Video Game, Set, Match

January 20, 2017

Miles Pei ‘18 is sweating. His eyes dart back and forth, hands twitching with anticipation, as he sets up for the final play of the game. He shifts his microphone headset up and begins to talk frantically with his teammates, debating tactics and timing, until suddenly, it’s happening. With a shift of the wrist and a pump of the fist, the game, just a moment ago existing in tense overtime, is won. Pei and his team have done it. With pixels instead of yards, a monitor instead of a field, the “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” match Pei won with his friends is treated with the seriousness of any state cup final, and accompanied with the same jubilant celebration.

“The reason why I play is I like the thrill,” Pei said. “I don’t play ‘Counter Strike’ to kill people, for the gore and the violence. I play to beat the other team, to outplay the other player. To me it’s really just all about winning, getting better as a player, just learning.”

Pei is one of the over six million people who play the game “Counter Strike: Global Offensive”, and is among a growing community of competitive gamers. “CS:GO,” as the game is commonly known, was released in 2012, and quickly gained a devoted and well-organized following. Since then, tournaments, teams, and million dollar championship prizes have emerged around “CS:GO”, one of the largest games in the expanding world of e-sports.

 

Nova Meurice
Pei has logged over 1,000 hours playing Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and is active in playing a number of other video games as well.

“‘League of Legends,’ ‘CS:GO,’ ‘Call of Duty,’ there are a lot of competitive games,” Pei said. “There’s ‘Smite,’ ‘DOTA,’ they’re all at different popularity levels. But all sorts of players are making ridiculous amounts of money.”

E-sports is the term used to describe a broad variety of games played at a professional level. First-person shooters like “CS:GO” are categorized alongside Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas like “League of Legends,” with genre secondary to level of competition. And for those involved in competition, the term  ‘electronic sports’ is fitting to describe the level of commitment required to reach the professional level.

“People argue, you’re not running, there’s not a physical toll taken on a person’s body there are no crazy actions,” Pei said. “But in ‘Counter Strike,’ players are getting arm injuries, when they come back they’re not as good. It’s just like an actual sport.”

For Pei, “CS:GO” has become his primary leisure activity. He competes at tournaments, watches hours of games, and has even met some of his favorite players in-person. But the need for more remains.

“At this point, I’m thinking that I potentially pursue this as a career,” he said. “What happens sometimes is players will drop out of school. I’m hoping that I can focus on school and balance it out, so I can have options.”

Players often grapple with these questions as they come to realize the difficulty that professional e-sports entails. While Pei now trains with and competes regularly and is even considering making competitive gaming his career, his exploration of this world originally began in a different, less time consuming way: by watching videos of professional players compete.

“I started watching competitive ‘Call of Duty’ after [a friend] got me into it. I was decent at ‘Call of Duty’ so I started playing a few matches here and there,” Pei said. “Watching really got me into ‘Call of Duty,’ and then I got into ‘Counter Strike.’ It’s like watching a football game, it’s so much fun.”

Livestreaming and other forms of broadcasting have been some of the defining features of the e-sports world, often serving to introduce once casual gamers like Pei into the competitive world. The various mediums available allow streamers to gain widespread viewership and sometimes, earn significant personal revenues. Mirroring sports leagues and sport television, one streaming service, Twitch TV, emerged from a number of corporate iterations to become the dominant streaming service in the world. Twitch, which was purchased in 2014 by Amazon for $970 million dollars, generates around 100 million monthly viewers who spend hours upon hours watching e-sports. Twitch has developed to allow easy access to competitive gaming for both hardcore enthusiasts like Pei and those curious about this expanding universe.

I don’t play ‘Counter Strike’ to kill people, for the gore and the violence. I play to beat the other team, to outplay the other player. To me it’s really just all about winning, getting better as a player, just learning.”

— Miles Pei '18

“I’ve watched ‘CS:GO.’ There’s a new first person shooter that’s really hot, ‘Overwatch.’ I watched a bit of that, ‘Arma 3’ as well,” City High English teacher Brad Hartwig said. “Those aren’t necessarily competitive tournaments, just people I thought were funny.”

Hartwig began watching e-sports in 2015, interested in the narration style and complex knowledge of those who live stream their games.

