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The eSports industry can no longer be ignored

MLG.tv Arena in Columbus, Ohio

Big Game

Over 200 million fans and participants; tournament sponsors like Coke, Nissan, and Red Bull; prize purses in the millions of dollars – eSports (i.e. video game competitions) are no longer a niche industry populated by the likes of Billy Mitchell. Tournaments are selling out 40,000 seat World Cup stadiums, and 2015 has been the industry’s most pivotal year to date. Let’s dig into the big-buzz (and big-money) leagues, tournaments, networks, and arenas of eSports.

The Basics

Let’s get the basics out of the way. eSports are comprised of competitive gaming leagues and tournaments, ranging from games like Call of Duty to Super Smash Bros. Major League Gaming is the United States’ biggest league; the Electronic Sports League reigns supreme in Europe. The leagues are comprised of teams with names like Optic Gaming and Evil Geniuses, who sometimes specialize in particular games and sometimes play many. And annual tournaments like the high-stakes, high-press International, featuring Valve’s Dota 2, attract gamers and viewers from around the world. Re/code provides a handy guide to professional gaming. And after that primer, you can go inside the life a pro gamer, as The Verge details the training, dedication, and financial support required to reach the pinnacle of eSports.

Watch Out, Wheaties Box?

The classic definition of an athlete tends towards running and jumping instead of sitting and clicking. But in 2013, the U.S. government officially recognized pro gamers as athletes, simplifying the process for international gamers to gain work visas for competitions in the U.S. Training facilities like Red Bull’s High Performance eSports Lab in Santa Monica are allowing top shelf eSports athletes to hone their skills like any other professional athlete. And the American sports media’s utmost authority has been warming to competitive gaming’s athletic legitimacy as well: ESPN The Magazine debuted an eSports-themed issue in June, two months after ESPN2 aired an eSports tournament for the first time.

Stream Team

ESPN’s entrance into eSports coverage puts the sports media behemoth in an unfamiliar position: playing catch-up. Amazon bought video game streaming service Twitch for a cool billion dollars last summer, and the platform garnered more than 21 million viewers during last month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3, for short). Google’s recently announced competing service, YouTube Gaming, amassed 8 million viewers in its first 12 hours of E3 coverage as well. Major League Gaming’s own online channel, MLG.tv, lays claim to 27 million monthly viewers. And coming soon to a theater near you, an eSports documentary.

Bigger Venues, Bigger Stakes

What’s a sport without arenas? Major League Gaming opened MLG.tv Arena in Columbus, Ohio last October, the league’s first dedicated arena. The venue is 14,000 square feet with bleacher seating, and hosts gaming events year-round; additionally, MLG is boasting a purse of half a million dollars for its World Finals, to be held in New Orleans this coming October, marking the league’s 100th event. Still, that total pales in comparison to Valve’s humongous Dota 2 International prize pool, currently sitting at over $15 million with room to rise before the event kicks off in August.

Games Within The Games

There’s money to be made (and lost) for fans of eSports, too – and Seattle startup Unikrn is looking to bring out the bets. A team of investors including Mark Cuban (of NBA sideline and Shark Tank fame) has invested $7 million in Unikrn following the company’s April launch. The service isn’t yet legal in the U.S., though cofounder Rahul Sood says it soon will be. The fantasy sports industry is cashing in as well, with platforms like Vulcun and AlphaDraft hosting leagues for various games.

Now go forth (and stay on the couch).

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