2011: The Year of eSports

On December 18, Seo-Yong "TSL_Rain" Park faced off against Min-Chul "oGsMC" Jang in a game of Starcraft II. At stake: $87,000. The two players were each sequestered in transparent, sound-proof booths on the Global StarCraft League (GSL) stage in Korea, in front of an audience (live and virtual) of thousands across the world. StarCraft II may be a game, but this was more like a battle.

You don't often read about professional gaming, or "eSports," in the newspapers or see it on ESPN (yet, anyway). But life as an eSportsman can be fruitful: High-level players of PC games such as StarCraft II and Quake Live, and of game-console titles such as Super Street Fighter IV and Halo, can earn a living by winning competitions and sponsorships--and if you're Min-Chul Jang, who beat Seo-Yong Park four games to one, it can be a very comfortable living indeed.

But just how big is electronic sports? Who funds these tournaments? How good do you have to be for these pro competitions? We set out to interview people all across the eSports world, from professional players and team managers to commentators and game-company community liaisons. Here's what the eSports world looks like now--and what it will look like in the future.

Marcus 'DJWheat' Graham, eSports Commentator

Marcus 'DJWheat' Graham (Image courtesy of sk-gaming.com)
Marcus Graham is an eSports commentator, personality, and self-described "evangelist." He provides commentary for eSports organizations such as Major League Gaming (MLG) across multiple games and genres. He also hosts several gaming-related podcasts at djwheat.tv. For more, read the full DJWheat interview.

How did you get started in eSports?
All of this came about from the thirst for Quake III competition. In my day, the $25,000 prize pool was $800. We'd win a tournament and pay for our gas--and we were thrilled, because we won.

Eventually I started working full time in IT, and I realized that I had no more time to play. So I got more heavily involved in coaching, helping my team, covering events online, and eventually one thing led to another and I started recording commentaries for my team to help them get better. And they said, "This is really good. You should try to do this." Next thing I knew, I was in Korea covering the World Cyber Games.

Who watches professional gaming competitions?
I think it's a good mixture. I've had an audience for as long as I've been broadcasting, and I still see names I remember from the early Quake days. I know that there's the hard-core guys out there.

I think that the less-involved audience is still growing. Sites like Ustream, Justin.tv, and Stickam have done a great job in growing our audience ... there are lots of people who use these sites and stumble across a tournament that [Sean "Day[9]" Plott] and I are announcing. Our audience is growing every week. It's not remaining stagnant, and that's exciting.

The popularity of eSports seemed to jump over the past year. What do you think caused that?
What I think has happened is timing--like, 18 planets are aligning all at once. What are the planets? One is the live streaming sites. Another planet is Street Fighter, and the exposure it gets. Yet another is StarCraft II. Small planets like Quake Live are sharing in the limelight from the big planets. And so this giant vortex is forming, where each community is getting involved with each other community, there's a lot of cross-pollination going on, a lot of streaming going on.

The other thing is awareness. People know, now, that you can come online and watch a stream. We'd do a big event, promote it for two months, but there wouldn't be another one for six months. Now I guarantee you that every weekend, I can turn on my Ustream and watch some Street Fighter or some StarCraft.

Who pays for these competitions to happen?
The money is coming from the sponsors. For some of the major teams today, you have companies like Intel, SteelSeries, a lot of PC-based computer peripheral companies. You also have some lifestyle companies--one of Team Evil Geniuses' sponsors is [the clothing company] Jinx. At Major League Gaming Dallas, we were sponsored by Dr. Pepper, Hot Pockets, and Old Spice. You go to any event, you'll see the sponsors actively involved, maybe they'll have a booth. These are tournaments, but they're also kind of like small conventions--there's usually other things going on.

Greg 'IdrA' Fields, Professional StarCraft II Player for Team Evil Geniuses

Greg Fields is a veteran StarCraft player who moved to Korea in 2008 to dedicate himself to StarCraft competition. Since the release of StarCraft II, he has been signed by Team Evil Geniuses. (For more, read the full interview.)

Is StarCraft II your full-time job?
Yes, it is my full-time job, and it has been for a little over two and a half years now.

What does a typical day in the life of Greg Fields look like?
It's pretty variable right now. Life has been kind of hectic since I've gone to the last two Major League Gaming events as well as participating in the Global StarCraft League, so I've been traveling a lot. On a normal day, I wake up around 10 or 11, shower and eat and whatnot, then practice until early afternoon.

Most of the time I'll go out and get lunch with [American GSL commentators] Artosis and Tasteless at that point, and we'll hang out until they have to leave to announce the GSL. Then I'll head back home and practice until I sleep, unless I go out with friends.

How does the American pro scene compare to the level of Korean players?
The disparity is much smaller than it was with [the original] StarCraft, but the Koreans are already pulling ahead by quite a bit. There are some very good American players, and MLG has been doing an awesome job so far, but nothing can really compare with the scale of the GSL and the dedication of the Korean players. That could change in the future as more and more foreign players start moving out here to train full time, though.

