IN 1997 Dennis Fong, better known by his online pseudonym “Thresh”, became an internet hero when his skills at “Quake”, an early first-person shoot-’em-up, won him a Ferrari 328 GTS owned by John Carmack, the programming guru who had written much of the game. Mr Fong (now retired) amassed more than $100,000 in prize money before hanging up his mouse and parlaying his fame into a business empire. He remains famous among avid gamers for proving both that there was an appetite for “e-sports” among the public, and that players themselves could earn a living from feeding it. These days, hundreds of gamers have managed to turn their abilities with games such as “League of Legends” (pictured), “Call of Duty” and “Hearthstone” into a profession. But how does it work?
The road to stardom begins in a plethora of small online tournaments, with prizes of a few tens or hundreds of dollars stumped up by sponsors keen to reach their tech-savvy, committed audiences. Do well in the bush leagues and you may receive an invitation to play in the top flight—tournaments run by companies such as Major League Gaming in America or the Electronic Sports League in Europe, which can attract hundreds of thousands of simultaneous viewers and which boast prize pools in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some tournaments are run by the firms that make the games being played. Riot, the company behind “League of Legends”, a popular online team game, has stumped up tens of millions to organise and broadcast glitzy competitions designed to crown the best players in the world. As with traditional sports, though, becoming good at video games requires practice—and lots of it. In South Korea, where the sci-fi strategy game “StarCraft” became something of a national obsession in the late 1990s, professional players live in team houses where coaches and a system of earned privileges encourage them to train for ten hours a day or more.
Like all sports, professional video-gaming is an all-or-nothing business. The best players can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their careers, from a combination of prize money, salaries and personal sponsorship. Yet most scrape by, spending a few years as journeymen before giving up and pursuing more ordinary careers. But there are opportunities for the also-rans, too. The big tournaments require knowledgeable commentators, which means that personable players can forge a second career explaining what’s going on. Up-and-coming players may even be willing to pay by the hour for coaching. Some players become stars on their own, posting regular videos in which they critique the play of others, instruct their audiences in how to get better, or simply discuss the latest gossip.
That is possible thanks to the rise of video-streaming sites, like Twitch.tv and Ustream, which allow anyone to set themselves up as a one-man television show. Indeed, it is the internet that makes electronic sports possible in the first place. As big as the video games industry has become, watching other people play remains a niche interest. But the internet allows people with such interests to find their peers all over the world, and means that catering to the “long tail” rather than the mass market is commercially feasible. MLG’s broadcasts, for instance, are watched in more than 170 countries—though many may have only a handful of viewers. Organising that kind of coverage via traditional television would be fantastically expensive, and would require the sorts of audiences reserved for things like football’s World Cup (although MLG has begun flirting with ESPN, an American sports network). Broadcasting online is far cheaper, and means that there is no need to convince sceptical and risk-averse television networks that people will indeed watch. Google, for one, seems to think that playing video games professionally has a future. It is rumoured to be in discussions to buy Twitch.tv, which specialises in video-streaming of gaming, for a billion dollars.