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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.