This weekend sees the first big Major League Gaming event of the year in the shape of its Winter Arena pay-per-view StarCraft 2 event in New York, which brings 32 of the best players in the world together. GameSpot will be covering the event exclusively, and our content will be hosted by noted eSports caster and host of LiveOnThree, Rod "Slasher" Breslau. Here, he brings us his observations on "the state of eSports" at the beginning of 2012.
I am more confident in eSports/professional gaming/competitive gaming than I ever have been since entering this amazing world. The infrastructure is better than it has ever been in terms of league, team, broadcaster, and player stability, including sponsorship, advertising, sales, and profitability. Major League Gaming and Evil Geniuses have all seen more growth than in years past, with nonendemic sponsors Dr Pepper, Red Bull, Stride, Monster, BIC, and Sony Ericsson in the mix among others. Prize money was over $6 million for players in 2011, including $2.5M for StarCraft 2, $1.6M for DotA2 from Valve, and $1M for Call of Duty. Eighty StarCraft 2 players made at least $10,000, eight made at least $100,000, and three made at least $200,000. A $5 million purse has been promised by Riot Games for League of Legends in 2012.
Players and commentators are Internet superstars entering mainstream sports/tech/geek territory, including Day9, Daigo, BoxeR, Walshy, HotShotGG, Cooller, djWHEAT, GeT RiGhT, Flash, Justin Wong, TotalBiscuit, NesTea, Reginald, Fatal1ty, IdrA, Sundance, cArn, Fwiz, Grubby, Tasteless & Artosis, Rapha, Alex Valle, Husky, Hastro, Moon, n0thing, Tobiwan, Dyrus, HuK, Gootecks, and Cypher--a list that keeps growing every year. Even I've been recognized on the subway, at a warehouse party in Brooklyn, and quite often at major gaming trade events. I saw autograph lines for people at non-autograph sessions for people like Day9 at BlizzCon/Comic Con last year that would rival major gaming figures, developers, and personalities.
Prize money was over $6 million for players in 2011, including $2.5M for StarCraft 2, $1.6M for DotA2 from Valve, and $1M for Call of Duty. Eighty StarCraft 2 players made at least $10,000, eight made at least $100,000, and three made at least $200,000.
Technology has improved tremendously in the past few years. Competitive gaming has led the relatively recent live streaming boom culminating with Justin.tv creating TwitchTV solely for competitive gaming. This new live-streaming culture has been an important catalyst for eSports, providing ease of use for both broadcasters and viewers alike. It's also a key component of a sportslike industry that requires live coverage. There's a greater opportunity than ever before for producers to monetize off merchandise sales, online streaming/video-on-demand ticket packages, and sponsor advertising and for fans to pay for it. Audio/video equipment and software have both gotten better and cheaper, allowing higher production values at major events for less expense and cheap solutions for small teams and individuals. It is now an expectation that fans should be able to watch multiple streams at once, whether it's a different game entirely, multiple perspectives of the same feed, or supplementary content. Internet quality has gotten better all around, making it easier for cross-country play and lower ping for competitors, especially in first-person shooter and fighting games; for content creators to push out at high quality and quickly; and for consumers and their online gaming expectations. High-quality 1080p video is quite doable now and looks great on a TV. More products than ever before for the PC and even consoles have put competitive gamers to the forefront, with those products being some of the best of their field. This includes product from companies like Steel Series, MadCatz, Razer, and Logitech with new mice, keyboards, controllers, fight sticks, headsets, microphones, mousepads, and other accessories. Razer even has a new tablet coming (not that I think it'll be successful.) Intel, Dell, AMD, Asus, Nvidia, Samsung continue to support eSports, while Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, EA, and Epic compete in a league together for charity.
Fans are in greater number than they've ever been. A typical eSports event will see around a quarter of a million concurrent online viewers and tens of millions of hours of video will be watched by fans from more than 150 countries over the course of one event weekend. More people watched MLG than the 2011 college football CBS Sports live stream of LSU vs. Alabama, who were number one and number two at the timel. Tens of thousands of people come out to play and spectate at pro-gaming events like MLG, the fighting game tournament series EVO, and IGN’s IPL. Official tournament play at non-eSports-centric events like BlizzCon, GamesCom, QuakeCon, and DreamHack draw the biggest seated and standing crowds of anything going on at those events. The GSL (Global StarCraft 2 League) finals at BlizzCon 2011 were easily the number-one highlight and viewing experience of the event, with both the main stage and competition stage areas being completely full with a standing crowd that went as far back to the sponsor booths in the middle of the hall. The cancelation of this year’s BlizzCon 2012 isn't a problem for eSports fans as the Battle.net Worldwide Championship will be taking its place.
