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Behind the Screens: An inside look at eSports culture

By Julian Aidan, Daily Arts Writer
and Akshay Seth, Daily B-Side Editor
Published April 11, 2013

It has been a long time coming. Arcade wizards have been vying for world-record high scores since arcade cabinets were introduced. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Local Area Network-based events gave the hardcore gamers opportunities to compete against one another. Today, innovations in technology and a shift in culture provide individuals with a competitive outlet in games like “StarCraft,” “League of Legends” and “Call of Duty,” among many others, forming the professional leagues that fund and organize tournaments letting gamers play videogames for up to seven-figure prize pools. This culture has since been dubbed eSports, short for electronic sports.

A platform for watching games

At the head of eSports is Sean “Day[9]” Plott, CEO and host at DAY[9]TV. His “Day[9] Daily” web series centers on strategy in the competitive online video game “StarCraft II.” He regularly acts as a commentator for professional gaming tournaments worldwide.

“I get nervous when I’m on air,” Plott joked.

Broadcasting since October 22, 2009, Plott’s a veteran of the “StarCraft” scene for over 12 years and is a former professional gamer. But the 2000s were a rough time to be in the business. The aesthetic gap between games first coming out and the games being played competitively was large enough to make potential tournament sponsors “leery of involving themselves … (asking) ‘Why are we doing an old game? Why aren’t we doing a new game that looks beautiful?’ ” Plott said.

The release of “StarCraft II” in 2010 marked the start of eSports’ popularity and prevalence in the gaming community. The visual quality and high-speed action of the game kept watchers enthralled. Best of all, a new way of reaching viewers became available through online platforms like Justin.tv, which hosted a lot of “StarCraft II” content immediately after release. It also allowed individuals streaming their gameplay to post ads on their channels during breaks in action. Similarly, YouTube was, and still is, an enormous platform for watching games, and its revenue-sharing practices made it an attractive option.

“Now, all of a sudden, not only is it free to stream, but you can actually generate revenue streaming,” Plott explained. “You could, at any hour of the day, even if there was no tournament, you could watch the best of the best … duking it out. The spectator sport began to grow because streaming was so huge.”

“StarCraft II” is now available to watch on gameplay-streaming sites like Twitch.tv (formerly part of Justin.tv), where hundreds of thousands of spectators tune in every day to watch players practice and compete. Many tune in to watch “League of Legends,” “Call of Duty,” “Dota 2” and other games whose exciting nature and demand for extensive practice have earned them massive viewerships and the title of eSports.

The second trend Plott pointed to is a shift in eSports from smaller communities outward as the movement gained legitimacy.

“It started off with the grassroots communities — the streamers like djWHEAT, like JP, like me just making content that we thought was cool … (and) the community on Team Liquid and Reddit doing their best,” he recalled.

“Then, we started to see the tournament organizers start to step in and make huge moves … it was the tournament organizers doing the big, flashy involvement and being leaders,” Plott continued. “Now we’re starting to see the publishers get involved. The publishers saying things like … ‘We are going to run our own thing and because it’s our game, we can do all sorts of great integrations with that.’ ”

The standard for competition

In “StarCraft II,” players compete online against one another for placement within a given division of a given league, which corresponds with their skill level. As players excel and are placed into gradually higher leagues, from the humble Bronze, representing the bottom eight percent of players, to the exalted Grandmaster league, which represents only the top-200 players in a given region.

“For a while, (going pro) was just playing on the ladder of whatever game and then (hoping) that a tournament organizer or team would see you,” Plott said. “Now, your performance on the ladder can seed you into a tournament where you could become a huge pro.”

More and more, formerly under-the-radar players are being brought to the main stage either by streaming their own content or getting into tournaments that their play helps them gain entry to, a model used by many other competitive games.

Blizzard, one of the world’s largest game development companies, recently instated three World Championship Series regions, split between South Korea, North America and Europe. Each region will have qualifying rounds and elimination rounds starting this month. The ultimate goal is to crown a world champion at the end of each year in a massive tournament broadcast live across the globe.

“I really like the direction (Blizzard’s) going in,” said LSA Freshman Adriel Leung. As an amateur “StarCraft II” player himself, he is the current coordinator for the University’s Collegiate StarLeague team. For students, the CSL provides a structured avenue to play competitively. Competing players typically are not pursuing professional gaming, but the league brings in serious competition and thousands of dollars in prize money.

With “StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm” becoming the standard for competition, players have had to adapt to its faster pace and limitless new strategic opportunities. At the first Major League Gaming tournament of the year, commentators and spectators alike could not help but comment on the breath of life the expansion had infused “StarCraft II” with.

“Everyone feels really, really good about how ‘Heart of the Swarm’ plays now,” Plott said. Making sure the professional scene is faring well in the face of new changes is a priority for any company whose game is being played competitively, and changes are rolled out on a regular basis.

“There’s a lot more strategy (and) a lot more room for risk,” Leung added. New units, maps and tournament structures have fostered the development of aggressive and action-packed matches. Players regularly execute upwards of 250 actions per minute, each one essential to maximize efficiency and clinch victory.

A potential for a career

In 2012 alone, nearly $4 million was distributed in prize money for “StarCraft II” tournaments, with 134 tournaments boasting prize pools greater than $1000. The opportunity to make a living by playing, streaming and winning is there. The opportunity to be recognized and go pro in eSports is there.

