Editorial: "Give video games a sporting chance"
EVERY sport has its idols and superstars. Now video gaming is getting them too. Professional gaming, or e-sports, exploded in popularity in the US and Europe last year.
The scene has been big in Asia - particularly South Korea - for about a decade, with top players such as Lim Yo-Hwan earning six-figure salaries and competing for rock-star glory in Starcraft tournaments that attract audiences in the hundreds of thousands.
The phenomenon is taking off in the West partly because of improved video-streaming technology and large financial rewards. Video games are becoming a spectator sport, with certain players and commentators drawing massive online audiences.
And where people go, money follows. The second world championship of League of Legends - a team-based game in which players defend respective corners of a fantasy-themed battle arena - was held in Los Angeles in October. The tournament had a prize pool of $5 million for the season, with $1 million going to winning team Taipei Assassins, the largest cash prize in the history of e-sports.
League of Legends has also set records for spectator numbers. More than 8 million people watched the championship finals either online or on TV - a figure that dwarfs audience numbers for broadcasts of many traditional sports fixtures.
But gamers don't need to compete at the international level to earn money. Video-streaming software like Twitch makes it easy for players to send live footage to a website, where the more popular ones can attract upwards of 10,000 viewers - enough for some to make a living by having adverts in their video streams. Gamers can go pro without leaving their homes.
Currently, e-sports productions are handled by gaming leagues - but that could soon change. Last November saw two moves that will make it even easier to reach a global online audience. First, Twitch announced it would be integrating with Electronic Arts's Origin service, a widely used gaming platform. This would let gamers stream their play at the click of a button, making it easy for people around the world to watch.
Also in November came the latest release from one of gaming's biggest franchises, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which has the ability to live-stream via YouTube built into the game itself. Another feature allows the broadcast of in-game commentary for multiplayer matches.
"I think we will reach a point, maybe within five years, where spectator features are a necessity for all big game releases," says Corin Cole of e-sports publishing company Heaven Media in Huntingdon, UK.
David Ting founded the California-based IGN Pro League (IPL), which hosts professional tournaments. He puts the popularity of e-sports down to the demand for new forms of online entertainment. "After 18 months, IPL's viewer numbers are already comparable to college sports in the US when there's a live event," he says. "The traffic is doubling every six months."
Ting sees motion detection, virtual reality and mobile gaming coming together to make physical exertion a more common aspect of video games, blurring the line between traditional sport and e-sports. "Angry Birds could be this century's bowling," says Ting.
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