It was an October weekend in Atlantic City, N.J., and the crowd was roaring.
The two competitors in front of it gazed intently at their screens, knowing one misstep would lead to defeat. With time running out, Jonathan "KiWiKaKi" Garneau, took a final gamble, hoping his opponent would bite.
Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri obliged, sending his army crashing into Garneau’s, a wave of alien flesh. But with a few keystrokes, Garneau sucked his opponent’s forces into two Vortexes, sending his Archons -- psionic warriors with powerful splash attack capability -- in after them.
When Satouri’s soldiers re-emerged, they disintegrated under the onslaught, and Garneau would go on to take the match.
The crowd's roar swelled, filling the theater, and its members rose to deliver a standing ovation.
This is esports (electronic sports), a booming industry in which professional video gamers compete for thousands of dollars in prize money. Garneau and Satouri, who were competing during the IGN Pro League (IPL) Season 3, are among hundreds of pros who play Starcraft II, a science-fiction real-time strategy game by Blizzard Entertainment, released in 2010.
Blizzard has sold more than 4.5 million copies of Starcraft II worldwide, but the game's impact goes beyond a leisurely diversion. Over the past year and a half, hundreds of players have made their livelihoods -- and stars have been born because of it. Millions in tournament prize money has been awarded, with top earner Jeong “IMMvp” Jong Hyeon taking home about $250,000.
Major League Gaming (MLG), an American tournament organizer, had 3.5 million unique video stream viewers over the course of its six events during the past year. Viewership surpassed those of some cable-television channels, heavily slanted toward males 18 to 24, advertisers’ prime target.
Esports may have also circumvented the digital age’s content dilemma. The file sharing and video streaming that has devastated the music industry and deflated television and film revenue has enabled esports to grow. Most tournament streams are free for viewers -- they are supported by a mix of advertising, sponsorships, and premium subscriptions.
With the proliferation of cheap and fast video streaming, passionate fans, and eager sponsors, esports is poised to become a global standard for entertainment, although challenges remain.
In the beginning of 2011, David Ting put his job on the line. Ting, a veteran engineer with stints at IBM, Altavista, and Yahoo, pitched a new esports division at IGN, the gaming Web site owned by the News Corp.
Already an avid Starcraft player, Ting was intrigued after watching videos on YouTube and examining the history of esports. He saw that previous ventures had failed, but saw huge potential, with compelling game play, relatively low overhead costs, and, perhaps most importantly, passionate individuals in the industry.
“With all those elements together, I felt that there was definitely a business plan,” he said.
His boss at IGN agreed. Ting began assembling a small team to start the first IPL tournament, a small online tournament with a $5,000 prize pool. His role would eventually transition completely, from IGN’s head of engineering to its esports manager.
Ting’s goal wasn’t merely to deliver a strong brand, but also to allow people who are passionate about video games make a real living. He sought to hire people from the community, including commentators Alex “HDStarcraft” Do, who helped popularize Starcraft II with a YouTube channel with more than 156 million views, and Taylor “Painuser” Parsons, a pro gamer who transitioned to commentating.
Ting also realized that despite the convenience of watching online matches from a computer, having a live element was invaluable, displaying the passion of the crowd and the blistering speed of the players. In October, IGN partnered with the Caesars Atlantic City resort to present its first live event, IPL Season 3. It flew in 32 of the best players in the world, and enlisted Utah Jazz basketball star Gordon Hayward to compete in the open qualifier and promote the tournament. Even the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson became a late sponsor, promoting its Visine eye drops to tired gamers.
IPL has also been highly sensitive to community feedback. For its first season, IPL focused on North American players, but found the global audience didn’t find that angle very compelling. So for IPL 3, with a $120,000 prize pool, they invited a number of Korean players, who would dominate the bracket.
There was a temporary setback, when a truck slammed into a transformer and brought down the Comcast Internet network for a few hours, leaving competitors unable to play. But the tournament recovered and was a success, with Satouri, an 18-year-old Frenchman, taking the $30,000 grand prize after surviving Garneau’s antics and demolishing some formidable South Korean players.
