Think eSports aren't real sports? The 5,000 fans who gathered at the Austin City Limits Live's Moody Theater last weekend -- having plunked down hard-earned cash to attend the Redbull Battlegrounds Starcraft II tournament -- might beg to differ.
Braving the sweltering Texas heat, fans lined up to see 16 of the world's finest Starcraft II players compete for a $41,000 purse during two solid days of intensive round-robin play, with live commentary by top eSports announcers such as Sean "Day" Plott and Mike "Husky" Lamond. With the action projected on a massive screen for the benefit of the auditorium, Plott, Lamond, and other commentators breathlessly narrated a grueling series of digital battles.
Starcraft II, a real-time strategy game released by Blizzard in 2010 as a follow-up to the phenomenally popular 1998 original, pits opponents against one another on extraterrestrial battlefields. Players choose one of three unique races — the high-tech Terrans, the mysterious alien Protoss, and the ferocious, insectoid Zerg — and duke it out with a dizzying array of military units, from gigantic battlecruisers to swarming, batlike 'mutalisks.' The tactical possibilities are so numerous that pro players spend endless hours practicing different 'build orders' that will allow the appropriate units to be produced as efficiently as possible.
The winner of the event was 20-year-old Jang "MC" Min Chul, a Korean player who specializes in the Protoss race. A shy, soft-spoken young man on stage, MC proved quite the opposite in his games, demonstrating an aggressive style in which even his noncombatant 'drone' units were used to harass enemy building placements in the crucial early minutes of play. His win netted him a cool $15,000.
The Redbull event is only one indication that pro gaming is on the rise in the U.S. This October, the makers of the hugely successful free-to-play game League of Legends will host a tournament featuring a massive $3 million purse.
With that kind of money in play, Day told Yahoo! Games, growth for eSports in the U.S. is sure to follow. But can it compete with traditional sports in terms of revenue and popular awareness — which, in South Korea, it's already done?
"We'll get up to that level," says Day, whose YouTube channel boasts some 50 million video views and over 250,000 subscribers. "The only thing that has been in the way [of esports' growth] is these subjective stigmas [against video games]. Oh, is it bad for children? No, it's actually quite good. It actually really helps critical thinking and decision-making under pressure."
"A lot of people always ask, 'well, is it going to be on TV?'" adds Husky. "But the important thing is, people our age don't use TV that much. […] The generation that's online, it's very easy to tap into that… for anyone looking at that space and saying 'how popular is it going to be?' — look online."