How Professional Gaming Works

league of legends players
Members of the Evil Genius team play during a live taping of the League of Legends North American Championship Series Spring round robin competition. League of Legends, a hugely popular multiplayer online battle arena games, has a pro competitive league. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

They say that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. They also say that, if a thing exists, humans will find a way to compete over it — or make money from it. So it was only a matter of time before the spiritual successors of pinball wizards and pool hall warriors found a way to take video games from the couch to the colosseum.

That's right. It is now possible to make a living playing video games. And why not? The global video games industry now posts profits that outstrip the music industry and show signs of creeping up on the film industry [sources: Kamenetz, Wingfield]. Someone was bound to clamp a vampire clip onto that money stream eventually. That's not to say that the journey hasn't seen its share of false starts and detours: Video game tourneys date back to the early 1970s, and attempts to turn them into watchable theater began as far back as the early 1980s.


These attempts share about as much in common with modern professional gaming, aka eSports, as NBA hoops do with basketball inventor James Naismith's peach baskets. Today, pro-gaming tournament circuits ring the globe, and prize pools — funded by tournament hosts, game companies and sales of special passes and merchandise — reach into the millions. Major events fill stadiums like San Jose's SAP Center, and online viewership can reach into six figures.

Solid estimates on details — such as the lifestyle, money involved and the number of players making a living at eSports — remain elusive. It's a young sport and strictly a freelance operation. Winners pay for rent, rigs, and Red Bull with prize money and social media revenue, sponsorships and appearances. Wannabes often rely on parental support while they struggle to break into the top-tier leaderboards, where teams and tournaments might take notice.

But they're still part of a larger community, one that helps to account for eSports' rising success. When it comes to the level of access that fans have to pros and superstars alike, eSports is in a class by itself. Through social video services like Twitch, fans can experience the equivalent of listening to Tom Brady narrate his thoughts as he calls an audible, or follow Kobe Bryant on a fast break as he reads the defense. Pay for the right access level, and a pro might even answer your question, or drop into a pickup game that a few lucky fans can join.

To outsiders, professional gaming might still draw sneers. But to a global community that numbers into the millions, the joke is on anyone who doesn't follow these computerized contests of skill.


The Road to Recognition

The studio audience cheers before the start of the 2014 League of Legends North American Championship Series Spring Split round robin competition.

Colosseum crowds — and the sponsors and cash that flow from them — remained elusive in the pro gaming's early days. At first, technical problems, including a lack of network code or infrastructure needed to link games fairly and effectively, posed the greatest single hurdle. But as the dance of client and server fell into step, and as the internet spread across an ever-growing galaxy of devices, the major barrier shifted from a practical question to a matter of product awareness and access.

Players facing off against one another wasn't enough to make a sport. For a pastime to achieve that kind of status, people must play it, understand it and absorb its very essence into their twitchy finger bones. To make for good viewing, older video games needed to achieve such widespread adoption and familiarity as to pose no barrier to entry. Viewers needed to grasp the fast-paced action almost intuitively, and the "casters" who provided play-by-play and color commentary needed something interesting and informative to say.


Venerable fighting franchises like "Street Fighter," or the granddaddy of all competition real-time strategy (RTS) games, Blizzard's "StarCraft" franchise, sported the right combo of cred and history, earned over years of play and replay, sequels and modifications (aka "mods"). Against such a track record, newer games needed to compete by offering cleaner play, better visuals, novelty and something even more important: accessibility. In short, they needed the video game equivalent of stickball.

While some games still charge up-front purchase prices, many of these younger tournament games glommed onto the free-to-play (FTP) model as a means of expanding their reach. Instead of a $40 to $70 price tag up front, these games make money via heaps of small transactions, chump change that pays for perks like power-ups, alternative visuals or expanded content. With the advent of FTP games designed specifically to pit teams of players against one another, and with built-in ladder and leaderboard standings, games like "Dota 2" ("Defense of the Ancients") were tailor-made for eSports.

As pro gaming has expanded into a global phenomenon, it has encountered another major hurdle: How to recruit teammates from foreign countries. Other sports already enjoy a special immigration status that allows foreign players to join U.S. teams. As of May 29, 2013 — when player Danny Le's P-1 work visa application was approved, enabling him to join his teammates in Riverside, California — so do eSports teams. That's right: The U.S. government now recognizes eSports players as athletes, so maybe the rest of us can cut them a little slack. In case you're still not convinced, though, let's look at what makes these games proper sports.