For now, esports is only a blip on IGN’s balance sheet, and any profits from the tournaments have been modest. But the focus is on long-term sustainability. In 2012, Ting plans to have four live events, and IGN streams content virtually every night.
“We’re in for the long haul. We believe in investing into the ecosystem,” said Ting. “Let’s grow this ... before we carve anything out of it.”
Video games have always been competitive. The early arcade boxes had pixelated charts of high scores, and many a kid competed to be the best player in his neighborhood.
The rise of the Internet and the release of canonical first-person shooters like Doom, Quake, and Counterstrike began to bring together players from around the world. In 1997, the Cyberathelete Professional League, one of the first esports organizations, was launched.
While esports has remained on the periphery, video games have surged in four decades to become one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global industry was worth about $56 billion in 2010 -- larger than either the music or magazine industries, and nearly two-thirds the size of the film industry. The average age of the American gamer is 37, and 42 percent of them are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2011 report.
While Starcraft II fans -- and particularly the game's players -- are mostly male, there are a handful of prominent high-level female players, as well as commentators and personalities. But the grueling path to become a professional gamer is a high barrier for anyone.
Starcraft is a game of economy. Each player chooses one of three distinct races to play -- the insectlike Zerg, technologic Protoss, or the gritty, human Terran -- and extract two resources, minerals and the fictional vespene gas, from the battlefield to construct buildings, military units, and research technologies. Managing efficient, robust production, known as “macro,” is one of the most critical skills for players.
Each battlefield is shrouded in a “fog of war” that obscures the enemy, and players must use their units to get a glimpse of what their opponents are doing. The incomplete information compounds the game’s complexity for players, but adds more excitement for fans.
Professional gamers have a certain reputation -- pale, scrawny, bespectacled -- but their talents are mesmerizing. The typical pro carries out more than 200 actions per minute (APM), fingers flying around the keyboard for over an hour during a typical three-game series. Coupled with the strategic depth of Starcraft, watching a game is akin to witnessing grandmaster-level chess as controlled by two pianists churning at top speed. A study at Simon Fraser University is even examining Starcraft replays to better understand the brain’s ability to multitask.
What makes professional gamers so dominant at Starcraft isn’t just strategic superiority, but mechanics. To continue the chess analogy, a Starcraft pro not only moves his pieces brilliantly, but also plays more pieces than the average player on the board: The game is dependent on unit production, as well as tactics.
Talent is often said to be secondary to dedication, at least until reaching the highest level of play, with the top pro gamers practicing more than eight hours a day. And the very best go to South Korea.
Seoul has been the mecca for esports for a decade. A confluence of factors planted the seeds: A recession led residents to seek cheap entertainment, animosity centered on Japan limited console games, and cheap broadband Internet access led to the rise of "PC bangs," ubiquitous gaming cafes where many young people hang out.
With Seoul's urban density limiting the amount of physical sporting fields, players took to the digital realm. Today, two cable-television channels, Ongamenet and MBC Game, broadcast video-game content full-time.
The original Starcraft: Brood War rose to become the premier competitive game, and continues to be a mainstay in the country, attracting significant sponsorship. But with such an entrenched predecessor, Starcraft II has actually seen more growth outside South Korea than inside it, although Seoul does host GOMTV's Global Starcraft II League (GSL), regarded as the most fiercely competitive tournament in the world, with a monthly prize pool over $100,000. The tournament's sponsors include blue-chip companies, such as the Intel Corp. and Pepsico Inc.
The Brood War model of team houses -- close-quartered apartments where players train in a row of monitors and share strategies -- has carried over to Starcraft II, and the very best players remain the Koreans. Some of the top so-called "foreigners," or non-Korean players, often train in partnership with the Korean teams.
The pilgrimage has paid off for some. In 2011, Chris "HuK" Loranger, an American-Canadian pro, signed a contract that will pay him a reported six-figure salary a year with Los Angeles-based Evil Geniuses, one of the largest esports teams. His skill developed greatly over the course of a year of training in South Korea as a member of Team Liquid, which partnered with the Korean team oGs in one of the first such unions.