Victor 'Liquid'Nazgul' Goossens, Team Liquid Manager

Team Liquid
Victor Goossens is the founder and manager of Team Liquid, one of the oldest and most respected StarCraft teams outside of Korea. (For more, read the full interview.)

What does it mean to be a professional gaming team manager? Is this your day job?
I think recruitment is the basis of running the team. Although we have a solid team right now and recruitment is a lower priority than before, you still always have to look at possibilities. A team needs good or popular players, and without that it is nothing, just like any other sports team. For me, this implies following top competitions and top players enough to have a good sense of the scene in order to make decisions. Added to that, there are various things such as arranging travel for tournaments, preparing for tournament matches, working on the promotion of the team, and just generally working to keep a good team atmosphere.

How did Team Liquid start out? When did you realize that it was going to be a big deal?
Team Liquid started out as a fun group of top players to hang out with and feel connected to. Although it has always been at the top of the non-Korean gaming scene, it was never a pro team until SC2 was released. Most of the Team Liquid members from StarCraft: Brood War had Team Liquid as their fun clan, but were also part of other teams that actually sponsored them.

After we started with this fun group, the team and its name became more known, and a few years after starting the team, I just became more and more annoyed with all the StarCraft: Brood War sites around. The quality of the biggest sites was so bad, and I thought this community deserved more. That is when we started teamliquid.net and focused on our news section and our forum. I definitely felt like it was going to be the biggest site in the non-Korean StarCraft scene, but I never would have imagined it could get to the point we're at right now.

Where (and how) do you think eSports will grow from now on? Do you think StarCraft II has staying power as a spectator sport?

If I look at Warcraft III, the previous Blizzard real-time strategy game, it still had $10,000 tournaments being hosted eight years into its existence. It also never had gigantic prize pools like the one the Global StarCraft League is putting up. All signs point towards SC2 staying around for a very long time.

Duran Parisi, Collegiate StarLeague Head Administrator

Duran Parisi is a Head Administrator for the Collegiate StarLeague, a StarCraft II competitive league that involves teams from 144 colleges across the United States and Canada.

How did the CSL start?
The CSL started because we're all passionate about StarCraft. We stayed up late to watch the Korean StarCraft leagues and thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if we had that here in the USA?" So we set out to try and make that happen. Colleges seemed like the perfect avenue to make that happen, because there are many thousands of fans with the same passion. We've grown from 25 teams in Spring 2009 to 144 teams in the Fall 2010 season.

Is there much interest in the CSL from nonplayers? Do you get many spectators?
Our Website is growing at an almost-daily basis, and each livestream draws dozens of people watching just to see their schools play. Our bigger matches have several thousand viewers. For example, more than 5000 people watched Duke play against UC San Diego in the Grand Finals of Season 3. The CSL has generated a pretty large amount of interest so far. Several schools even host StarCraft II events--Princeton, for example, has their Smashcraft event that draws dozens of gamers, and UC San Diego hosts semiregular team dinners and events that have drawn up to 200 people.

What's in store for the CSL in the future?
Our main goal right now is to play the Grand Finals in a stadium with thousands of live spectators, broadcast by a major corporation. We're hoping that by 2012 this dream will be a reality.

Seth Killian, Online and Community Strategic Director, Capcom USA

To many gamers, Seth Killian is the face of Capcom--the game company that produced and developed the Street Fighter series. Street Fighter was a pioneer in the fighting-game genre, and it started an international trend in the early 1990s with Street Fighter II.

Is Capcom involved with fostering competition on a day-to-day level?
Capcom runs tournaments at larger events such as E3 or Comic-Con, and I attend dozens of tournaments personally, but the primary focus of our support is on providing early builds and resources to make sure the core fans get a chance to go hands-on with the games at events. They tell us what's working and what's not, and are basically a great way to help steer the development process.

Capcom also runs "Fight Club" events that have proven insanely popular. While they aren't tournaments per se, the intent is to try and recapture some of that same exciting arcade atmosphere and the "I got next" competitiveness that spawned the worldwide tournament scene.

Who sponsors competitive Street Fighter events?
MadCatz has been incredibly supportive, and the massive success of its products is a reflection of how valuable its very personal involvement has been to its sales. We've also seen top Street Fighter players being sponsored by apparel and lifestyle groups, and now by more traditional eSports groups, such as Evil Geniuses and Borderlands Gaming, so that's an exciting development as well. Overall though, for my money, the raw enthusiasm you see at a Street Fighter tournament is unmatched anywhere in the eSports world. As a result, rightly or wrongly, I think if you asked a lot of the Street Fighters, they'd say it's the traditional eSports crowd that needs to take a lesson from them.

Tom Cannon, Evolution Championship Series Director

Evolution Championship Series
Tom Cannon is one of the three people in charge of the Evolution Championship Series--a series of high-profile tournaments held throughout the year that culminates in a multigame open tournament on a Las Vegas stage. (For more, read the full interview.)

