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On the acceptance of video game competition as a spectator sport

Sean Hespell
Contributing Writer

Other than drama, whispers, and the occasional “Baba Booey”, what do The Masters and the US Open have in common? Well, for starters, in 2015, Jordan Spieth placed 1st in both tournaments, earning $1.8 million for each victory. However, another commonality remains even more surprising than Spieth’s dominance: both were out-pursed (by a total of $8 million, respectively) by The International—an annual e-sports Dota 2 championship tournament hosted by Valve Corporation. Now, if you’ve never heard of The International, e-sports or Dota 2 prior to their mentioning here, do not be alarmed. In fact, if you have, you are in the minority.

Electronic sports is a term describing professional video game competitions. These competitions have, in recent years, become incredibly popular with the emergence of Twitch (an online livestream platform and community for video game enthusiasts). The International offers the largest, professional prize pool of any single day video game competition in history, totaling over $18 million in payouts—far more than the $10 million purse offered by the Masters and the US Open as mentioned above.

Now before you start frantically googling for an explanation on how it is possible that a video game tournament pays out more than the most prestigious, professional golf tournaments in history, let me explain how the funding works.

International Education Week

According to e-sports reporter Samuel Lingle, the prize pool is “funded by fan contributions through sales of The Compendium, an interactive guide to the event that allows players to interact through challenges like predictions.” Further crowdfunding is encouraged through enticing in-game content and perks provided to Compendium members and Dota 2 players.

Dota 2 (Defense of the Ancients) is an online multiplayer arena game where two teams of five players engage in battle to destroy the opposing team’s stronghold. Strategy games such as Dota 2, League of Legends and StarCraft, just to name a few, are have helped skyrocket Twitch, a subsidiary of Amazon, into household-name status.

“Twitch logs more than 100 million unique viewers a month, with those viewers racking up a collective 20 billion minutes of viewing time of the more than 11 million videos that are broadcast,” according to MarketWatch. “The Twitch app has been downloaded more than 23 million times since its launch in 2011.”

According to IGN, 20 million people tuned in on Twitch to watch The International, which “peaked at more than 2 million simultaneous viewers” during the grand finals.  To put that into perspective, the series finale of Showtime’s Dexter peaked at 2.8 million viewers.  This kind of attention certainly has raised a lot of eyebrows and has posed a serious question that may provoke drastic change in the coming years: does video game competition deserve to be labeled as a spectator sport?

Many would argue that these tournaments should be televised and broadcast globally like The Masters or Wimbledon in which Novak Djokovic won the 2015 Men’s Singles tournament and walked away with a little over $2 million; a hefty takeaway for the Wimbledon champion but not even half the earnings of the 2015 Dota 2 grand finals winner at The International (over $6 million).

Money isn’t the only contributing factor to the legitimacy of e-sports. Gamers associated with current professional e-sports organizations like MLG (Major League Gaming) have already been broadcast on major television Networks. ESPN has recently covered competition of Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm as well as Ultra Street Fighter IV and the aforementioned Dota 2.

Street Fighter, a competitive fighting game where two players face each other in one on one combat much like boxing or MMA, has been part of the competitive scene for nearly two decades. The game is heavily strategic. Players must maintain composure, rely on reflexive movements, and correct button-timing to pull off desired offensive and defensive maneuvers. EVO, an open fighting game tournament held in Los Angeles every July, drew over two-thousand entrants in 2015 for Ultra Street Fighter VI alone. There were 9 different fighting games in competition in this year’s tournament—and a total prize pool of over $300,000.

These players come from all around the world to compete and many have developed year-long training regiments in order to place and walk away with cash. Daigo Umehara, perhaps the most successful Street Fighter player in history, logs in about 6 hours of training a day.  This may seem like a ridiculous amount of time to dedicate to gaming, but the skill level required for advancing far enough to place in these tournaments is astounding. Just search for videos on analyzing frame data in fighting games on YouTube if you don’t believe me.

Recently, the largest one-day Fantasy sports operator Fan Duel has acquired the e-sports platform Alpha Draft which will likely lead to an even broader interest in e-sports among fans of sports and competition in general.  As these success stories continue to be embraced by the video game industry and fans alike, it’s only a matter of time before the e-sports community becomes a force to be reckoned with in the world of spectator sports.