"Korea is also a difficult setting to live in," said Victor "Nazgul" Goossens, founder of Team Liquid, who traveled to Korea in 2002 to compete in Brood War for six months, before returning to school. "The houses are packed, you don't have privacy, and you don't speak the language. However, if you want to be the very best in the world like Mvp, there really is no place to achieve that besides Korea."
Although the Korean Starcraft II teams are loaded with talent, they often lack the deep pockets of the major foreign teams, who have the backing of sponsors that generally pay for the bulk of the team's operations. This economic reality has led to global partnerships, which have been largely absent from the Brood War industry, where teams like CJ Entus and SK Telecom T1 have little use for foreigners, because of their own sponsorships and the singularity of competition centered in South Korea.
The question remains if and when the Brood War pros will switch over to Starcraft II. Many expect them to dominate, since Brood War is a far more demanding game mechanically, but no major migration has yet occurred. However, four Brood War stars went to Blizzcon, Blizzard Entertainment's annual celebration in October, to witness the growth of esports in the West.
"Apparently, they were completely blown away by the size of the crowds," said Marcus "DJWheat" Graham, an esports veteran who hosts a number of talk shows and is a regular tournament commentator. "It took them seven years to grow that in Brood War. They weren't bringing in 100,000 people until year seven."
Because the market within South Korea is more limited for Starcraft II, some teams are so cash-strapped that they are sustained by the winnings of their players, said Alan "Raelcun" Brusky, a member of FXOpen, a team sponsored by the Australian arm of the eponymous forex trading company. This creates additional pressure for the players, who feel that their success in tournaments is crucial for the team's survival, said Brusky.
As a result, some South Korean teams have merged or partnered with foreign entities. FXO acquired the Korean team fOu in July for an undisclosed amount, in what appeared to be a combination of fOu's strong Korean roster and FXO's solid financials. Brusky, who was formerly part of tournament organizer iCCup TV, which dissolved and was reformed as ESVision, said he sees more esports organizations disbanding over the next year, because of the lack of financing.
Even South Korean teams that appear to have strong financials have seen value in entering into foreign partnerships. SlayerS, led by the Brood War legend Lim "BoxeR" Yo-Hwan, is sharing a team house with members of Evil Geniuses. The cost of plane tickets remains a major obstacle for sending players to tournament outside their own region. As a result, Complexity Gaming, a large American team that counts consumer-electronics company Creative as a sponsor, and Korean team MVP have partnered to send two Korean players, Park "DongRaeGu" Soo Ho and Jung "Genius" Min Soo, to tournaments outside Korea, as have SK Gaming and oGs.
There also appears to be some consolidation in the foreign scene, with major teams scooping up smaller entities.
During the early days of Starcraft II, Edward Chang reached out to Andrew "Drewbie" Moysey and Paulo "CatZ" Vizcarra, leaders of the team ROOT Gaming. He began managing the team, doing press and sponsorship work, as it eventually grew to have a staff of about seven. In July, ROOT and most of its roster was acquired by the larger Complexity Gaming, where Chang remains on staff.
Although the industry has seen growth in the past year, securing sponsors remains difficult, especially for smaller teams, said Chang.
"I think it's just as challenging as ever. Looking at the economy, esports is still very young," he said. "I think a lot more sponsors need to jump in before we have more smaller [teams]."
For those who don't make it as pro gamers, commentating can provide a promising alternative for those who seek a career in esports. Commentators, or "shoutcasters," form a crucial bridge between players and the audience during tournaments, and the very best are said to earn more than players.
Jake "orb" Sklarew was one of the top players during the beta period of testing, even taking a game off Greg "IdrA" Fields, who is often regarded as the best non-Korean player. But his passion for the game took a toll on his college studies, and he decided to leave school to pursue esports full-time.
After working at a restaurant to save money, Sklarew began training with the intent of returning to the pro scene. Unfortunately, Sklarew is colorblind, which doesn't greatly handicap his play, save in one aspect: Terran nuclear missiles, which land after a brief delay on a spot marked by a red dot. Sklarew finds them almost impossible to see, particularly on green backgrounds, and was knocked out of six tournaments in a row when he tried to return to pro gaming.
