The week of December 28, 2014

The year esports went mainstream

By Kevin Morris

Earlier this year, eight teams of people who were exceptionally good at playing video games took over a tent in the heart of the X Games in Austin, Texas, ESPN’s semiannual alternative sports extravaganza.

As dirtbikers and skateboarders raced outside, the teams—bearing unusual names like Optic Gaming and Evil Geniuses—ripped each other to shreds in Call of Duty: Ghosts, the latest iteration of the hugely popular shooting franchise. There was no cash prize for victory, just an X Games medal (which, no matter what you think of the event, doesn’t carry quite the heft of Olympic bling).

It was, however, the first time ESPN, the traditional sports giant, had ever given away X Games medals for video games.

ESPN wasn’t the only company to have a sudden esports awakening this year. The New York Times ran a series of front-page, weekend edition articles about the phenomenon. And countless other media outlets sent exploratory expeditions into the industry.

You think $11 million is cool? How about $1 billion?

This year, for instance, you may have heard about esports in a college newspaper, CNN, HBO, or even your local newspaper. Or maybe you stumbled upon it for the first time in the wild: Your friends or sons or daughters suddenly picked up a game called League of Legends or Dota 2 and disappeared for weeks playing it, joining tens of millions of others. Or maybe your son or daughter was lucky enough to to be awarded one of the first-ever scholarships for competitive game playing, launched this year by Illinois-based Robert Morris University.

It would be tempting to call 2014 a seminal year for esports. At no other time in the industry’s history has it broken through to the mainstream on so many fronts. But this is the history of a young industry, one being written right before our eyes. The fact is that 2013 was an equally huge year for esports, and 2015 is shaping up to be something special too. We might be in the midst of a seminal esports decade for all we can tell.

What follows are the most important esports moments of the year—tremors from an earthquake.

7) The esports scholarship


Video gaming and academic life has never really mixed very well. Games are responsible for missed finals, broken relationships, and torpedoed GPAs as much as binge drinking. That’s not so much for an elite group of gamers at Robert Morris University, which became the first school on the planet to give out League of Legends scholarships this year. The players enter a nascent if exciting collegiate esports scene, where a small group of start-up nonprofits organize competitions between amateur school teams.

It will take time, but other schools will surely follow. Someday, an NCAA of esports will form. And Robert Morris has already seen its first success, at least in the server: Adrain “Popstar Adrian” Ma recently left school to pursue his dream. He signed with professional squad LMQ.

6) Amazon buys Twitch


You think $11 million is cool? How about $1 billion? The real prize in esports this year had nothing to do with a game. Twitch was born as an upstart offspring of Justin.tv, the streaming site that rose to prominence in the mid-aughts, most famously as a hub for all things pirated TV. When the the lawyers came knocking and the piracy party ended, the only thing left standing was the gaming section, where the company’s executive noticed a curious phenomenon taking place: People really liked watching strangers play video games on the Internet.

Three years after spinning off, Twitch supplanted its parent. It has become the epicenter of the esports renaissance—the place where esports happens, where the players and community live. Competition is sniffing at its heels. The industry is unpredictable. But when Amazon bought Twitch for about $1 billion on Aug. 25, it was a steal. Amazon had just made the biggest play in the esports long game.

5) League of Legends sells out a World Cup arena


Monstrous prize pools make for the best party talk, but if you want to encapsulate esports in 2014 in one image, look no further than any photograph of the crowd-filled Sangam Stadium in Korea on Oct. 19. League of Legends is the biggest esport in the world—the biggest online game in the world—and its annual championships are spectacles of increasing opulence.

If you want to encapsulate esports in 2014 in one image, look no further than any photograph of the crowd-filled Sangam Stadium in Korea on Oct. 19.

About 28 million people watched the month-long tournament, run like a World Cup with qualification rounds and knock out stages and an extravagant final. Fitting, then, that the championship match between Korea’s Samsung Galaxy White and China’s Star Horn Royal Club, was played in a one-time World Cup stadium.

4) ESPN starts streaming esports


If the X Games were ESPN’s flirtation with esports, then streaming The International in August was its first full-on date. And unlike most first dates, this wasn’t even awkward. The sports giant announced its plans to broadcast the event online just days before games began at Seattle’s Key Arena. There was nothing inherently spectacular about the deal: ESPN just pumped Valve’s own production feed to the network’s online streaming network. ESPN didn’t spend any of its own budget on producing the event. It didn’t send a single reporter. The Dota faithful, however, were so excited about the simple recognition that they watched in droves. ESPN was “delighted” with the numbers—so much so that, a few months later, it hosted a second streaming event, the League of Legends world championships.

3) The International brings in $11 million in prizes


There’s no better cocktail party esports topic than the mind-boggling prize pool up for grabs at the world’s biggest Dota 2 tournament: $11 million. For playing a video game. That’s more money than you can win at the Masters, perhaps the most prestigious tournament in golf. It’s more than you can win at the Kentucky Derby. It’s a hell of a lot more than you can win at the World Series of Poker. Prize money can’t be the only barometer of esports’ health. Cash tends to fly fast and loose in the middle of bubbles, too. But the tournament, run by the game’s developer, Valve, isn’t financed by over-exuberant investors or corporate sponsors. The biggest investor are the game’s millions of fans, who contribute to the prize pool thanks to a unique, in-game crowdfunding mechanism. To a great extent, in other words, when it comes to Dota 2, the prize pool is the most meaningful sign of the game’s health.

2) The New York Times discovers esports

It says something that the Gray Lady, famed for arriving late and somewhat cluelessly to underground (or even mainstream) trends, managed to hit the nail on the head with its esports coverage. Beginning in September, the paper ran a series of big, richly reported articles on the industry, covering everything from the booming League of Legends scene to the rich career (in a literal and figurative sense) of Call of Duty’s biggest star, Matt “Nadeshot” Haag, to the burgeoning collegiate esports scene.

A front-page slot in the New York Times doesn’t carry quite the same social weight as it once might have, but that hardly mattered to esports diehards like veteran journalist Rod Breslau, who’ve waited a decade or more for that type of recognition.

1) The X Games


Taken in isolation, an eight-team exposition tournament at the X Games could have been insignificant. But the tournament, which saw Optic Nation take the crown over Team Kaliber, was big for what it portended. It was the first tournament that legendary Call of Duty team Patrick “Aches” Price, Ian “Crimsix” Porter, Tyler “TeeP” Palchow, and Damon “Karma” Barlow had played under the banner of new owners Evil Geniuses—arguably the biggest team name in North American esports. And it was also the first tournament that team would lose in nearly a year, a harbinger of its ultimate collapse and dissolution just five months later.

The event marked ESPN’s first serious flirtation with esports, one it was so happy with that, in short order, it would begin streaming games itself. And then there was the symbolism: Esports athletes sat in front of the same crowds, and competed for the same medals, as X Games superstars, another group of athletes once shunned by mainstream sports.

Illustration by J. Longo