Computerised gaming has come a long way since Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Today, sophisticated digital technology and fast internet allow the production of gamified entertainment with an extraordinary level of sophistication.
In multi-player games, competitors are deeply immersed in high-definition virtual environments: monitors, headphones and hand-held controllers stimulate the senses and elicit fast-paced responses. Eye-to-hand coordination, teamwork and composure under pressure are the stock in trade of those who enter the world of virtual combat.
Recreational gamers make online, virtual friends, playing alongside or against people in various parts of the world. Sensory stimulation is palpable: studies into the brains of gamers indicate that levels of dopamine – the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward – are very high during play.
The dopamine ‘rush’ from gaming entices players to return. Recreational gaming is therefore neurologically seductive; for some players it can even be addictive. According to an old idiom, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’: to some critics of gaming, though, there is something unproductive, even counter-productive, in the self-indulgence of computerised play.
The recent rise of gaming as a competitive sport means that, via formalised tournaments, it is no longer only about play. Extrinsic rewards are offered to competitors: substantial monetary prizes, college scholarships, sponsorship deals for teams, and even high performance training centres. Global revenue from eSports stood at just under US$700m in 2017; that is projected to double by 2020.
This growth is underpinned by a substantial consumer base: in 2017, the global audience for eSports – as measured by online metrics – was 385 million unique viewers. The bigger tournaments also attract significant crowds: for example, the 2017 League of Legends World Championship, staged at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, was filled with eSports fans.
According to sceptics, eSports are not to be confused with traditional sports that feature overt human movement by way of running, swimming, cycling and so on. Yet the eye-to-hand co-ordination and physical dexterity of eSport athletes is arguably similar to Olympic sports like pistol shooting and archery.
Moreover, while eSport competitors do not have to be exceptional in terms of physical fitness, the same could be said of world-class darts and snooker players. Indeed, there is a growing awareness among elite eSport competitors that optimum performance in tournaments is not just a product of skill; they need to have adequate physical attributes by way of endurance and stamina.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the best eSport performers now have personal trainers and a solid exercise regime. Meanwhile, eSports have been accepted into the Asian Games: expect the powerhouses of South Korea and China to be most competitive in 2022.
There is a variety of eSport genres. Some games, such as FIFA, were designed to try to replicate – with obvious limitations – the play and teamwork involved in professional football. In 2018 the inaugural FIFA eWorld Cup will be staged, organised by EA Sports (the game designer) in partnership with FIFA.
There have been similar links between professional sport and video game play. For example, in 2018 the NBA will be staging its inaugural 2K League, the gaming version of American basketball. Teams select five players, who are then contracted by an NBA franchise to play in an eSports league. For the moment, though, the most popular eSports do not replicate the game play of traditional sports. Combat challenges like League of Legends and Overwatch dominate the market. Indeed, there are leagues around the world dedicated to each.
Australia is part of the global expansion of eSports. In summer 2018, a national eSports league will commence, with two teams from Sydney. A rival league, championed by Network 7, is also slated to begin in 2018 via its proposed new gaming show, screenPLAY. Meanwhile, eSports has been part of Australia’s University Games since 2016, and a UTS team was victorious at the Oceania League of Legends tournament in 2014.
A University eSports League is now in operation, with support from leading Australian companies. Elsewhere, the Australian Football League, which now owns Etihad Stadium, is planning to host eSports tournaments at that venue, while AFL club the Adelaide Crows has already bought an eSports franchise.
Here in Sydney, Australia’s first high performance training facility for eSport athletes is located adjacent to the Sydney Cricket Ground, within walking distance of UTS’s sport science experts. League of Legends Oceania champions, the LG Dire Wolves, along with female development team Supa-Stellar are based there. In 2017, the Dire Wolves became the first eSports team to represent Australia at the League of Legends World Championships.
For enthusiasts and novices alike, the biggest eSports event in Sydney in 2017 was the Intel Extreme Masters, which was particularly attractive for fans of the game Counter Strike.
Some 18,000 fans packed Qudos Bank Arena at Olympic Park, watching teams from around the world. Australia is currently a small player in global eSports, but local proficiency in international competition could be of interest to investors and sponsors: after all, the global eyeballs offered by athletic gaming and tournament play provide substantial marketing and promotion opportunities for Australian companies and, dare I say it, universities seeking to reach and engage international students. Game on!
UTS Business School
Interested in finding out more about eAthletes in action? Check out our profile of UTS student and Counter Strike combatant Connie Ko who is competing in an Asia-Pacific Qualifier this weekend.
Is all this just gibberish? Learn the difference between first person shooters, multiplayer online battle arenas and more with our handy eSports cheat sheet.
Photographer: Toby Burrows