Playing games... for money?
The concept of people playing and competing professionally in computer games is nothing new actually. Around the world there are quite a number of international events such as the Cyberathlete Professional League, the World Cyber Games (run by the Koreans, considered to be the 'Olympics of Cyber Gaming'), as well as the recently completed Electronic Sports World Cup held at the Futuroscope Park in Poitiers, France.
There are also tournaments that are played over the internet, as well as local ones that are usually held in cybercafes or gaming pubs.
Gamers from around the world have qualifiers in their respective countries and are sponsored to attend such events. One such 'professional gamer' who was featured on MTV recently is Johnathan Wendel who goes by the name Fatal1ty in the games, has made over $100K in a year from gaming.
In the past, Russia has proclaimed computer gaming to be a national sport and based on the rumors, it is likely that China will include computer games in their 2008 Olympics as well.
Websites dedicated to E-Sports such as So Gamed and Cyberfight that cover the events and happenings in the world of E-Sports. As a casual gamer who plays these games and follow the competition scene, I found myself breathless by just looking at the pictures and following the E-Sports World Cup coverage from one of the more popular international e-sports websites, ESReality.
Gamers who compete in these events play their games at a level above the contemporary gamer. They devote their time into practicing daily to improving their skills. Fatal1ty himself claims to have practiced 8-10 hours a day, a feat which has earned him many top places in gaming tournaments for the past few years.
All is not fun and games in the world of professional gaming though as my friend has revealed to me. A lot of sweat, and sometimes blood is involved. The concept of e-sports is still far from being a reality and few people can actually earn enough to support themselves and secure their futures. There are many reasons which can span several pages but I will only touch lightly on two of them.
1. Lack of a proper competitive platform
Over the years, new games keep appearing and the older ones are left on the shelf. In the world of competitive gaming, this is the exact same case, except the impact of a game being pushed aside can be disastrous for some.
In this, I am referring to the Cyberathlete Professional League's one time decision to switch from the Quake series, which they had been using since the start of their foundation, to a newer (and more popular) game at the time, the infamous Counter-Strike.
Now for most of the 'professional gamers' who have lived off their earnings from past CPL tournaments, this meant the end of their career unless they made the jump from Quake to Counter-Strike. Unfortunately, switching games is not as simple because both games have different sets of physics and gameplay; in Quake you battled one another one on one while Counter-Strike is a team-based game, the players usually in numbers of five.
Now, even more recently, the CPL has announced for their World Tour that they would be switching games once again, this time back to a duel based game. There will still be a Counter-Strike tournament during the event, but this leaves many to wonder how much more air time does Counter-Strike have before it finally gets shelved as well.
2. Games aren't made for competition play
Most game developers make their games for the casual gamers in general, and not the competitive ones who are but a minority. In the end they leave it to the mod makers in the competitive community to fix all the loose screws and modify the game to be played competitively. This alone brings up a problem, as the more modifications to the game, the more the community is divided, some preferring the 'vanilla' version of the game to the modification.
Game developers these days depend very much on their graphics to help the game's sales, while in contrast, competitive gamers have a habit of dumbing down the graphics of a game to a point where all they see are polygons for the sake of visibility and boosting their framerates. This in itself is a problem for the developers as they won't be able to promote their game should the game be used in a competition with the graphics in such a state.
Being that the majority of gamers are casual gamers while the competitive ones make up only a small niche in the market, game developers do not see catering to the competitive community as profitable as the majority.
Is there any hope at all?
The erratic and unpredictable nature of professional gaming is perhaps why past champions such as Dennis "Thresh" Fong, who won John Carmack's Ferrari during a tournament I might add (it is always mandatory to make a John Carmack's Ferrari reference whenever mentioning Thresh for the first time), who quit playing professionally at his peak and turning his eyes towards the lush fields of dotcoms, which resulted in the founding of Gamers.com and sites such as FiringSquad.
So far, Korea is the only nation where the concept of E-Sports is fully realized, with China coming in a distant second. Blizzard's Starcraft has an immensely huge cult following in Korea, to a point where there are TV stations that air games during leagues and tournaments that are held on a regular basis. Being one a professional gamer in Starcraft earns you thousands a month, even if you are not the top of the crop, a reason professional Starcraft players from all over the world migrate to Korea and live there permanently.
Yet, the outlook of e-sports getting anywhere in other countries is still bleak. Even with all the international tournaments and media coverage, professional gaming still remains a myth rather than a fact. Most people either grow out of gaming or quit completely after realizing that there is no stable future for a competitive gamer.
Thinking Positive and Looking Forwards
Even so, we could still consider e-sports very much in its infancy. After all, computer games only made their way into our lives in the 50's, and e-sports in the 90's. When we look at other professional sports such as soccer and chess which have had centuries before becoming what they are today, who is to say that electronic gaming will not achieve mainstream sports status? Even as I write this article, post-ESWC mania the many gamers and e-sports fans alike are already preparing themselves for the World Cyber Games that will be held in San Francisco this coming September.