How did you get started organizing tournaments? Is this your day job?
Organizing tournaments has never been my day job. By day I'm a software engineer. I first started running Street Fighter tournaments back in the early 1990s in arcades like Sunnyvale Golfland. This was before even the very first competitive online games, so in a way Street Fighter is the granddaddy of competitive gaming. Many people forget that there are guys playing Street Fighter today who have been hard-core competitive gamers for over 20 years.

When did you realize these tournaments were going to be a big deal?
"The moment" has got to be the "Daigo parry" at Evo 2004, which you can find on YouTube. The crowd response from Daigo's incredible comeback was no less than what you see at traditional sporting events.

That's when I knew that fighting games could ignite people's passion in the same way that sports do, but the problem was that we didn't have the right game yet. The fighting games that we had back then were too targeted at the hard-core fighting-game fans, not gamers in general.

That all changed when Capcom released Street Fighter IV, with fantastic 3D graphics and gameplay that was simple enough to appeal to casual gamers but deep enough to hold a competitive edge. Now, nearly every week there is a pretty big Street Fighter IV tournament going on somewhere in the U.S., and most of these events are streamed online with tens of thousands of watchers. Street Fighter IV has become a budding spectator sport.

Evo took off like a rocket in 2009, where we had over 3000 attendees and over 1600 competitors across all our tournaments. We shattered those records in 2010 with over 4000 attendees and over 3000 tournament competitors.

How does sponsorship work for tournaments and players? Where does the money come from for the SF side?
The sponsor pool isn't as big for fighting-game players, but that is changing with Street Fighter IV's boom in popularity. Our 2010 stream was watched by over 2.4 million unique viewers. G4TV did a piece on Evo 2010 that featured several top players decked out in their sponsor's shirt. Exposure is exposure. Fighting-game players don't need PCs and components to play their game, but they're watched by an awful lot of gamers who do buy those products. That's why you're starting to see traditional PC-gaming teams like Evil Geniuses pick up top fighting-game players.

Alexander Garfield, Team Evil Geniuses Executive Director

Team Evil Geniuses is arguably the highest-profile professional gaming team in North America, with over a dozen sponsors and over 30 players across seven games on its roster. (For more, read the full interview.)

What does an eSports "team" look like?
With Team Evil Geniuses and other similar teams, the word "team" is meant to be interpreted quite broadly. While we refer to ourselves as Team Evil Geniuses, EG actually consists of a group of different gaming teams. A good analogy is that EG would be the gaming equivalent of the Yankees, if the Yankees weren't just a baseball team, but a larger parent company that supported many different kinds of professional athletes; and for example had a Yankees baseball team, and a Yankees basketball team, and so on.

So, Team EG has a StarCraft team (or "division"), and another for World of Warcraft, and another for Counter-Strike, and another for Street Fighter, and others as well. Some of these teams/divisions really are teams in the sense that they play team-based multiplayer games. However, we do also have teams/divisions for games that are one-versus-one, like Street Fighter and StarCraft. Those function more as collections of affiliated, mutually supportive players.

What does it mean to play as a member of Team Evil Geniuses?
Every player on the team receives comprehensive travel support to many tournaments over the course of the duration of their contract, as well as full hardware support from EG's sponsors. The majority of the players on the team are on salary as well. They also all have access to our fine managerial staff so that they can focus on practice and performance without being distracted by logistical duties. Players who aren't on salary usually split their practice time with another focus, like school or an ordinary job.

Are players cut from the team for underperforming?
We don't cut players easily. We put so much time and effort into scouting new players that by the time we actually make an offer to someone, it's a long-term offer, and we believe in the person just as much as we believe in their past results. All of our contracts are at least 12 months long, and it takes more than a bad tournament or two to be released. Due to our comprehensive scouting procedures and what we think is a good eye for talent, the players we bring onto the team usually end up playing for us for a while.

How does Team EG make money?
Mainly sponsorships, but not entirely. EG as a company has several wings to it, with the team being only one of them. Our fans are mainly interested in the team and its players, but to EG's sponsors, EG is not only a team but an all-in-one marketing agency solution for the gaming demographic. We provide access to pro players, but we also run our own gaming tournaments, run our own broadcast streams, produce tons of interesting content, and do a bunch of other boring corporate stuff as well. Historically, our sponsors have mostly been endemic, but we've had a couple of general consumer brands in the past, and we're hoping to bring on a few mainstream accounts for 2011.

What's in store for the future of EG? Where do you see eSports going in the next few years?
People in pro gaming have a very bad habit of trying to forecast the exact moment at which eSports will "arrive" on a mainstream level. We're not those guys. We just focus on working as hard as we can to support our players as best we can, and improving everything we do as a company month by month by month. When players are happy, well managed, and worry-free, they tend to perform the best. The combination of tournament wins and excellent account management tends to leave our sponsors quite satisfied as well.

Patrick Miller is a staff editor for PCWorld. Add him on Twitter, "Like" him on Facebook, or message him on Battle.Net (pattheflip.729) for a game.

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