eSports: Pac-Man comes of age

Playing video games is becoming a lucrative spectator sport, with tournaments filling arenas and attracting tens of millions online. How did that happen? Simon Wilson reports.

Why watch people play video games?

You might not want to. I certainly don’t. But tens of millions across the world do – mostly teenagers and young men.

Remember the 1980s when video games in pubs were a novelty, and people used to crowd around the Pac-Man machine making encouraging or disparaging comments? It’s a bit like that – except now it’s a multibillion-dollar global industry made possible by superfast broadband connections and software that can handle millions of live video streams at once.

The rise of so-called eSports are about a community sharing its passion; about being seen, showing off skills and knowledge, and performing in public. It is similar to the way unlikely pursuits such as darts, chess, snooker and poker have all become public spectacles – but more interactive and with a younger, more excitable demographic.

In what way is this ‘interactive’?

Both offline and online, the crowd of spectators is an intrinsic part of the mass gaming experience. “If you’ve been to a major sporting event, you’ll feel exactly the same atmosphere at an eSports tournament,” Chris Trout, producer of the Gfinity eSports tournaments, told The Guardian this year. “

The crowd never stops… At the G3 Call of Duty final, the crowd was incredible; at the League of Legends LCS event at Wembley arena, the atmosphere was indescribable” (for more on the games, see the box). When a team comes offstage, there’s a “clamber for selfies and signatures as fans look to get their shirts and posters signed by the pro players”, says Jonathan Beales, another eSports organiser. “The players love the adoration, and the fans get to see and talk to their heroes close up.”

Such heroes include Matt Haag, a Call of Duty specialist known online as Nadeshot; and Sasha Hostyn, known as Scarlett, a young transgender woman. Scarlett is one of the world’s leading players of StarCraft, and – in a sign of how games culture has gone mainstream – the subject of a profile in this week’s New Yorker magazine.

What about online?

The number of people attending live events is a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of millions who use video-streaming gaming websites, such as Twitch – a site that only went live three years ago, but rapidly became the dominant player and was bought by Amazon this year for $970m.

Twitch is a bit like YouTube, in that users generate the content: in this case the users are expert games players and the content is live streaming of competitive gaming (and archive footage of notable games).

But it is radically different from YouTube in two ways. First, interactivity is key: there’s a chat window where viewers can give feedback and advice to the player, and the player responds in real time. Second, the average time spent online each day is much greater – at 106 minutes per user, compared to 11 minutes in total for all of Google’s video-sharing sites, mostly YouTube.

Twitch users are keen then?

Indeed – an astonishing 60% of their 55 million monthly users spend more than 20 hours a week on the platform, or just shy of three hours a day. Twitch now accounts for 40% of all live video-streaming in the US. A study last February found it is the fourth-biggest site for peak internet traffic in the US, responsible for 1.8% of all traffic – some way behind Netflix, Google and Apple, but ahead of video-streaming site Hulu, Facebook and Amazon.

The most popular streams include live events – such as tournaments involving multi-million-dollar, crowd-sourced prizes. In July, more than 20 million people watched The International, a Dota 2 tournament in Seattle with an $11m prize pot. “Speedrunning” streams are also popular: watching an expert use every possible feature and exploit every glitch to complete a game as rapidly as possible.

Others want to watch “walk-throughs” to help them work out how to play the game at home, or to preview a game they might want to buy.

How does Twitch make money?

Via advertising. It attracts gamers by giving them a slice of the cake. Only the elite get paid, though: of the 900,000 people who stream games via Twitch, 5,100 are official partners who get a chunk of advertising revenue. Alternatively, users can subscribe for a small monthly sum (about $10) to watch the site without advertisements.

Estimates suggest Twitch makes less than $100m in revenues a year, but analysts believe it is already profitable, says The Economist. While the near-billion-dollar price tag looks a lot, it equates to about $22 per user, compared to the $42 per user Facebook paid for text-messaging programme WhatsApp.

But Twitch doesn’t have the market to itself. Rivals include Hitbox and Major League Gaming (which recently signed a deal with Matt Haag), and no doubt others as the rise of video gaming gathers pace.

What games are being played?

Competitive eSports is dominated by a handful of games. League of Legends is the biggest: it’s a free-to-play fantasy (made by Riot Games), designed from the outset as a sport, with teams of five fighting it out in a range of battlefields. Dota 2 (“Defence of the Ancients”) is another “battle arena” game, from Valve.

It’s also free; gamers pay for in-game items. StarCraft II is the grandfather of today’s eSports games. It’s a science-fiction strategy game from Blizzard, the makers of World of Warcraft. Lastly, Call of Duty (the globally successful shooting game from Activision) is one of the few console (rather than PC) games popular in professional gaming.