Playing it Like a Pro


Is video gaming a hobby, or can it be considered a sport? Steven Balbirnie delves into the sphere of professional gaming in search of an answer

Competitive gaming is growing all the time, and so too are the demands by its proponents for it to be taken more seriously. Given how huge the phenomenon has become, it’s not difficult to see why. Only last year, the record for largest prize fund at a games tournament was shattered during Gamescom at Cologne. Valve hosted ‘The International’, a Dota 2 tournament where sixteen teams from across the world competed for a grand prize of $1 million, which was ultimately won by team ‘Na’Vi’ from Ukraine.

‘The International’ is not entirely unprecedented either, as it is the most recent addition to an already significant body of highly competitive and lucrative international tournaments and championships. Some of the most notable of these are the Electronic Sports World Cup, Major League Gaming, the Evolution Championship Series and the World Cyber Games.

The Electronic Sports World Cup was founded in France in 2003 and now has a presence in over fifty countries worldwide. It stages a tournament every year and even has separate competitive categories for men and women for the game Counter-Strike, which had a prize of $33,000 for the top team in 2011.

Major League Gaming is an even larger organisation. Founded in 2002, Major League Gaming now hosts 750,000 online matches each month and live pro circuit tournaments throughout the United States. These tournaments are streamed online to roughly eight million viewers in 170 countries. As an example of prizes awarded, the top StarCraft 2 player at their Winter Arena event this year will receive $10,000.

Tournaments such as the Evolution Championship Series also cater to fans of specific genres. In the case of the aforementioned league, these are fighting games, where hundreds of competitors from across the world converge annually to compete in Tekken, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs Capcom. Such is Evo’s popularity that its top tier contestants, such as Justin Wong and Daigo ‘The Beast’ Umehara, have attained a celebrity status within the competitive gaming world. One of the best aspects of Evo however, is that it is designed as a social as well as a competitive event; regional seeding means that contestants are encouraged to play against people they wouldn’t normally come into contact with.

One of the goals of the World Cyber Games is to foster international harmony and overcome language and cultural barriers through the medium of video games. The World Cyber Games are also one of the few international tournaments at which Ireland has been represented. Ireland is currently ranked at sixty-second out of the eighty-three World Cyber Games nations.

The existence of so many different competing organisations has led to the foundation of the International E-Sports Federation, which aims to unite and standardise the various gaming governing bodies throughout the world. Based in Seoul, South Korea, it has gained thirty-three member nations in the last four years. The IESF has enjoyed some success in garnering wider recognition for competitive gaming; China has a department of E-Sports, and E-Sports organisations in Azerbaijan, Greece and Israel enjoy government support. In the UK, the government and police back the Project Gamerz organisation as a way to engage with disenfranchised youths through video games.

It is also not only the governing bodies that take professional gaming seriously, the self-styled cyber athletes of E-Sports treat their profession with the utmost gravitas, and can stand to profit immensely from their successes. The most accomplished and famous professional gamers include Dennis ‘Thresh’ Fong, Johnathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel and Victor ‘Lil Poison’ De Leon III. Dubbed the ‘Michael Jordan of video games’ by the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Fong first gained fame at the 1997 ‘Red Annihilation’ tournament, where he emerged as Quake champion with a prize of $5,000 and a Ferrari. Fong went on to use the money he received from prizes and endorsements over the course of his gaming career to become an electronic entrepreneur. Fong founded the Raptr social network and the X-Fire instant messaging service alongside other successful business ventures. Wendel has also established an impressive career for himself, becoming the first full time e-sportsman, acting as a global spokesperson and gaming ambassador for the Championship Gaming Series, as well as amassing over $500,000 in career prize money and launching his own line of branded gamer products. Victor De Leon III is remarkable as he holds the Guinness World Record for being the youngest professional gamer. De Leon was born in 1998 and has been a professional gamer since he was six years old. A documentary film based on his life was premiered at the HBO Latino Film Festival.

So can gaming be considered a sport? Perhaps it hasn’t developed that far yet, but with such committed athletes, enthusiastic spectators, increasing sponsorship and organised governing bodies it may only be a matter of time before professional gamers receive the recognition they seek.