E-Sports Come 'Out of the Basement'

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E-Sports Come 'Out of the Basement'
On a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in Silver Spring, Maryland, the dark, cavernous Fillmore theater is roaring with life. A sold-out crowd from around the nation is screaming for the elite e-athletes and thumping inflated cheer sticks in a collective thunder.

In the balconies, "gamescasters" in dark suits and bright ties are breathlessly narrating and analyzing the plays to tens of thousands of fans who are watching via a live video stream.

Onstage, the players are stone-faced and appear unfazed by the commotion around them. They are sitting on ergonomic swivel chairs in front of computer screens and tapping away at keyboards and mouses as they try to kill rival factions on the military sci-fi strategy game StarCraft.

The gaming industry has exploded in recent years, with streaming sites such as Twitch and YouTube creating celebrities out of the best players and launching careers for people who are expert at talking about the games. The total gaming market is expected to grow to $74.2 billion (roughly Rs. 4,86,879 crores) this year, according to SuperData Research.

One piece of that market,e-sport multiplayer video-gaming competitions, is expected to bring in $612 million (roughly Rs. 4,015 crores) this year for games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends. Such games borrow heavily from the slick productions of professional football and basketball and offer big rewards for the winner. Two years ago, the State Department recognized the genre as a sport and began to offer athletic visas to competitors.

In events such as the Red Bull Battle Grounds championship in Silver Spring, real-life competitions bring the virtual world together with the real, as fans fill arenas and concert halls to cheer on the world's most elite gamers.

"These are like the Olympian athletes of players," said Kyle Storey, 28, who traveled from Dover, New Hampshire, with his best friend and fellow gaming enthusiast, Edward Juarez. They came to see if defending champion, Choi Ji Sung, known as "Bomber," could recapture the title before he heads to military duty in South Korea, one of the many dramatic personal story lines that built momentum for the finals.

A handful of teams are competing for the championship purse of $30,000 (roughly Rs. 19,68,526), and the finals have added suspense. The players will try out a beta version of StarCraft that turns the one-on-one player game into a duel of partners.

The first match carries high drama. Defending champion Bomber and his partner, Mun Seong Won, or "MMA," will go up against veterans Chris "Huk" Loranger and "M.C.," whose real name is Jang Min Chul. M.C. came out of retirement for the tournament and is testing to see if he has lost his skills.

The players enter the stage to howls from the audience and raised fan posters pumping in the air.

The crowd is mostly males of all ages. Reston, Virginia, resident Sounil Yu, 44, brought his two teenage sons, who play StarCraft with their father. They say StarCraft is one of the most challenging strategy games. Players have to be aware of a multitude of factors - such as three different races that can be played at once and various tasks, such as mining minerals and building worker bases - while trying to kill enemies and defend bases. They weren't fast enough to buy tickets to last year's sold-out tournament and are attending their first e-sports event.

"StarCraft requires tremendous strategy. It's like chess but much faster and much more interesting to watch," Yu said.

The players are beginning their warm-up routine. Bomber, in a red-and-white letterman's jacket and a baseball cap, adjusts the height of his chair. MMA fiddles with the distance of his keyboard to his mouse and lifts the monitor to match his line of sight. Huk replaces his rolling swivel chair with a stationary folding chair and puts a neck pillow down for extra cushion. M.C. rolls his head to stretch his neck and shrugs his shoulders up and down to get loose.

Like professional athletes, some are religious about their pre-game rituals. For breakfast, Huk and M.C. fueled up at Chick-fil-A, preparing for a full eight hours of matches.

"Meat makes victory," M.C. said in an interview.

The competitions that make careers out of childhood obsessions pay enough for a comfortable life. M.C., who lives in Seoul, made around $100,000 (roughly Rs. 65,61,750) a year from global e-sports competitions and sponsorships. Huk brings in about $180,000 (roughly Rs. 1.2 crores) from competitions and sponsors, such as Monster beverages and HyperX.

Huk plans to transition into "gamescasting," like other famous gamers who have found second careers with popular YouTube channels where they interact with fans and analyze other players.

"It's the same as when a football player retires and then they start showing up with suits and analyze the game on TV," said Huk, a Canadian who got his start in South Korea, the global center of e-sports.

That's the lucrative transition made by John Bain, known as TotalBiscuit, a former gamer who has more than 2 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. He won't say how much he earns from YouTube ads and sponsorships, but he counts Sony, Sandisk and StarCraft creator Blizzard as advertisers.

Bain gets paid for gamescasting and says an e-sports team he owns in South Korea wins around $50,000 (roughly Rs. 32,80,940) a year in competitions.

At the Red Bull tournament, the fast-talking native of the UK is one of four gamescasters paid for his commentary. It's a medium-sized tournament compared with the International Dota 2 games, which drew 12,000 fans to the Key Arena in Seattle in August to see competitors take home a total of $18 million (roughly Rs. 118 crores) in winnings. The Red Bull tournament will hand out a total $30,000 (roughly Rs. 19,68,408) purse.

"It's not that gamers are antisocial, but they hadn't traditionally shared their interests with those around them locally," Bain said. "Now, the Internet has taken games out of the basement and allowed enthusiasts to connect."

Jessica Yuen came from New Jersey with her former Rutger's University StarCraft club. She graduated three years ago but still counts the club members as her closest friends, along with many StarCraft enthusiasts she has met online. Yuen has followed Huk since college and is rooting for the 26-year-old Canadian gamer. Over the years, her interest in Huk and other players has gone beyond their skills.

"He's just a nice guy. He cares about his fans," Yuen said.

After seven hours of matches, Huk and M.C. win.

© 2015 The Washington Post

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