Plott’s manifesto on eSports, available on his site, describes the broad, all-inclusive nature of the community:

“We believe that our game, ‘StarCraft,’ is as dynamic and exciting a spectator sport as any other,” he said. “We think you should be one of us.”

But, as a spectator sport, what does the future of this industry hold?

“This might be kind of upsetting to some people, but personally I don’t think that eSports needs to be on television and I don’t think that it needs to be on general broadcasting,” George Georgallidis, professional “LoL” gamer and online personality, said. “Entertainment that we see today and enjoy is evolving. People my age aren’t watching TV as much anymore.”

Georgallidis, known inside the loosening but still pressure-sealed world of gaming as HotshotGG, is the founder and owner of Counter Logic Gaming, one of the first sponsored “LoL” teams that continues to maintain a sizeable online following. He began his career much like anyone else interested in video games — by getting his hands on as many as he could, eventually discovering and falling in love with the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre after playing the independently developed mod of “Warcraft III,” “Defense of the Ancients.”

After the release of “LoL” and the formation of his team, Georgallidis discovered he could pull thousands of viewers online to watch his live stream on the CLG website, allowing him to make a sizeable income from advertising and professional sponsorships for the CLG brand.

“I would never have left (college) if I didn’t have the success I did with livestreaming. There has to be a potential for me to live off ‘League of Legends,’ ” Georgallidis said. “As long as there’s that potential, I could take that risk and for me, it paid off.”

But is that risk worth taking for someone who’s relatively new to the scene? The numbers, though daunting from a distance, certainly indicate that “LoL” as a spectator-driven sport has the potential to experience explosive growth, but as Georgallidis indicated, it has to be channeled efficiently and with the understanding that eSports is breaking new ground. This isn’t football. This isn’t basketball. And it never will be.

The appeal of simplicity

“(Five, 10 years from now), I see it somewhere around the level of NASCAR,” Mona Zhang, CSL community outreach representative, joked. “No, I think it will always be a niche game simply because … basketball and football are mandatory in gym; they’ll never be the same. If every kid in America was able to get into ‘League of Legends,’ I don’t doubt that there could be a revolution.”

Of the millions that play worldwide (recent reports by Riot Games, the company that created the game, indicate approximately a billion hours of playtime logged every month), over 8 million tuned into the Season Two World Championships held in Los Angeles last October. Riot took notice, introducing the League Championship Series.

Commonly referred to as LCS, or simply The League, the weekly match format gives players and spectators alike an organized medium to experience the professional scene. Polished and slickly arranged, the online shows are designed to mimic professional sports airings in every way. There’s a play-by-play analysis desk, commentators shepherding along viewers through every crucial development in every match and even weekly highlight reels for all the teams.

It’s funded almost solely by Riot Games, which also provides the salary for professional players and subs in addition to most of the tournament prize pools.

“The competitive scene is Riot right now — it is the LCS,” said Zhang. “But in the case that Riot was not there, and they were not funding these tournaments, I still think the community would come up with something.”

Part of that community has been brought together by organizations like CSL, which originally sponsored collegiate tournaments for StarCraft but has since branched into “LoL” after taking note of the game’s immediate mass appeal.

“ ‘StarCraft’ will always be the birth place of eSports for me,” Zhang said. “It definitely did kick off things in Korea, but now with ‘League of Legends,’ we have so many more people playing. There would be maybe a few Brood Wards players before, but now we’re getting hundreds of ‘League of Legends’ players at a single college.”

“League of Legend” ’s appeal has largely been a result of its simplicity — the relative ease with which new players can pick up the game and find a place within the community. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the game is free; the only voluntary expense is the purchase of Riot Points that allow players to pick up customized skins for characters and other add-ons that don’t affect overall gameplay.

Nurturing a competitive scene

“I think ‘StarCraft’ will have the same or similar fan base throughout its lifespan. The only reason ‘League of Legends’ is more popular is simply because it’s an easier game to pick up,” said Sam Li, an LSA junior and the University’s LoL Club vice president. “It was built from the ground up to be an easy game to learn, and yet the skill floor is pretty low but the skill ceiling is decently high, which is why it’s such a competitive game.”

The palpable difference in skill level, further highlighted by the straightforwardness of the game, allows “LoL” to be instrumental in nurturing a competitive scene.

“There’s a whole enterprise around having people watch the game, and at the same time, if you’re good enough, you now have the opportunity to play professionally,” Li said.

But at the end of the day, choosing to have a career in this industry is still very much a gamble. Li, for example, is hesitant to refer to himself as a professional player, instead calling his experience playing “LoL” competitively “semi-professional.”

“Stay in school,” Zhang said. “An education is irreplaceable. There are a lot of avenues into the professional scene now, but these collegiate leagues exist specifically to let you pursue your education and your gaming career.”

Georgallidis added that it depends on whether or not you’re willing to look past the money and glamor.

“A lot of the people I know never really got into the scene for the money,” Georgallidis said. “It’s about getting paid to do something you love. That seems like a far-fetched idea at this point but if you have the skill to back it up and really want to make this your career, I say go for it. Not doing so would be an opportunity missed.”


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