“I’m kind of interested in the games, but mostly I’m interested in the difference between people have who 15,000 viewers versus 100 or six,” Hartwig said. “[Popular livestreamers] have a history of progressions; they have requisite personality and expertise.”

The constant availability of streamed content means that broadcasters must invest significant time and money into their channel to set themselves apart and develop their own fanbase. Just as elite gamers can bring in seven-figure paychecks, so can professional livestreamers.

“There’s this one guy named Tim,” Hartwig said. “He’s an ‘Overwatch’ guy—he’s gone exclusively just to that. Before that he was making $20,000 to $30,000 per month. And that was before his viewership spiked.”

While most Twitch broadcasters tend to attract a greater mix of casual and serious gamers, the e-sports world retains a core of professionals and well-known streamers who can transform the popularities of certain e-sports and introduce new games to their fans and viewers. This core and the audience their appealing to consists mostly of a younger generation, brought up in the midst of the e-sports explosion.

“There are 14-year-olds that are the best in the world. They’re like the Lebron James of e-sports. When you’re younger, you have a lot more free time,” Pei said. “That’s the thing with games like ‘CS:GO’ or ‘League of Legends’ and e-sports in general, you’re not only able to play for only two years and get to professional level. It just like real sports—it’s all about the grind.”

But the organization and popularity that has created the e-sports world didn’t always exist. In 1972, students gathered at the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to compete in the futuristic arena game of “Spacewar!”, an event generally considered as the first e-sports tournament. At the time, the prize for winning the school tournament was a year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine, and participation was limited to a few dozen students. Now, prize pools can reach over $12 million, with e-sports watched and played from Sweden to South Korea.

“For ‘Counterstrike,’ the European and US rivalry is huge,” Pei said. “The e-sports scene in Korea is also immensely large. They’re fanatics. But East Asian countries don’t even play ‘Counter Strike’. It’s mostly ‘League’ over there.”

This varied but nearly global interest has provided clear incentives for investment. Last year, video game developer Activision bought Major League Gaming, a broadcasting company that hosts and organizes the primary e-sports tournaments, for $27 billion dollars. But the gamers, and the various teams they are part of, drive this growth and also profit greatly from it.

“The popularity has just gotten unimaginable. If it’s a $500,000 prize poll, first place team will win $250,000. Let just say there are 5 players, $50,000 taken off will go towards to company or whatever team they’re part of. The rest will go purely to the team of 5 players,” Pei said. “You don’t even have to win tournaments if you have sponsorships. Rzr, HyperX, they pay these team ridiculous amounts of money just to use their products. Players are making millions of dollars.”

With e-sports are expected to bring in at least $1.9 billion dollars in 2018, the distribution of the wealth generated is becoming increasingly contested by those that feel the corporate focus has made e-sports less accessible. Computer, clothing, and even beverage sponsorships all contribute to a rapidly changing industry, one that a few years ago was seen as open, with success achievable through hard work.

“For up-and-coming-players, it’s really difficult. It’s really difficult to make money. If you’re on a team that not very well known, they’re probably not going to be doing that well,” Pei admitted. “You’re going to have to figure out some sort of financial solution, basically find a team that will pay well.”  

Among e-sports game developers, few hold as much influence as Valve. Valve, the creator of two of the most popular e-sports games, “CS:GO” and “DOTA,” recently ran into some controversy. Prize pools, which are often composed of the money paid by live and online spectators, were funded exclusively by Valve, reducing their size and limiting spectator participation.

“It was just Valve putting in, let’s say, a million dollars into the prize pool, but they would make a ton more from people buying merchandise. People really want the opposite, where their money goes in and can make the prize pool much bigger,” Pei said. “Most of [the money spent] doesn’t go to the tournaments. It’s a little shady. In games other than ‘Counter Strike’ and ‘DOTA,’ spectators are able to fund the prize pool.”

Though the expansion of e-sports into a global phenomenon has produced an entire industry and competitive world, it is also becoming increasingly localized. Gaming bars, stores, and LANs, often host tournaments with small prize pools of $50 to a $100 dollars. One such location in Iowa City is tapping into the campus population’s interest in e-sports. As the industry expands, more business are looking to provide the services demanded by this growing consumer base.

