Pros clicking at war
An American firm wants to turn computer games into a global spectator sport
Oct 28th 2010
Arriving for a big e-sports match
THE first round is over and 32 of the world’s best professional computer-game
players are through to the next stage of the Global Starcraft 2 League being played in Seoul, South Korea. Over the next two weeks the players, including the reigning champion, Kim Won-ki (better known by his online moniker “FruitDealer”), will marshal their armies, ponder their strategies and crush their foes. The finalists will play in front of an audience of thousands (and hundreds of thousands more online) for an $87,000 first prize and the respect due the best Starcraft 2 player on the planet.
This is e-sports, or professional computer-gaming, at its highest level. Just like football or baseball, computer games can be played competitively and in front of paying spectators. South Korea, where the original Starcraft game was released in 1998, is the spiritual home of e-sports.
South Korean fans watch games broadcast on cable television and the players are celebrities. Teams flush with sponsorship money pay stars salaries on top of their prize money. (One player, Lee Yoon-Yeol, aka “Nada”, is rumoured to earn around
$200,000 a year; a journeyman player might make $20,000). Now Activision Blizzard, the California-based company that developed the Starcraft games, is keen to spread the popularity of e-sports in the West.
Will it work? Professional computer-gaming in the West has been around for several years, with outfits like the Electronic Sports League in Europe and Major League Gaming in America. But it has never taken off to the extent that it has in South Korea. Activision Blizzard thinks that will change as faster broadband makes it easier to broadcast games over the internet. The company designed Starcraft 2 with spectators in mind and has flown famous Korean players to America to play an exhibition match. GomTV, the Korean firm that runs the league, is providing English commentary on games and it has opened the tournament to any non-Korean player that can manage to qualify.
Advertisers are attracted by the ability of e-sports to target an audience with plenty of spending money; Sony Ericsson is sponsoring the tournament in Seoul. The average American gamer is in his 30s and well-educated. With sponsorship comes the money necessary to attract players to pursue computer gaming as a career, says Sean Plott (better known as “Day”), an American
player-turned-commentator. Intel recently sponsored a European tournament with
a $15,000 prize pool. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to exporting e-sports to the West is a lingering belief that playing computer games is not a proper job—an idea that
would no doubt sound familiar to pioneers of professional sports from tennis to snooker.