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E-Sports: From fringe phenomenon to million-dollar competitions

The stadium is packed to the rafters, the lights are dimmed and all eyes on huge display screens featuring close-ups of the players. The players are not poised on racing bikes, they aren’t swinging tennis racquets and they’re not pulling up their football socks, either. On the contrary: the athletes look more like the staff of a London call centre. They wear headsets, their hands hover over keyboard and mouse and their gazes are fixed on a computer monitor.

That’s supposed to be sport?

To the unchristened it might seem like watching a bad movie. “That’s supposed to be sport?” you may ask. E-sports or competitive gaming is the general term for this type of competition, which demands fitness principally in hand-eye coordination, reaction time and endurance. Whilst the British Olympic Association has hesitated to classify competitive gaming as sport, e-sports in Brazil, China and Korea are considered sport just like basketball, tennis or athletics. And though e-sports in Brazil still rank behind football on the popularity scale, the amount of e-sport tournaments in Korea has left football far behind. Korea is home to the largest number of e-sports fans worldwide, and these avid spectators regularly watch the mouse clicks of their favourite competitive gamers. In mainland Europe as well as Great Britain, the competitive gaming scene is also gaining more supporters. For example, the Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany, will host the “ESL One Cologne 2016” after record-breaking viewership and attendance records for the 2015 event, in which 16 teams battled it out in the tactical first-person shooter, “Counter-Strike”. A glance at ticket prices makes it clear that this former nerd pastime has developed a mass following. A normal spectator’s ticket costs €59.90 whereas a premium ticket attracts €299. Players compete for a prize pool of 250 000 USD, with the winner receiving a handsome sum of 100 000 USD.

The scope of this “Counter-Strike” event is enormous, and professional gamers, who make a living from competitive gaming, have plied the trade for a long time. Indeed, the competitive gaming scene is far beyond the notion of smoky basements where acne-pocked nerds wage virtual battles deep into the night, surrounded by towers of empty energy drink cans, pizza boxes and piles of their own laboriously connected cables and computer equipment. However, these Local Area Network (LAN) parties were surely the dawn of tournaments like the “ESL One Cologne”. This sort of gaming has long been enjoyed worldwide, with an unimaginable selection of games from military strategy to sports simulators. Also, you no longer require tonne-heavy equipment and a mess of cables to enjoy your favourite game. The competitive gaming scene has matured and the technology has modernised: gaming consoles, smartphones and tablets can access Wi-Fi and are connected through the Game Center.

E-Sports: What is played on what?

Strictly speaking, even a tennis match played over a Wii console, a racing simulator in split-screen mode or a game of billiard over Wi-Fi-connected smartphones is e-sport. The prerequisite is that the game has a multiplayer mode, which is facilitated by common gaming platforms including consoles – PlayStation, Xbox, Wii etc. – as well as PCs. Games have individual and team modes, and competitive events are divided into the same disciplines. To be exact, e-sport only counts as e-sport when sporting concepts are involved. As such, competitive gaming tournaments demand a mastery of the respective game as well as developed skills in spatial awareness and perception, foresight and tactics, and proficiency in lateral thinking.

The origins of e-sports reach back into the 1950s. Tic-Tac-Toe, checkers and chess were adapted for computers, and “Tennis For Two” – a classic in gaming history – formed the beginning of a long series of e-sports adaptations. The origins of computer games, often alleged to be a pastime for socially incompetent, shy and introverted loners, are thus rooted in direct competition between two players. However, competitive gaming only had its real breakthrough in the 1970s, when the first globally popular game, “Pong”, came onto the market. “Spacewar!” followed shortly after, as did the first organised competition. Indeed, the ironically named “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” took place at Stanford University.

In the mid-1990s, the advent of network technology and the steady rise of the internet resulted in the boom of multiplayer competitions. Through the proliferations of personal computers (PCs) in ordinary households, the so-called “LAN Party” developed into a mass phenomenon. Until 2000, gamers congregated almost everywhere – in basements, clubhouses and halls – to square up against each other in competition. Of course, this development soon led gamer communities to organise themselves internally. E-sports organisations were founded. It is interesting to note that from their conception, these unions were not limited to individual countries, but encapsulated all of North America or Europe. The “Electronic Sports League” and the “Clan Base” grew into the biggest European leagues.

One might be inclined to think that online gamers compete in various sports games, perhaps a football simulator, a racing game or some other form of sports adaptation. Wrong. Whilst these kinds of multiplayer games attracted a following from very early on, the so-called “first-person shooter” took the lion’s share of gaming popularity. “Doom” and “Quake” are among the classics. Their campaigns are less concerned with sport than with science fiction warfare. In “Doom”, for example, the player creeps through a labyrinth of corridors and tunnels, leading the avatar through a variety of scenarios from a first-person perspective. The idea is that the player shares the avatar’s field of vision and hence, that the player effectively becomes the avatar. The background story of the game is as disturbing as its aim (kill all enemies) is simple: after a series of botched teleportation experiments, humanity mistakenly opens the gateway to hell. A demon invasion ensues, and it is the player who must stem it. “Quake” follows a similar pattern. During the time of their popularity, the excessive violence and horror scenarios in the campaigns of both games at least afforded them the predicate of being “controversial”.

Given the nature of current tactical shooters, in which the player fires upon realistic people instead of demonic fantasy beings, “Doom” and “Quake” hardly attract a raised eyebrow from any authority. The game of the hour is “Counter-Strike”, and it is played in tournaments across the globe. More of the latest games include “StarCraft” (science fiction strategy), “Hearthstone” (fantasy), “FIFA 16” (football simulation) and “League of Legends” (fantasy).

E-Sports oddities: Introduction of anti-doping saliva tests

The inaugural World Cyber Games took place in Seoul in 2000, and three years later, the French city, Poitiers, held the Electronic Sports World Cup. In 2005, the CPL World Tour final in New York already flaunted over one million US dollars of prize money. At the 2007 CGS, players contended for 5 million US dollars. These examples all show that the e-sports market has become a force to be reckoned with. Of course, the extravagant sums also apply to game development, which features bigger budgets than most Hollywood blockbusters. And as is the case when there is a lot of money involved, competitors sometimes try underhanded means to achieve their aims. The event organisers of the 2015 “ESL One Cologne” responded to this by introducing doping tests to Germany’s biggest “Counter-Strike” tournament.

According to the IT news portal, “Golem” these tests are conducted at random and adhere to the same basic doping rulebook as all other sports. Steroids, testosterone and above all antipsychotics, which improve concentration, are now also banned for cyberathletes. At a championship held in Katowice, Poland, a Canadian athlete made public his use of the performance-enhancing antipsychotic, “Adderall”. According to “Golem”, this drug has similar effects to Ritalin and markedly improves concentration ability. Again, this state of affairs goes far beyond the obligatory consumption of energy drinks at LAN parties, and e-sports event organisers are cracking down.

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