Rasmus Schlutter
Computers at the National College Gaming Association: Training Grounds sit lined up in neat rows, waiting for the evening’s gamers to arrive.

Recently, local area network, or LAN, centers have been gaining popularity across American college campuses. LAN centers allow gamers to come together to play casually, train together, or compete in tournaments with faster computers and more high-end equipment. Jonathan Tienda, University of Iowa student and employee of the National College Gaming Association: Training Grounds LAN center, believes this competitive gaming will become a greater part of the the college experience.

“There [are] tons and tons of gaming clubs. There’s ‘League of Legends’ Club at the University of Iowa, there’s a ‘Call of Duty club,’” Tienda said. “The thing is, the university does not give them any space or any resources so they can actually have meetings or team practices. If we have an LAN center like this, they’re able to come here and practice. They’ll have a good time and get better.”

While there is significant interest in e-sports in Iowa City, especially at the University of Iowa, Pei is among a minority of students who actively compete in e-sports in high school.

“I’ve met most of the ‘Counter Strike’ players at City High. Most just play a few games every month, most aren’t as competitive as me. I’m all about ‘Counter Strike’,” Pei said. “There are very few at City who are really into that.”

Some schools have taken an active role in supporting e-sports on their campuses, in hopes that gamers like Pei will take their talents to college teams. Pei has been reaching out to one such school, Columbia College in Chicago, to explore the availability of scholarships offered to students intent on playing competitively in college.

“I’m interested in how [colleges] will manage it. It’s tough to balance school and e-sports,” Pei said. “I can’t do e-sports as much this year. It’s too much time.”

The collegiate appeal, however, could extend more towards those intent on playing e-sports games casually.

“If you’re not into intramural, maybe you’re into [e-sports]. Maybe that will be thing that pushes over the edge to go to those schools,” Tienda said.

American colleges aren’t the only educational organizations looking to tap into the e-sports enthusiasm. Within the last year, a number of high schools in Sweden have begun offering e-sports classes and creating official school teams to appeal to a student body becoming increasing involved in competitive gaming. Now, gamers like Pei are hoping the United States will be next.

“I’m hoping more people tag on to the e-sports craze, and start playing. I had this dream of a high school team. It would just be so cool to have a high school team, play against other high schools,” Pei said. “With ‘Counter Strike’, no high school would support a game like that, it’s just guns and stuff. There is hope for later on in the future, players could actually try and start a school league.”

The thing is, the university does not give them any space or any resources so they can actually have meetings or team practices. If we have an LAN center like this, they’re able to come here and practice. They’ll have a good time and get better.”

— Jonathan Tienda

But for high schoolers and college students who compete and watch e-sports, there are other ways to get even more involved in the community. Live e-sports events can attract tens of thousands of hardcore gamers. These events, often held in large stadiums and arenas allow fans to actually see their favorite players compete live.

“Back in April, I went to the first ever ‘Counter Strike’ major in North America. That was big deal,” Pei said. “It was in Columbus, and it was a lot of fun. I was able to meet pretty much all the professional players there. I got their autographs and everything.”

Live events are yet another source of revenue for both organizational and e-sports sponsor groups like Major League Gaming and Valve. For that core fanbase, these events are both entertainment and a way to see how the best in the world compete.

“The crowd was just roaring. I was lucky enough to buy a VIP pass before they were sold out. They were being resold for $300 to $400 dollars,” Pei recalled.  “But it’s really all about the experience. Being there and actually seeing the players and how they play.”

E-sports tournaments complement the significant streaming services provide by Twitch and other companies. The motivations for watching various e-sports are diverse, with some using streamed or live events as a way to improve, and others as an exciting experience. For Pei, it is the former that motivates him.

“I really watch to get better. In ‘Counter Strike’, you’re able to directly see what the players is seeing, hear what the player is hearing. You are able to learn what they’re doing, you’re able to be in their position. I don’t think you get that in football or anything,” Pei said. “You can see their form, you can see how they do it. Translating that into actually playing can be difficult sometimes. Watching is really helpful. If you watch more, you become a better player.”

