Video Game Tournament Hints at Sports Future


It was only two minutes into the game and one team had delivered a decisive blow.

The broadcasters' speech quickened and they moved to the edge of their seats. One team spotted a weak link on the opposition and was going to exploit it as many times as possible.

Alas, the targeted player was caught in a poor position. The other squad ganged up on him and he died. The crowd erupted in vigorous applause.

This was not a real-life staging of "The Hunger Games," nor was it a combat exercise with spectators.

Video game aficionados were gathered at the Cosmopolitan to watch the best in the world square off in "League of Legends" and "StarCraft 2" at the three-day IGN Professional League 4 tournament.

This was the second live tournament for IGA. The first two were online, but gaming is a growing spectator sport; at one point on Friday, there were 150,000 people watching the "League of Legends" action live on their computers. Another 100,000 were watching the "Starcraft" competition.

For comparison, ESPN drew 4 million viewers for its Masters coverage Friday, but Major League Soccer games averaged 291,000 viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 last season and 70,000 viewers on Fox Soccer.

Media company IGM and its general manager of electronic sports, David Ting, see video games as the next spectator sport. The phenomenon is just catching on in the United States, but is already taking hold in other countries, specifically South Korea.

"In Korea, 'Starcraft II' is the national pastime. It's bigger than soccer," Ting said. "There, 20,000 people will fill a stadium to watch a video game match. They show "Starcraft II" games on broadcast television."

This year, IPL 4 is hosting the championship round for the "Starcraft II" team competition, the first time the tournament has been held outside of South Korea.

"League of Legends" and "Starcraft II" are real-time strategy games, a genre of game in which players control one or multiple characters and battle with an opponent for territory and resources. Instead of taking turns, each player or team can concurrently execute moves and adjust their strategy. There are differences, and gamers are typically devoted to one game or the other. In "League of Legends" matches, teams of five compete and each player controls one character. In "Starcraft II" the games are one-on-one and each player controls many workers and soldiers.

As with any sport, players and spectators have their own vernacular. "Strats" are strategies and "scrims" are scrimmages, valuable practice for tournaments, when the money is on the line.

At IPL 4, there is $100,000 in prize money for the "Starcraft II" tournament and $50,000 for "League of Legends."

"Right now you got to have another source of income," said "League of Legends" player Johnny "Unstoppable X" Tran, who is on Team V8. "Only the really top tier of players and teams can make enough money from tournaments to survive."

Players like Marcus "Dyrus" Hill, a "League of Legends" player who is know just as much for his funny personality as for his prowess with the various warriors and magical creatures he controls. Hill has a following because other players watch his games, even scrimmages, online.

"Dyrus is hilarious," said Advanced Technologies Academy student and tournament spectator Eli Leers, 18. "His personality comes through when you watch him play. My friends will watch online at the same time and then discuss the match over Skype. I watch to see how the pros play, to pick up their strategies or moves. It's like watching any other sport."

While only the most skilled and well-known players can earn enough from tournaments and sponsorships to live now, Ting says he envisions $1 million prizes in the not too distant future.

Leers said he sees spectator video games as a growing industry, pointing out that 2,500 people from all over the country purchased tickets for the event taking place over Easter weekend.

"It's great for the casino," said Ting. "For a boxing match they may get three hours of action. This is three days, we sold out our block of rooms, and the people are eating, drinking and gambling here. This will only get bigger. Ninety-seven percent of teenagers play video games. In 10 years this could be a really big spectator sport."

Lorin Halpert certainly hopes so. He works for Barcraft, a company that contracts with bars to show video game tournaments.

"We have 215 places worldwide, and about half are in the United States," he said. "You'd be surprised; a lot of the places are normal sports bars, and they are finding they can pay less and draw bigger crowds than if they show football."

A.J. Mazur, a 27 year-old play-by-play announcer for "League of Legends" games, said he has seen the growth in spectator video games. Who would have ever thought five years ago that there would be broadcast jobs for video game tournaments? But, he also said there are obstacles to the U.S. market matching South Korea's.

"Some of these games can go for an hour or more and you can't run a commercial. It has to be more like soccer, where the ad comes up in the corner of the screen while the game is going on," he said. "In the U.S. you are already getting big viewership online, more than a lot of hockey games probably. In Korea though, two networks show video games on prime time. It will take a while for the U.S. to get there."

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