged by some punk sixteen year old.
Professional gaming may seem like a passing fad to older generations, but it is only increasing in popularity among younger generations. In 2000, there were only 27 eSports tournaments held. In 2014, that number had increased to 1,895, with a combined total of 35.7 million dollars. That does not even include the endorsement deals that eSport athletes are receiving from companies ranging from American Express to Ford. What some might find even more surprising is that colleges are now offering scholarships to top online players. Robert Morris University in Chicago gave more than $500,000 to gamers. Overall, as of 2014, roughly 10,000 players in 450 American universities are receiving scholarship money for their gaming skills.
Both colleges and companies understand the potential of this new form of competition. In a world where students and new customers are growing up playing these games there is a new and blossoming market. Younger Americans connect with eSports because they themselves understand and enjoy playing the games themselves. To students in high school, professional gaming seems as natural as professional sports, and furthered by the fact that TV viewership is dying among young adults and teens. More and more Millennials and subsequent generations are spending more and more time streaming channels like Twitch, than watching cable or network television. This means that eSports is already positioned in a place where most major league and professional sports in America cannot be. The NFL just signed a deal with Yahoo to do their first live stream game in the 2015-2016 season, but most traditional sports are still tied up in network contracts. DOTA and games like it are ahead of the curve in a world where more people are turning to Netflix for shows like House of Cards and Daredevil.
DOTA and sports in general are here to stay and will only continue to grow in the future. To check out the current standings of the DOTA 2 International Championship, check out the main DOTA site. We would also recommend checking out a game or two this week to see what all the hype is about. If you we re a newb there is even a beginner’s stream where they will walk you through the game. Already fans have been witness to some epic plays and epic upsets. We here at The NYRD will be tuned in all week and especially on Saturday for the finals, as will almost 40 million other people, but to hold you over until then let us celebrate DOTA in the traditional way, with Swedish dance music.