If “professional gaming” was once an oxymoron, those days are long gone. Video games, once a somewhat solitary affair, have exploded into full-featured social affairs, thanks to the rise of massive multiplayer online PC games and features that developed over the lifespan of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
The realm of professional gaming, known as “e-sports”, truly comprises its own world. With customs, etiquette and language all its own, to the outsider or even the casual gamer (you know, the Mario Kart type), pro gaming is a whole different ballgame. To wit:
1. People Watch A Lot Of It
As pro gaming’s premier online platform, Twitch airs both gamer channels and major competitions. The company’s formula smashes together the stickiness factor of some of the stickiest services around. Video games already boast impressive engagement numbers, and Twitch blends in social and streaming video—two realms known for their massive engagement numbers, à la YouTube.
Gamers can tune in to watch other gamers hard at play or opt to broadcast or record their own gaming session. Unlike your average viral Web video, an average Twitch viewing session spans 28 minutes—longer than the runtime of a sitcom. In 2013, 58% of Twitch users spent more than 20 hours a week on the service and the average user watched 106 minutes of gameplay per day.
2. You Can Get Rich Doing It
In pro gaming, there are two major ways to cash in. One: join a partner program, build a huge online viewership, and get a cut in the ad revenue your gameplay rakes in. YouTube, Twitch, MajorLeagueGaming and plenty of other services host popular gamers. For example, Twitch partner Roberto Garcia, better known as Towelliee, made around $96,000 annually according to a Reddit post from 2013—and he’s not even playing pro-gaming’s big money games.
The less D.I.Y. side of playing video games for a living is the surprisingly glitzy world of tournament play. In major e-sports competitions, the pot for winning players can be huge. In a Call of Duty championship last month, winning team CompLexity took home $400,000 of a $1 million prize, divvied up among the best. For pro gaming’s most elite tournaments prize pots of $2 million and $3 million are standard.
3. E-Sports: Just Like Real Sports, Sort Of
With obsessive fans, cutthroat competition and thriving rivalries between teams, pro gaming competition has more in common with “real” sports than you might think. Like any athletic sport, from the NFL to Olympic figure skating, to become an elite contender in e-sports demands intensive practice.
Massively, a site dedicated to the broad genre of “massively multiplayer” online games offers this advice:
Practice is the only thing separating novice League of Legends players from experts. No pro player got to where he is today by playing only one or two games a day.
Mastering the jargon of a given game, the names of its character classes, moves, strategies and greats, is a feat of its own.
Like athletic sports, e-sports can fill a stadium too: last year’s League of Legends championship sold out 13,000 seats at LA’s Staples Center, with millions more watching live online.
4. Playing Games Is Really, Really Hard
Many of pro gaming’s most popular (and most lucrative) competitive titles are endlessly complex and even openly hostile to new players. Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle arena game (called a “MOBA”), boasts such a notoriously high learning curve that your average hardcore gamer won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.
Skilled Dota 2 player Kevin “Purge” Godec fills his channel with coaching sessions and offers a 10,600-word beginner’s guide on his site fittingly titled “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”. It’s not uncommon for gamers to mention Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule—the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something—in reference to getting good at League of Legends, an extremely strategic e-sports staple.
5. South Korea Pwns The Globe
While the U.S. might like to think it’s on top in all things competitive, South Korea is the uncontested king of professional gaming. There are a variety of reasons behind the country’s dominance, but widespread access to ultra-fast Internet connections—a prerequisite for online games in which a fraction of a second can make a difference—certainly helps. The nation’s Internet is the fastest in the world (the U.S. is ranked 8th) and it’s about to get even faster.
Widespread, screaming-fast connections power a culture that considers its e-sports winners celebrities. On global leaderboards, South Korea leads e-sports total winnings with $17.6 million and boasts the world’s most successful player, Jae Dong Lee, who’s made over half a million dollars in games like StarCraft. If PC gaming lulled for a bit in Western markets as console gaming stormed into the mainstream, it continued to thrive in Asia.
Still, competitive gaming is a worldwide phenomenon, instantly connecting players who would be total strangers in any other context. In the last few years, pro gaming has taken off in the U.S. and it certainly shows no signs of slowing down.
Lead image of the League of Legends Season 2 World Championship by Flickr user artubr