Yes, but is it a sport?

Guest commenter William 'Blitz' Lee speaks at the 2014 International Dota 2 Championships in Seattle, Washington.
Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic

What makes a sport? Every time the Olympic Games include one or two "fringe" events, like trampoline, someone asks the same question. And even if video games are considered a sport, who would want to watch them?

You know they televise golf, right?


If one takes a wider view of the subject, then eSports clearly qualify: Success, as in any sport, requires a specific skillset, practice, devotion and standout talent. The games require a head for tactics and strategy, the coolheaded know-how to make high-risk calls and the guts to follow through on them. Players must know their teammates' (and opponents') rhythms and styles, and sense when to seize the initiative and when to set up a teammate for the big play. These aren't games of inches or yards, but contests in which mere milliseconds and paltry pixels mark the difference between victory and defeat.

As in other sports, the highlight-reel moments of eSports rely on positioning and timing. Pro basketball players know when to shift from a man-to-man to a zone defense. "Dota 2" players know when to shift a solo hero away from the mid-lane to set up a 3-on-2 "gank."

As in other sports, pro games swing on momentum shifts, but arguably much harsher ones than occur during an NHL power play or a 10-point swing in the NBA. In eSports, momentum swings occur in a matter of seconds and provide some of the greatest delight for the viewer. Because they often add insult to injury — simultaneously punishing one side's mistakes while rewarding the other side's success streaks — they set up both failure feedbacks and gob-smacking comebacks. They promise Cinderella stories, too, as when the Swedish team Alliance won the 2013 "Dota 2" tournament less than a year after they first formed, and during that year won nine different "Dota 2" tournaments.

Beyond these remain the intangibles that mark any sport, such as the dense lingo, the shadow cast by major corporate sponsors (keen to reach that ever more elusive 18-to-35-year-old male demo), and the gaming groupies who follow their favorite teams around like boy bands. And there's the ugly side, too: The rookies who choke when they get to the big show, the players who are traded like creased bubblegum cards and the gymnast-like career spans. The median age of gamers is 22, and by their mid-20s they're already considered old — possibly thanks to age-related cognitive-motor decline in reaction times, but some say interest in competition also drops off as many gamers get older [sources: All Work All Play, Thompson et al.].

Those breaks and burdens only build over time. As the business side of eSports comes more and more into focus, we'll likely see an expansion of college programs and scholarships, like the ones already offered by at least five colleges, and color commentary and coverage will continue its move from companies like ESL to big dogs like ESPN, which has already begun to dip its toe into the data steam [sources: All Work All Play, Mueller].


The Games People Play

Members of Newbee pose onstage after their win at the 2014 International Dota 2 Championships.
Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Tournaments large and small exist for all kinds of games, and we'll discuss the major competitions in the next section. First, let's take a quick look at the categories of games that dominate eSports, and some of the standout examples of each.

Fighting games such as "Street Fighter," Nintendo's "Super Smash Bros." series and "Marvel vs. Capcom" pit two players or tag-teams against each other, mano-a-mano, in the virtual squared circle. The games play like mixed martial arts, emphasis on the "mixed": mixed with superpowers, with magic and with Saturday-morning kung-fu powers. Players use a combination of positioning, fundamentals, timing and special moves to take down their opponents, flowing from finicky ripostes to devastating combos. Fighting games have been a staple of arcade battles and couch-based contests from the beginning.


First-person shooters (FPS) focus on using weapons and tactics to accomplish strategic goals, which can range from base defense to killing as many people as possible. They can range from team-based combat, as in the "Battlefield," "Counter-Strike" or "Call of Duty" series, to individual arena-style battle royale competitions, as represented by games like "Quake," "Unreal Tournament," "Halo" and "Overwatch."

Real-time strategy (RTS) games — most famously Blizzard's "StarCraft: Brood War," "StarCraft II" and "Warcraft III," combine rapid tactical decision-making with strategic planning. They require players to manage resources, build and upgrade structures, gain intel, mount defenses and launch attacks, all while micromanaging the hard-fought skirmishes that decide the game.

Multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) combine the individual achievement of FPSs with the strategy and tactics of RTSs. More importantly, by shifting the RTS action to a smaller number of more powerful units — generically called Heroes, each played by a single player — they turn that struggle into a chance for team play. The RTS link traces back to the birth of the "Dota" franchise, which grew out of a 2003 fan mod of "Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos" called "Defense of the Ancients" (DotA, later just called Dota). Valve released its own version, "Dota 2," in 2013, four years after Riot Games put out its Dota-inspired "League of Legends," the other big name in the MOBA game.

These four categories cover the waterfront, but the list is far from exhaustive. If enough people like a game, someone is bound to build a tournament around it, whether your preference runs to popular sports franchises like "FIFA," computer-based card games like "Hearthstone" and "Pokémon," or even dance games.


The Major Tournaments

An audience watches competitors playing “Call of Duty Back Ops 3” during the 2016 Electronic Sports World Cup in Paris. The event draws the world’s best video game teams.

OK, so you've got your rig, your headset, your fancy gamer chair and a lot of fast-twitch muscle memory. Where do you go to earn your stack of cash? Well, a surprising number of places, as it turns out. We've listed here a few of the 800-pound gorillas in the eSports jungle:

Begun in 2003 and rooted in early Paris LAN parties, Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC) is still kicking, and it offers some of themore unusualgames on the eSports scene. ESWC is also known for offering custom levels to its competitors in such games as the racing series "Trackmania" [source: PC Mag].


As the maker of some of the longest-running tournament games in eSports, including "World of Warcraft" and "StarCraft," it's perhaps only appropriate that Blizzard hosts one of the major eSports events, BlizzCon, each year as a venue for both casual and professional gamers. Blizzard has eSports circuits for several of its major games, including the seasonal Heroes of the Storm Global Championship Circuit, kicked off in 2016 with a $4 million total purse; the massive Hearthstone Championship Tour, culminating in a $1 million championship; the StarCraft II World Championship Series, bumped up to a $2 million Blizzard-sponsored prize pool in 2016; and the $500,000 BlizzCon WCS Global Championship. That's all according to David Gordon, PR manager for Blizzard Entertainment, who announced in August 2016 that the company will also host the Overwatch World Cup, an international exhibition for nominees, pros and locals.

For about a decade, the Intel Extreme Masters tournament has held competitions around the world in various games. Its 2015 (Season 9) tournament focused on "StarCraft 2" and "League of Legends." IEM brings top regional players and fan favorites from around the world to compete in its championship, which in 2016 offered a $100,000 prize pool.

Run by "Dota 2" maker Valve, The International has seen steady growth since its inception in 2011, and now serves entertainment to thousands in meatspace (aka the real world) and hundreds of thousands on the interwebs. Its total prize pools reach into the tens of millions of dollars, funded in part by player purchases.

If fighting games are more your speed, you won't want to miss EVO (the Evolution Championship Series), a three-day event held annually in Las Vegas. EVO opens its double-elimination brackets to anyone, not just pros. Its 2016 roster included "Street Fighter V," "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3," "Mortal Kombat X," "Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator," "Pokken Tournament," "Killer Instinct," "Super Smash Bros. Melee," "Super Smash Bros. for WiiU" and "Tekken 7: Fated Retribution" [source: PC Mag].

A blurry line separates many tournament events from the expos and conventions with which they exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship. Think of Dreamhack as essentially a LAN party writ large (it holds the Guinness World Record for the world's largest), combined with an eSports event and computer festival. Dreamhack runs the gamut from casual to hardcore gamers, from traditional tournament games to sports and music games, and from hosted tournaments to BYOC (controller) get-togethers.

And the list goes on. Drill down far enough, and you'll find something for everyone. The more esoteric the game, the wilder the competition might be. Just check out the World Pump Festival, which celebrates the "Pump It Up" dancing game, and see if we're wrong.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Professional Gaming Works

I'm old enough to remember video arcades, and I'm of sufficient vintage to recall the joy of playing "Doom Deathmatch" over serial link — and the agony of dialing in across country via a 14.4 modem to play "Quake." I remember LAN parties and tournaments played for beer money, and I remember wasting hours of rare game time on solving basic network conflicts and other technical problems. All of which is just a long way of saying that in video games, as elsewhere, infrastructure is everything.

Also, get off my lawn.

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More Great Links

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