Don't Think Competitive Gaming Is a Sport? 32 Million League of Legends Fans Beg to Differ

It's official -- eSports, or competitive video gaming, is soaring in prominence as a spectator sport.

Last month, more than 32 million people tuned into the Twitch livestream of the Season 3 world championship broadcast of Riot Games' League of Legends, currently the most popular eSports game in the world -- 8.5 million people simultaneously streamed the online broadcast.

League of Legends. Source: PCGamer.com

That crushes League of Legends' previous record of 8.2 million viewers with 1.1 simultaneous streaming viewers, and also tops other huge streaming events in recent history -- including the championship broadcast of Valve's DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) 2, League of Legends' primary competitor.

Event

Simultaneous streaming users

British Royal Wedding

300,000

2012 Olympic Games

500,000

DOTA 2 The International 3 Tournament

1,000,000

Super Bowl XLVII Live Stream

3,000,000

Felix Baumgartner's jump from space

8,000,000

League of Legends Season 3 Championship

8,500,000

Source: Theverge.com

The reason behind the huge number of streaming viewers for League of Legends is obvious -- its players spend plenty of time in front of their computers, and computer users often spend more time streaming media from the Internet than watching it on their TVs. Streaming numbers pale when compared to mainstream sporting events on TV -- the broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII attracted 108.7 million viewers, for example. But 32 million viewers and 8.5 million simultaneous streamers makes a pretty clear statement to game companies and advertisers -- competitive gaming should no longer be associated with geeky LAN parties, but taken seriously as a new form of entertainment.

The wild world of eSports

eSports have been around since the earliest days of video games. Gaming tournaments in the early 1980s usually focused on getting higher scores than other competitors. In the 1990s, Internet connectivity and multiplayer games shifted the focus to definitively winning, rather than simply getting a higher score.

First person shooters (FPS) like Quake (1996) and Blizzard's (now Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI  ) ) real-time strategy (RTS) game StarCraft (1998) dramatically altered the landscape of eSports as Internet speeds improved.

StarCraft's rise to prominence, especially across Asia, gave birth to a new form of entertainment -- RTS game competitions aired on mainstream TV. In South Korea, those mainstream TV broadcasts turned StarCraft into the country's national sport, and as with any sport, legendary athletes were born.

A live StarCraft 2 tournament. Source: SC2blog.com

Top Korean StarCraft players like MarineKing and Western players like IdrA -- whose volatile outbursts have been likened to John McEnroe smashing tennis rackets -- made the sport entertaining. Top athletes won huge contracts, sponsorships, and prizes. One of the top players, Jaedong, reportedly accumulated career earnings of nearly $500,000 by 2013.

Just as baseball players spend hours in batting practice, professional StarCraft players do endless hand exercises to improve their mouse and keyboard accuracy, in an effort to boost their APM (actions per minute) -- a commonly used measure of a player's reflexes in eSports.

In an RTS game like StarCraft, a high APM is critical, especially when a player has to simultaneously create new units, defend their base, and attack the enemy on multiple fronts. That intensity, combined with the fact that it's endlessly entertaining to watch insect-like Zerglings swarm a Terran (human) base Starship Troopers style, made StarCraft a spectator sport that both gamers and non-gamers could enjoy watching together.

For years, Blizzard dominated eSports with StarCraft, Brood War, and StarCraft 2. However, it had no idea that MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) like DOTA and League of Legends would suddenly surge in prominence and steal its throne.

The birth of the MOBA heroes

To understand where MOBAs came from, we need to take a look at StarCraft's medieval fantasy sibling, Warcraft. StarCraft was based on the same gameplay premise as Warcraft's -- the player sends workers to collect resources, builds buildings to produce attack units, and tries to take out the opponent while making sure his or her base is not ransacked.

Warcraft 3 (2002), however, encouraged faster, aggressive matches and discouraged "turtling," or building up massive defenses in hopes that the opponent would make the first move. Warcraft 3 added resource gathering penalties -- which meant that the larger a player's army was, the less resources he or she could collect. More importantly, it added "hero units" -- superpowered single units that could be leveled up to take out hordes of minions with a few attacks.

The original DOTA. Source: Wikimedia.

These "hero units" became so popular that a mod for Warcraft 3, known as DOTA, was created in 2005, in which hero units battled it out to destroy the character's fortified structures at the opposite ends of the map. This mod notably removed resource production, base management, and unit production from the game, instead focusing on the player's need to level up by killing computer-controlled units to get strong enough to dominate opposing players. Thus the modern day MOBA was born.

Riot Games, which would eventually be purchased by Chinese Internet giant Tencent, noticed DOTA's rising popularity and released the free-to-play League of Legends in October 2009, a similar MOBA game that became the most played online game in the world by the summer of 2012, with 12 million daily active users and 1.3 billion hours of total logged game time per year.

Blizzard gets caught off guard

That sudden shift in gamer preferences completely caught Blizzard off guard, knocking StarCraft 2 off the top spot as the most played eSports game in South Korea. Then last month, as a sign of the times, top StarCraft 2 player MarineKing switched over to League of Legends.

This was doubly embarrassing for Blizzard, since DOTA, the game that started all the MOBA madness, was originally a Warcraft 3 mod, and it had expected to enjoy years of dominance in eSports with its incremental releases of the StarCraft 2 trilogy. To make matters worse, Valve acquired the intellectual property rights to DOTA when Blizzard wasn't looking, and released DOTA 2 in July.

