From the Roman Colosseum to modern-day football stadiums, millions of people pay money to be spectators of contests. As technology has changed, so too have the sports audiences choose to watch.
Now we're on the verge of the next great evolution of the sports industry: eSports, or competitive video gameplay. It's a massive industry — bigger than you know. And you're about to get really into it, whether you expect to or not.
How Did This Get Started?
Let's go back to 1972.
The early eSports didn’t offer the winners much in the way of monetary prizes. Rather, people competed for bragging rights. The most well-known player at that time? Billy Mitchell.
Before he got involved with eSports, Mitchell was an avid pinball player. Then he noticed his friends were hanging around at the arcade, watching people play Donkey Kong and wanted in on the fun. By 1985 he had his name inducted into Guinness World Records for having the highest score in the most arcade games.
ESPN's Heroes Of The Dorm
eSports has come a long way since Mitchell’s heyday. What was once a niche for hardcore hobbyists has transformed into a multibillion-dollar industry. And as with traditional sports, the inspirational and aspirational human stories to be found are staggering.
At the forefront of the industry is gaming company Blizzard, who sponsors events for games such as StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm.
In March of last year, Blizzard unveiled a college competition entitled Heroes of the Dorm, in which college students competed in the game Heroes of the Storm for a chance to win $75,000 in college tuition.
When it launched, Blizzard Entertainment president and a co-founder Mike Morhaime had this to say:
“College sports do great things for student athletes — they help pay for schooling, build teamwork and communication skills, and create lasting memories. We believe eSports has the same kind of power, and this tournament aims to bring positive experiences like these to college gamers.”
Global sports network ESPN felt this could apply to eSports just as well. The network broadcasted the event on national television in the US. There are few bigger stages than that. Now that the concept is catching on, Blizzard has huge plans for the future of eSports. To that end, it recently hired the former head of the NFL network to run its expanding eSports division.
Inspiration And Aspiration: Why We Love Sports
Part of the appeal behind sports is the narrative of nobodies rising to incredible fame and accomplishment. It's inspiring. Blizzard has already demonstrated that it can do that for eSports players in the same way that the NFL or other organizations can with traditional athletes.
Take the professional gamer IdrA (real name Gregory Fields), one of the biggest names in eSports. He's widely respected by both fans and players for his impressive skills. His story is truly that of a man who went against society and expectations, in a bid to realize his dreams.
Fields had planned to study theoretical physics on scholarship at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York — but instead he started a professional career playing the Blizzard game StarCraft.
He moved to Korea, where the game is particularly popular, and he quickly achieved success. He went on to win several international tournaments, including 2007’s eSTRO SuperStars. This opened many doors for the budding cyber athlete.
After Fields established himself as one of the best players in the world, Blizzard announced the release of a new StarCraft game. He made the switch to StarCraft II and quickly cemented his position as one of the strongest players of the game. He went on on to be ranked the No. 1 player in the Platinum League with a 62-8 win-loss record.
However, it takes a lot more than natural talent to excel in the world of eSports. As in football, basketball or any other traditional sport, eSports athletes go through intense training to prepare for the challenging tournaments.
When discussing his extreme training, IdrA told ESPN:
"When I played in Korea [from 2008 to 2011], the training schedule excluded any activity that wasn't eating, sleeping and practicing.
"We played for 12 hours a day with one or two days off a month."
This rigorous training regimen evidently took its toll on the young star, who retired from competitive gaming in 2013. However, he remained involved in the eSports world as an announcer for teamliquid.net. In 2014, IdrA announced he would be retiring from eSports entirely and would be going to college to earn his degree. Shortly thereafter, at BlizzCon 2014, it was announced that IdrA would be coming out of retirement to join the Evil Geniuses, a team that played the new Blizzard game Heroes of the Storm.
How Do I Get Involved?
If you want to start watching eSports, then you're in luck! There are a lot of ways to do it. The games are appearing more and more in traditional outlets like ESPN, but the full experience can be found on twitch.tv, a website for streaming live gameplay.
You can also attend BlizzCon or buy an online streaming pass. That's the convention where Blizzard hosts its biggest finals and competitions. If you go to the StarCraft final, you'll find yourself surrounded by cheering and jeering from a stadium filled with like-minded fans.
When you get to see it in the flesh, it's impossible to deny how huge eSports has become.