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Sports on Small Screens – The Growth of Competitive Video Gaming

Written by Genevieve Worrell

Story by Daniel Pickering

Lights flash throughout the Brisbane Museum Theatre as the crowd roars.

On the screen overhead, pixelated monsters deliver colourful attacks, knocking out their digital foes.

This is the 2nd Annual Pokémon Videogame Championship (VGC) held in Brisbane so far, and the atmosphere feels like a professional football match.

These regional qualifiers are now held in every capital city around the country, with hundreds of fans coming along to spectate or compete for a free ticket to the National Championship in Melbourne.

Event organiser and Nintendo Australia representative Jamie says “We’ve gotten a great turnout this year… over 250 competitors down in Sydney, 150 here in Brisbane today.”

The room is packed, with all seats taken and spectators hovering in doorways.

These numbers have increased from last year’s event, held in the Brisbane Convention Centre where almost 100 people competed.

Comptetitors battle it out for video game glory.

Comptetitors battle it out for video game glory.

Jamie says “We actually do most of this stuff in our free time; the regional VGC isn’t something Nintendo told us to do.”

But it’s an effective promotion; with 18 year-old competitor David Upcher saying “I wouldn’t have bought the latest Pokémon game if I hadn’t come along to watch it (the tournament) last year.”

The Pokémon VGC is an international competition, with players separated into three age groups (Juniors, Seniors and Masters) worldwide.

Last year’s World Championships were held in Vancouver, with Italian Arash Ommati winning the Masters division.

There were no Australians in the top cut last year, but 31 year old Sydney winner, who goes by the alias “CatGonk”, says “Because of… the new ability to play with top Japanese players online, the level of skill in Australia has risen dramatically.”

“This means that I can no longer rely on being able to outplay my opponents, and for someone who has played Pokémon for their entire adult life this is not an easy realization to take.”

However, competitive Pokémon is a much smaller phenomenon compared to other games being played worldwide.

Competitive video gaming, or “eSports” as some call it, is not a new phenomenon.

People have played in professional tournaments since the early days of multiplayer gaming.

In 2000, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism set up an independent body to regulate competitive gaming called the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA).

The institution centred largely on developer Blizzard’s popular Starcraft RTS, and high-profile events such as the famous Starleague were screened nationwide on television.

These were shown on the OnGameNet (OGN) gaming channel, as thousands of viewers tuned in to see ‘bonjwa’ (distinguished) players such as BoxeR and Flash win thousands in team salaries, sponsorships and prize money.

Competitive gaming has gone from strength to strength since then, with the most popular competitive games reaching millions of views worldwide through online streaming platforms such as Twitch.tv and YouTube.

Online streaming allows players to broadcast their games in real time worldwide, and it is often monetized directly through advertising revenue just like traditional television.

Online streaming personality Octavian ‘Kripparian’ Morosan says “I play games because I like to play games… I don’t min-max profits.”

“I started up this YouTube thing and the Twitch thing because it was really fun. Prior to doing this full time I was working as a computer tech and that was alright… well, not being genuine about the things I want to do, that’s not something I’m going to give up.”

Kripparian is a veteran of the competitive gaming, with extensive experience in games by American developer Blizzard.

He now frequently commentates professional matches of Hearthstone, a card game recently released by Blizzard.

“So generally, when I go to ESGN Fight Night (Hearthstone tournament), it’s basically work. You have to be there, you have to do it well. You’re outside your normal environment. And it’s a pretty big loss to get there (from Greece to Berlin).”

“But it’s different, and the audience has been loving it, so that’s why I’ve been doing it.”

eSports and Gaming Network (ESGN) is an international company that runs different tournaments for games across the world.

Currently, the only games they support in Australia are the sports game FIFA and shooter Battlefield.

However, in a recent statement on the ESGN website, Operations Manager Mark West says “eSports in Australia is littered with broken promises and unfulfilled potential so I’m not going to promote an “Oh just wait something amazing / exciting / awesome is coming to Australian eSports soon”.

“My focus as the Operations Manager for ESGN is to ensure that we deliver to gamers, sponsors and eSports advocates in this country so that eSports as a whole will flourish.”

This statement comes with the confirmation that they will be holding live eSports events in Australia later this year with cash prizes, instead of small online tournies.

In another example, Riot Game’s award-winning multiplayer hit League of Legends drew over 32 million total viewers in its World Finals in 2013, broadcast live from the sold out Staples Centre in Los Angeles.

In a press release shortly after the game, Riot employee ‘Redbeard’ says that these numbers had tripled since their previous world finals, demonstrating how quickly the eSports scene had grown.

As the scene grows, the institutions and sponsorships that make the events possible also grow in influence.

Several dedicated gaming companies have formed sponsorships with big-name companies over the past decade, ranging from Coke Zero and Red Bull, to gaming hardware manufacturers such as Razer, and strangely even the U.S Airforce Reserve.

On the 20th of July 2014, ESPN broke new ground by broadcasting Valve’s DOTA 2 International finals live on American television.

19 year old spectator Ben “Mega” says “”I think Valve’s eSports production values have improved tonnes this year. It’s already got more viewers than some smaller sports, I could see it getting more recognition.”

The future for eSports seems bright in light of growing viewership numbers and sponsor appeal; however failures and periods of instability are par for the course in any entrepreneurial environment such as eSports.

Own3D.tv was the first large-scale online streaming platform for gaming, well before Twitch.tv gained traction, and also before YouTube released live streaming features.

In January 2013 the company filed for bankruptcy, closing its website and destroying thousands of hours of user-generated video.

The website cited “the capital intensive nature of our industry” and “increasing competition” for its failure to remain profitable.

In addition, Own3D.tv failed to pay several streamers their allotted revenue from advertising, including the influential Starcraft player Steven “Destiny” Bonnell, who publicly shamed the website in a disparaging blog post.

“As we got to September, paychecks were being paid months late. I could barely afford food and necessities for my child and his mother while staying there.”

The unstable nature of the eSports environment means that, while competitive video gaming has the potential to rapidly expand, it can also crash quickly without much warning.

In the end, eSports may turn out to be the next form of mainstream competitive entertainment, or it may just be a passing fad of the early 2000s.

Either way, people will continue to compete through video games, whether they’re playing Pokémon in a local tournament, or winning sponsorships on the world stage.