Resigned to his weakness, Sklarew switched to focus on commentating, getting a gig with ESVision's Korean Weekly, an online tournament that hosted some of the lesser-known Korean players. It was a boon being associated with such players, as it accelerated his game knowledge and brought him to the forefront of trends in the metagame, he said.
Perhaps most importantly for Sklarew, 'casting removes the anger from the game that comes from losses. He said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive since he began commentating, in contrast to the more mixed response when he played. In 2011, Sklarew became a regular 'caster at the North American Star League, and appeared at the tournament's finals, his first live event, in December.
"It was unbelievably refreshing," he said.
The foundation to good commentary is strong game knowledge, said Sklarew, and a background as a strong player is a great asset. But there are other factors that are more intrinsic, including the pitch of one's voice, which can immediately handicap a prospective 'caster. In contrast, humor and personality can be enhanced -- Sklarew credits some acting classes for improving his enthusiasm -- although the most charismatic 'casters, such as Sean "Day" Plott, seem to pull it off naturally.
Although the attention in esports often focuses on the personalities and players who compete, the advancement of technology has been a crucial element in its growth.
In September, one of the driving forces behind video streaming, Justin Kan, met fans at a bar in New York's East Village.
Kan is the namesake and one of the founders of Justin.tv, which began as a "lifecasting" platform that chronicled every moment of his daily life, with venture capital from Y Combinator. In 2007, the site turned into a streaming video provider, and Kan and co-founder Emmett Shear began noticing that a portion of their San Francisco office obsessively watched other people play video games.
They realized that they could provide a better platform for streamers, and in June, Justin.tv launched Twitch.tv, a spin-off site that focused on video-game broadcasts, and began serving as the main platform for most of the major Starcraft II tournaments. By year's end, Twitch.tv has reached 12 million unique monthly visitors and has partnered with more than 1,000 streamers, with 10 percent monthly growth. Twitch.tv now accounts for a substantial amount of Justin.tv's profits.
Although the site may be most known for its premier tournaments, Twitch.tv has also democratized the process, allowing anyone with a computer to sign up and broadcast. Twitch.tv splits half of the ad revenue with stream partners who hit modest numbers (500 concurrent viewers, 25,000 total views), with ad rates that range from $2.50 to $10 per thousand viewers.
Steven "Destiny" Bonnell II, for example, lacks major tournament results, but his mischievous antics and strong viewer interaction allow him to command about 5,000 viewers each night. Bonnell supports himself and a newborn child exclusively by streaming. He and Shawn "Sheth" Simon also helped raise $32,000 for Doctors Without Borders through streaming.
Kan has competitors, including own3D.tv and ustream (Bonnell recently switched to own3D), but he has eyes on bigger companies: YouTube and, eventually, broadcast television. He believes, in time, esports could overtake cable television in its reach, and Twitch.tv has invested heavily in data centers around the world.
Twitch.tv also recently recruited Graham, the esports veteran and commentator, and James "2GD" Harding to bolster its esports division. In addition to Starcraft, it broadcasts fighting games and shooters, as well as the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre, dominated by Riot Games' League of Legends, a free-to-play online game that has over 11 million active players -- more than World of Warcraft.
Graham said that one flaw of Starcraft fans may be their dismissal of other games. For esports to truly grow, he said, success across multiple platforms is beneficial. "If one game fails, it's a little bit of everything failing," he said. Graham also plans to bring back Epileptic Gaming, a general video-game talk show, in 2012.
Around midnight on Dec. 6, #esports trended globally on Twitter. It was a brief spark, disappearing under the typical sports-and-celebrity topics in a few minutes.
The effort -- a sort of experiment to measure the industry's voice -- was organized by State of the Game, a popular podcast and talk show, and amplified by the scene's social hubs. It epitomized the fervor of esports fans to promote their passion.
A major meeting ground for Starcraft II is on Reddit, the social news site owned by Advance Publications, where users submit text or links that are voted up or down by the community. The r/starcraft subreddit has over 75,000 subscribers, and is regularly flooded with news, multimedia, and, inevitably, memes.
