In the late 19th century William “Pudge” Heffelfinger built railroads during the day and played games after work. Recognized as the first professional football player, this “gentleman amateur” belonged to an Athletic Club for amateur sportsters.
On November 12, 1892, the Allegheny Athletic Club paid Pudge the shocking amount of $500 to play for their team. He won the game for AAC by scoring the only touchdown, defeating the Pittsburgh Athletic Club 4-0 (touchdowns were only 4 points then).
In that ancient era, distinguished strongmen would usually play sports as a hobby. To be paid the equivalent of $12,000 in today’s currency was mind-blowing. How could anyone earn that kind of money to play a game?
No one could imagine how popular professional sports would become. One hundred and twenty-two years later, we find the Atlanta Falcons paying Matt Ryan $42 million to play in the NFL for one year. In 2014, you can play a game and collect more money than a small country.
In light of this history lesson, consider the possibility that we are in the infancy of a similar era with the arrival of e-Sports. Electronic sports or e-Sports is a worldwide movement of high level, professional video game competition. And it’s no joke.
In 2013 pro-gamers earned over $18 million in cash prizes – mostly in Sweden, China and Korea where their societies take eSports very seriously. A tournament for the popular game DOTA 2 aired on ESPN2 and had a prize pool of over $10 million dollars, exceeding the payouts for the Super Bowl, Masters and Tour de France.
Video gaming is not a phase or a fad. The gaming industry is seeing exponential growth across the entire globe. In 2013 the world-wide video game market was worth $93.2 billion, more than the entire world film industry which generated $88.3 billion.
The World Championship 2014 finals for League of Legends will be held on October 19 in Seoul, South Korea at Sangam Stadium; the same venue for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Promoters are expecting the 66,806 seat capacity to be filled. Hundreds of thousands of viewers are already watching the quarter and semi-finals on Twitch.tv, the premiere live-streaming website for gaming.
When ESPN president John Skipper was asked what he thought about Amazon’s $1 billion acquistion of Twitch, he stated, “Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports,” proving the “nerd vs. jock” rivalry still exists.
Despite the United States government recognizing League of Legends players as professional athletes, there is an entire generation of old timers who just don’t get it. The stereotype of an average video game player is the lazy teenager laying on the couch eating Doritos. How can a video gamer be an athlete?
The first answer to that question is not everyone can do it. The amount of dedication, skill and endurance required to be a professional gamer is similar to a NASCAR driver. World class eSports champions have the concentration of a fighter pilot, dexterity of a concert pianist, intuition of a poker shark, and the computational power of a chess master.
Six-time world champion Manuel “Grubby” Schenkhuizen says, “When you work hard you get that reward that is the satisfaction all of us are looking for. You can call it addictive but I call it a passion. If you have one passion in life you can call yourself lucky.” Most pro gamers have stylish handles, such as Grubby, Day9, Uzi, Fatal1ty – similar to Pudge, our footballer from 1892.
The final component is knowing the complex mechanics of the specific game you are playing. Most popular amongst eSports is the MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Many games fit into this category, such as the above mentioned DOTA 2 and League of Legends. These games are team-based five-on-five competitions, with 20-50 minute rounds. Both are free to download and play online for PC and Mac.
Real Time Strategy (RTS) games such as Starcraft II and First Person Shooter (FPS) games such as Counterstrike or Call of Duty are also popular. Ironically, traditional sports and racing titles have not found much success in the global eSports community. It should be noted that not all video games qualify as an eSport, despite how popular or enjoyable they may be. Sorry Farmville fans.
ESports is an international phenomenon that transcends language and cultural barriers uniting fans and competitors from the farthest reaches of the earth. The diversity of countries represented in professional gaming is reminiscent of the United Nations. Given the popularity of video games with indigenous youth, perhaps someday our flags will be there as well.