Heroes of the Storm. Source: Cinemablend.com

Now, to make up for lost time, Blizzard is releasing its own MOBA game -- Heroes of the Storm, a Super Smash Bros.-type mash-up of all its favorite characters, such as Arthas from Warcraft and Kerrigan from StarCraft. Blizzard claims that Heroes is original enough to not have to worry about competing with League of Legends or DOTA 2, but I have doubts that Blizzard will be able to fully make up for lost time by the time it is finally released.

What's next for League of Legends and eSports?

League of Legends certainly has the momentum to remain a dominant force in eSports. However, we'll have to see if DOTA 2 and upcoming titles like Heroes of the Storm will eventually throttle its growth.

Meanwhile, we'll see more sponsorships of eSports events -- Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) already inked a major partnership with Riot Games, sponsoring a new minor league of League of Legends where players can compete before going pro. With an 800-pound gorilla like Coca-Cola giving eSports a vote of confidence, it's not hard to see other major sponsors, like McDonald's or Yum! Brands being that far behind.

What's your take on the future of eSports? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (3)

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  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2013, at 2:28 PM, Raphael1990 wrote:

    Nice summary of the developments. Personally I have become a Dota2 "viewer-only".

    The reason for the popularity of LoL and Dota2 is probably their accessibility. SC2 can be quite overwhelming when you have to control a whole army. Also having to pay for a game prevents people from trying it out.

    On the other hand if you have never played LoL or Dota you have no idea whats going on, so you pretty much cant watch it without having played it extensively which is problematic. SC2 can be watched and followed even by people who never played the game.

    As far as Blizzards Heroes of the Storm is concerned I dont think they want to make it an eSport. I have heard it's a more simplistic and casual experience. But they can certainly capture a large audience and make it very successful from a business standpoint.

  • Report this Comment On November 20, 2013, at 3:10 PM, TMFLikeTheMayo wrote:

    Really nice article Leo. As one of the 32 million who tuned in and also watches traditional sports, I can attest that eSports are just as entertaining as their ball (and puck) based counterparts.

    I think the biggest barrier to entry for League of Legends and Starcraft to becoming mainstream attractions like they are in Korea is that without playing the game viewers have no idea what they're watching. Riot could do a much better job of having their broadcasters explain the objectives and common strategies of the game before and during each match.

    Watching eSports grow has been really exciting. I can't wait for it to become cultural commonplace - if only so that I stop getting funny looks when people ask me what I'm watching on my iPad and I respond, "video games."

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2013, at 6:53 AM, TMFSunLion wrote:

    Thanks!

    I think it's kind of strange that SC2 is the easier sport to watch, considering that LOL and DOTA are supposed to be "easier" games.

    I agree -- I think it's because the SC2 broadcasters (both amateur and professional) are quite talented at dramatizing the gameplay. I think it's also the scale of SC2 -- there's something universally entertaining about a cluster of marines charging into a siege tank line or getting blown up by banelings.

    And you're not alone in watching video games online -- in addition to actual competitive matches, I enjoy watching absurd stuff for SC2 like "When Cheese Fails" and Day 9's ridiculously detailed analyses of games. :)

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2013, at 3:13 PM, Gato337 wrote:

    My boyfriend plays SC2 all the time. I have recently watched a few SC2 competitions (streaming) with him, and I must say it's more entertaining than I expected it to be! (Especially with the funny commentary, as TMFSunLion pointed out above.) I have never played the game myself, so watching gameplay was really confusing until BF had explained things to me a couple times, and I still have trouble telling teams apart and keeping track what units do what. The pace of gameplay is sooo fast it's often hard for me to follow and without the commentators' help I would have no clue which side had the upper hand until the end of the game. Nonetheless, I like watching sports competitions, and there's definitely a thrill watching these games play out live on my computer screen.

    Here's my 2 cents as a non-player who has watched a few eSports competitions: it's entertaining, but without deeper knowledge of the game's strategies and structure, it has limited value to spread to the non-player "masses." For these live-streamed games to appeal to more non-players, the non-players must be educated as to the rules and concepts of the game to enjoy themselves, even better if they are able to take a stake in the competitors (meaning support certain players over others) and follow those competitors' successes. However, I would argue that this applies to any sport and presents a significant barrier to the wider adoption of spectator eSports. I've never played football or baseball, but I enjoy watching them because I understand the basics of what is going on in the game, and I have home teams that I root for.

    For eSports to take off in the US as a spectator sport, we need some bigger gaming stars and personalities, like they do in Korea. Developing star players will attract more loyal spectators as they form attachments to their favorite star players (the Korean stars even have groupies!). Additionally, like TMFSunLion mentioned, as eSports gain a wider audience, the companies hosting eSports competitions need to move away from the assumption that most of the spectators are gamers and include more commentary that helps non-players understand the gameplay.

  • Report this Comment On November 21, 2013, at 3:19 PM, Gato337 wrote:

    I forgot to mention that all the SC2 live competitions I have watched were Korean. BF says that the Korean games are more entertaining because the players' skills are so high and the playing field is so even that it's incredibly difficult to predict the winner. It's much more common in the western competitions to see 1 or 2 highly-skilled players dominate a less competitive field again and again.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 4:29 PM, me2dumb4college wrote:

    Marine Areana 2... hands down the best aspect of SC2

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