E-Sports Reach Pro-Athletic Status, Fandom — And Money

Mar 2, 2014
Originally published on March 2, 2014 10:30 am

Online competitive gaming is increasingly mirroring the world of professional sports. E-sports are attracting hard-working teams that compete for millions of dollars in prize money.

Generally, gamers wage battles with one another using rapid clicks of a computer mouse. "A lot of it comes down to reflexes, but a lot of [it] is strategy," says David Gorman, a sportscaster for the popular e-sport, Dota 2. "It's very much like chess, except it's in real time. Almost like speed chess."

Despite this seemingly sedentary pastime, Gorman tells NPR's Jacki Lyden, these players are like professional athletes, practicing hours each day with specialized training staff. Even the U.S. immigration service agrees: E-sports players receive the same visas given to visiting baseball and soccer stars.

In the latest sign that the value of gamers is rising, e-sports team members are now being traded to other teams, notes Gorman, who founded the Lost Angeles-based Beyond The Summit, which broadcasts e-sports coverage. Last week, one Chinese player was traded for $85,000.

Dota 2, where teams of five players face off, is particularly popular in China. One of the country's richest men purchased an entire team for $6 million in 2011.

There's big money from the fan base, too. Professional teams are packing large venues, and selling out tickets, Gorman says. The events he commentates, which are carried online and sponsored by advertising revenue, attract up to a million viewers.

"It's really a very global phenomenon," Gorman says. "The audience will come to the venue, but there's people — millions of people — watching from around the world.

League of Legends is even more popular than Dota 2. Last October, the world championship broke all records with 8.5 million viewers live-streaming. That final game, which was broadcast on a big screen above the heads of the players onstage, was played before of a sold-out crowd at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

"It's really not just people playing in their basements," Gorman says. "I don't know if that ever was the case, but it's certainly not how the top teams are organized now."

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Video games are no longer just played by teenage boys in their parent's basements. Electronic sports - e-sports - have gone big time. Teams of gamers battle for millions of dollars in prize money in front of live audiences in convention centers, they live together in special gaming houses, and have stars. E-gamers in tournaments are now eligible for the same visas given to foreign athletes, like baseball and soccer players. And with big teams come big trades - recently one for $85,000. Joining us from California to explain all this is David Gorman, whose work involves the video action game Dota 2. David, I'm going to let you explain what it is that you do. Welcome.

DAVID GORMAN: Thanks for having me, Jacki. So, basically I'm what you would call an e-sports broadcaster. I guess you could liken what I do to, you know, what people like Joe Buck or John Madden do for football, for baseball. Basically, I explain what's going on, kind of summarize the action for the game so viewers who are, you know, walking in and out of the room can get a sense, new viewers, hopefully, understand the game better. So, basically I'm an e-sports commentator and broadcaster.

LYDEN: Well, I was thinking if you were speaking, it's not like baseball or football in the sense that there aren't seasons - the tournaments can happen anytime and people can participate 24/7.

GORMAN: Yeah, and that's really the interesting thing about Dota, and most e-sports in general, is it's really a very global phenomenon. So, these teams all come together to one location. They play on land at a big venue. The audience will come to the venue, but there's people, millions of people watching from around the world.

LYDEN: This is nothing what we think of when we think of playing video games at home.

GORMAN: No. And the cool thing is you can play this game just for fun. But these are people who live, train, work around the game full-time. You have training staff who help ensure the players are well-fed, help ensure they're getting exercise, they're on good sleep schedules. You've got a whole marketing team for some of these bigger teams who are bringing in sponsors, who are promoting the team to the audience. It's really not just people playing in their basements. I don't know if that ever was the case, but it certainly is not how the top teams are organized now.

LYDEN: Well, as you said, it's more and more paralleling the world of professional organized sports. But one thing I don't quite understand is how do you get really good at this?

GORMAN: I would say personally I think it's about 80 to 90 percent talent and 20 percent hard work.

LYDEN: So, it's a combination of a brain game and quick reflexes?

GORMAN: Yes. A lot of it comes down to reflexes but a lot of Dota is actually strategy. So, understanding the way that your opponents like to play and figuring out good ways to counter them.

LYDEN: Like chess.

GORMAN: Yes. It's very much like chess except it's real time. So, almost like speed chess, I guess you could say.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us. David Gorman is a sportscaster for Dota 2, an online e-sport. And he spoke to us from Los Angeles. Thanks very much for being with us.

GORMAN: Oh, thank you very much for having me.


LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.