There has been more quality coverage of the sport and the associated culture on mainstream gaming media sites, such as GameSpot, Verge, Giant Bomb, Kotaku, G4, Rock Paper Shotgun, IGN, Joystiq, Destructoid, and PC Gamer; less vitriolic and more interested discussion comments; and more of a presence in mainstream media, with ESPN, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist showing some serious interest. Competitive and game-specific community sites, such as TeamLiquid.net, Shoryuken.com, and HLTV.org enjoy traffic and engagement levels that compete favorably with some all-gaming media publications. Fans spend money purchasing HD quality streams and season-ticket packages from all the leagues, merchandise from all the teams, coaching from the pro players, and they actually buy sponsor products (while letting the sponsor and everyone else know too). BarCraft has been created as an entirely community-based movement to have large meet-ups in bars to watch the big events as traditional sports, shattering the shuttered-gamer stereotype. The enormous amount of activity on multiple high-profile non-gaming-specific communities, such as Reddit and SomethingAwful, and gaming communities like NeoGAF and /v/ has fueled record social media numbers for followers, engagement, and views on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
A typical eSports event will see around a quarter of a million concurrent online viewers and tens of millions of hours of video will be watched by fans from more than 150 countries over the course of one event weekend.
What makes competitive gaming and eSports so unique are the passionate gamers that will play one or two specific titles for years of their lives. The same genre, the same developer, the same series, or, specifically, the exact same game and game mode. In the past two to three years, nearly every major competitive gaming franchise in history has had a new game release, some of which are the first in a decade. The two with the biggest impact are StarCraft 2, released 12 years after Brood War, which put real-time strategy games back on top as the definitive worldwide competitive gaming genre, and Street Fighter IV, released nine years after Street Fighter III: Third Strike, which resurrected Capcom's legendary series and the entire fighting genre as a whole. Blizzard and Capcom created both games with multiplayer and competitive-gaming focus and direction, and they delivered with game-of-the-year quality titles. As critical, cynical, and ravenous as these players are, even more so than other gaming communities like role-playing game gamers or first-person shooter players, they overwhelmingly have supported both titles as legitimate sequels that live up to the highest of expectations. Blizzard and StarCraft 2 continue to roll on with Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm primed for later in the year, and Capcom has rekindled its entire fighting game lineup with more games and new franchises, as Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds lead the charge.
Along with those two games and subsequent releases, several other significant developers and communities have made their own moves. The legendary mod DotA has a stand-alone sequel (Dota 2) being worked on eight years after the original came out, with Valve hiring the lead designer and commanding the project. The game has created an entirely new game genre called MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena; which DotA players refuse to be denominated as), spawning Riot Games' League of Legends, which reportedly now has more players than World of Warcraft, S2 Games' Heroes of Newerth, and Blizzard's own version. Valve is also working on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, 11 years after Counter Strike's original release and seven years after Counter-Strike: Source. Although not considered a true sequel, it's a new game with Valve's aim of unifying the number-one PC FPS community of all time and attempting to replicate the most competitive, balanced, and beloved tactical FPS of all time. Team Fortress 2 going free to play has brought many new players to the competitive space, 11 years after the original Team Fortress.
Capcom's success paved the way for new titles from NetherRealm and Namco, including Mortal Kombat, SoulCalibur V, and the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken. The console-focused Call of Duty series, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, all broke sales records one after the other as Infinity Ward and Treyarch put out quality games within short time spans and amid Activision turmoil. Epic spent much time on competitive features for Gears of War 3, and gameplay was lauded as the best since the first game. Bungie put out a solid performance with neat features for Halo: Reach, and although the consensus on gameplay is rather split, it has been active making changes. Even id Software put out an updated and balanced version of Quake 3 online for free as Quake Live, and Hi-Rez Studios is creating Tribes: Ascend, the first true Tribes sequel in 10 years.
Many of these titles rely on the support of competitive gamers, providing endless hype before, during, and after release. Many developers' early success and ongoing legacies, including those from Valve, Blizzard, id Software, Epic, Bungie, Infinity Ward, and Capcom, were made from these same gamers during a time when competitive gaming didn't really exist and developers weren't purposely trying to create long-lasting sports. History, knowledge, and experience of eSports this time benefited the game creators, allowing them to develop with high-level competitive gaming as one of the main focal points. Gameplay has been refined to cater to both the professional elite and the casual newcomers without making it too easy or difficult for both. Important features for eSports unrelated to gameplay have also been at the forefront, including quick-finding online play; matchmaking skill services; integration of in-game restricted rule sets/game modes; competitive ladders; spectator modes; cheat protection; replays and demos; and easy capturing, editing, and distribution of gameplay. Even the publishers are involved with both Microsoft and Sony sponsoring large events, jockeying for position as the leading competitive console in 2012.
I've had three goals in the past few years that I've wanted to fulfill for the betterment of professional gaming. 1) To hunt down, pitch, educate, and appeal to the gaming press at large for more legitimate coverage of events and less content that only seeks to poke fun. 2) I've wanted the superstars and organizations within eSports to become leaders in influence and authority across all social media channels, and the sport as a whole along with it. That includes verified Twitter accounts and trending topics, YouTube pioneers, Facebook fan pages, and everything in between. 3) I've wanted to have the numerous different and segregated eSports, professional gaming, and competitive gaming communities interact with each other, compound exposure by cross-pollination, and unify for common goals, some of which I listed above. I've been in this community for nearly half of my life and have experienced firsthand the highs and many lows that this unpredictable ride has been. I feel confident in saying that each of those goals has been reached, they will continue to thrive in the new year, and it's full-speed ahead from here on out. With a new era upon us, new goals must be set for the future of our culture/community/sport or whatever term it may be called by then. Maybe that should be the first goal!