Reddit user Firi created the subreddit in 2008, inspired after watching Korean matches casted by Nick “Tasteless” Plott, one of the first English commentators in the country.
Along with the usual content, r/starcraft has been the scene for remarkable altruism. A proposed documentary on Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski and Plott raised $42,155 from 881 supporters on Kickstarter. Reddit also collectively raised $3,615 to send Lee "MarineKingPrime" Jung Hoon from South Korea to MLG Orlando. Lee reciprocated the generosity by wearing a reddit patch and flashing the site's "upvote symbol" on stage.
“I think that it's fantastic. Using something that many might consider a waste of time -- a video game -- to bring positive, real, and quantifiable change to the world is one of the best uses of a video game that I can imagine,” said Firi.
But there is a dark side.
With the fan adulation come expectations, both for players and tournaments. Viewers are quick to criticize poor video quality or what they regard as subpar production or commentary. A November tournament in the Philippines was a particularly messy affair, with accusations of fraud and missing funds.
But beyond constructive criticism, the focus on personalities and celebrity has made some users characterize the subreddit as "the TMZ of Starcraft," with its share of "witch hunts."
The most personal vitriol has perhaps been unleashed towards Geoff “iNcontrol” Robinson, a prominent player who frequently appears on streams. But after placing fourth at an MLG event early in the year and being seeded highly for the rest of the reason, Robinson was winless in the next three events, falling to a number of top-tier Korean players.
On reddit, Robinson was torn apart by a vocal minority of users, who criticized everything from his worthiness as a player to his appearance. And while it is common to have athletes in other sports derided for their play, the ferocity and personal nature of the attacks was striking, although some users did defend him.
“It's difficult to categorize 'backlash' and 'hate' into an easy-to-discuss package because their motivations are so diverse. I mean, sometimes backlash and hate [discontent] are justifiable,” said Firi. “Regarding the unjustifiable variety, it's a combination of human nature and the distance created by the Internet. It's an unavoidable part of almost every online community."
By the end of 2012, Firi expects the subreddit to almost double its number of subscribers to more than 130,000. He said that the greatest challenge is regulating submissions, but recently implemented new rules to cut down on content that is only tangentially related to the game.
The other major social hub is TeamLiquid.net (TL), which has grown to have about 200,000 daily unique visitors, with 2 million to 3 million monthly uniques, according to Goossens, founder of the team and site. It has five full-time staffers in its main office in New York, along with five part-time staff and 200 volunteers around the world.
The site is the home of the Starcraft II team of the same name. It also meticulously chronicles tournament results and news in articles and in its expansive discussion forums. It aspires to be the ESPN of the industry, said Goossens.
“Nobody else has been able to do the things we do, and as a result people like to come to TL. By now you can pretty much find anything you need on TL, and even if someone else copies a single part and does a better job at it, people still prefer to have everything in one place,” said Goossens. “Whenever we see ways to improve TL, we make it happen. We continuously try to improve ourselves and implement new features that we think will make our users happy.”
"The major differences between TL and reddit are the moderation and the fact that TL creates content, whereas reddit collects content and is moderated by its users," he added. "I think the atmosphere, content, and ways of discussing with other users are really different on both sites, and it is good that they both exist."
Liquid's main sponsor is The Little App Factory (TLAF), a producer of media software applications. TLAF was one of the early supporters of Starcraft II competition, sponsoring one of the largest tournaments during the beta period. More recently, Liquid has been sponsored by the gaming hardware company Razer and Twitch.tv.
As the year ends, Goossens hopes for more unity in 2012 that will lead to growth for everyone.
“For the scene, I hope teams and tournaments start communicating better so that the global scene shares more of a common goal. Right now, it's a lot of individual companies looking out for themselves," said Goossens. "This is understandable, but it's going to have to be combined with working together more.”
The holidays have created a brief respite in the tournaments, but the first week of the year is already loaded with events, including the HomeStory Cup, a tournament in Europe, and a special GSL tournament in South Korea. For ravenous fans and ambitious players, the new year can’t come soon enough. And if the industry does indeed live up to its promise, 2011 may very well be seen as the turning point, when the esports floodgates opened.
Follow Roland Li on Twitter.