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Pro Gaming Comes Of Age

“A beer in one hand and shouting at the TV, I finally understand football,” declares StarCraft II design director Dustin Browder. The “Barcraft” phenomenon Browder is gushing about, where gamers take over a sports bar and put StarCraft II streams on the establishment’s high-def displays, has accelerated its spread across the United States since being covered in The Wall Street Journal. Valve gave away a million dollars to a Dota 2 team for winning a tournament of a game that isn’t even out yet. Riot Games announced a five million dollar total purse for the second season of League of Legends. Professional gaming is no longer some weird Korean activity, incomprehensible to Western audiences. The future of pro-level competitive gaming has finally arrived.

Professional gaming has been around for years, but the last 12 months have seen explosive growth for e-sports worldwide. “We’ve seen this really good year where things have clicked and the global audience has responded to those efforts,” says Major League Gaming CEO Sundance DiGiovanni. StarCraft II and League of Legends have come on to complement the strong first-person shooter stable that has formed the traditional backbone of Western e-sports. Social media has ceased being a buzzword and become part of everyday life on the Web. The journey is finally paying off.

It seems obvious now, but stepping out of the shadow of broadcast TV for the wide-open world of the Internet was a major win for e-sports. “The numbers that we produce online, any traditional media person, anybody who breaks down the demographics we’re trying to reach…when they see what our viewership patterns are on the Internet, any feelings of inadequacy immediately go out the window,” DiGiovanni says.

Going Pro

Becoming a professional gamer is like embarking on any other career: To get anywhere, you have to put in the time. Hone your skills, practice against tough competition, climb those ladders and leaderboards. Aside from that obvious advice, Major League Gaming CEO Sundance DiGiovanni has a few choice pieces of advice.

“Each game has its own subculture and its own meta-culture for how talent is discovered,” DiGiovanni says. Go to popular forums for your game, find out what the community respects, and work toward that. Once your name is out there as an active part of the community and you have the in-game skills to hang with the top players, you can try to break into the networks of elite players that nearly always form at the top. Maybe you can become a current pro’s “practice newb,” someone he or she plays against to improve their own skills in friendly matches. If you can make it into games against known talent, you can start bucking up even farther. After all, DiGiovanni’s last bit of wisdom is undeniable: “The way to get noticed is to beat somebody meaningful.”

The other side of pro gaming talent is on the commentating side. Anyone who has listened to Day[9], Artosis, Tasteless, or any other professional shoutcaster call a StarCraft match knows the difference a good ‘caster can make. Here again, practice is the key to getting good enough to get a gig. As a former ‘caster himself, DiGiovanni advises proceeding with caution. Record a match and play it back for yourself at first, he says: “Don’t have the first thing you do go out to anyone who wants to watch it or critique it, because people are mean, and they’ll say things that may make you just quit.” Once you’re more comfortable on the mic, start promoting yourself within existing communities and on YouTube or wherever else.

Browder is more succinct in his view of pro gaming’s relationship with media. “For a long time, we were dependent on television to get this stuff out. If a television station didn’t think we were cool enough, they wouldn’t pick us up, and then we were left in the dark,” he says. “Now we’ve got our own TV and it’s called the Internet, and we can watch it whenever we want.”

MLG set records this year for concurrent online stream viewers (138,000 at the Raleigh Pro Circuit in August) and live in-person spectators (20,000 at the Anaheim Pro Circuit in July). For his part, Browder recommends attending a pro event if you ever have the opportunity. “It was absolutely amazing to sit there [at the Anaheim event] in a crowd of thousands watching StarCraft II and at the same time watching people play Halo, watching people play Call of Duty. Just amazing to watch all of these fans coming, all to stare at a screen, all to watch these high-caliber players throw down. It was a total blast,” he says.

This would all be old news in South Korea, of course. Pro StarCraft leagues have been running in that country for years, and the 2010 prize pool for the top league hit roughly $500,000 – which doesn’t include any separate tournaments or events that Korean pros compete in. Blizzard’s 2007 Worldwide Invitational packed two enormous Olympic stadiums with over 60,000 fans. Top players have a level of celebrity in their home country unheard of anywhere else in the world.

Browder sees Korea as the tip of the spear, and a big reason for the popularity wave hitting Western markets now. “There was a core group of very passionate e-sports watchers here in the United States and Europe that I don’t think existed [until] Korea exported it to the rest of the world,” he says. “The minute that StarCraft II hit, these guys were obviously ready.”

This has been a great year for e-sports so far, and drawing in well over 100,000 viewers for a live stream over the Internet is a great accomplishment, but it still has plenty of room to grow. Browder would like to see developers and publishers make more investment in the phenomenon. “It’s very easy to make a game with very flashy graphics that looks really great in screenshots. It’s very hard to make a game that looks good but still is clear enough to watch live,” he says. “If I had something I could stand on and shout, I would tell our brothers that are making first-person shooters they need to get on this.”

E-sports have made huge gains in presentation and popularity, but DiGiovanni sees things just getting better. League of Legends is a massively popular competitive title that is still hitting its pro gaming stride, and “[MLG hasn’t] really executed with Riot yet,” he admits. Gears of War, Battlefield, and Modern Warfare all have high-profile sequels out to keep e-sports riding high in the coming months as well. Expect to hear plenty more about pro gaming in the near future – none of these trends show any sign of reversing. “I’ve never seen such fertile ground,” DiGiovanni says.

[This article first appeared in Game Informer #223]

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