However, one consistent theme among viewers of both live events and streaming services is the demographic breakdown. As internationally and thematically diverse as the the e-sports world is, the gender divide is clear. Twitch TV recently reported that 75% of their viewerships were males, and 73% were males between the ages of 18 and 49. However, in recent years, the number of women competing at the top level of e-sports has risen. In December of 2015, Kayla “Squizzy” Squires was the first female to qualify for the Call of Duty World League, and also in 2015, Maria “RemiCreveling was the first transgender female to take part in the League Championship series.

“I think girls and guys can work together very well in e-sports,” Amanda Aaberg, West High Junior, competitive gamer, and Youtube streamer, said. “I think we are equal in [first-person shooter] games. I know I’m good at them. And I know of plenty of other girls who are amazing at them.”

Separate leagues and tournaments exist for female gamers, but with much smaller payoffs and less significant organization. As e-sports gains worldwide popularity, women have had a difficult time gaining acceptance among a primarily male community.

“I see girls not as often [as guys]. It’s probably because us girls get harassed by guys sexually and just being told ‘oh you’re a girl, so that’s why you suck’ when you have a bad match, even though you’re great,” Aaberg said.

While gender disparities are generally discussed less by men in the e-sports world than tournament payoffs or the team rankings, some have begun to recognize the increasing divide and the problems that come with it.

“I’m hoping later on, more women will start playing ‘Counter Strike’, ‘League’, ‘DOTA’, anything,” Pei said. “More women into e-sports will make it a little bit more equal. So far, it’s all just been men.”

I think girls and guys can work together very well in e-sports. I think we are equal in [first-person shooter] games. I know I’m good at them. And I know of plenty of other girls who are amazing at them.”

— Amanda Aaberg '18

Aaberg began posting videos of herself playing games four months ago. She, like Pei, hopes to someday be able to participate at a more competitive level, but with gender discrimination compounding the already significant time and financial commitment, Aaberg realizes that it will be difficult.

“I haven’t been able to play in any tournaments yet. I would love to [compete in tournaments], but I don’t think I could get in.”

While varying along lines of gender and regionality, the common sentiment among gamers is that e-sports has becoming more competitive than ever. As the level commitment and intensity continues to rise, one of the most recurring debates is that of whether e-sports should be considered as a sport in earnest. Among those only beginning to explore the complex world, such comparisons can at first seem surprising.

“When I turned on ESPN 2 and [e-sports] were playing, I was like ‘This is on ESPN?’ It was kind of shocking, a novelty. They had announcers covering it just like the Cubs and the Indians in the World Series, but only with ‘CS: GO’,” Hartwig said.

However, some avid gamers like Tienda often see the categorical definition of e-sports as a way for  it to gain greater mainstream acceptance.

“I definitely think it should be considered a sport. Every single sport starts around a game people play for fun. It’s not like people knew that football could be competitive or soccer could be competitive,” Tienda said. “[Video games] started out as games, but there’s really high learning caps and there’s a lot of mechanical skill with the hand eye coordination. Gaming is both physical and mental. Being able to have the hand eye coordination for it and having the quick wits to make decisions is everything that is involved in actual sports.”

Others, like Pei, are less concerned with the categories and more with the respect and resources given to e-sports.

“Purely, e-sports should be treated as a sport, but I don’t think it has be necessarily defined as a sport. The US has already given out athletics visas to players from other countries,” Pei said. “It’s just like an actual sport. I just think it doesn’t need to be defined as a sport.”

The e-sports world, from its small and unstructured beginnings, has become increasingly complex. Different regions play different games, with each community of gamers having various play styles and preference. Gender equality has emerged as an important point of discussion for the community, and as financial interests further divide the community among different skill and popularity levels, e-sports has come to mirror many of the characteristic held by the rest of the sporting world. But through all of this, the fun and intensity that motivates those who play remains.  

“If you’re stressed, you’re not going to be able to play well. It’s all about having a good time. ‘Counter Strike’ is a very rigorous game. You need to have focus. Sometimes, If you’re just one pixel off, you’ll miss the shot,” Pei explained. “There’s information in the game. It has to do a lot with being able to take information from the game and make something out of it.”

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