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E-sports are in an early stage. After all, basketball was invented in 1891, professional basketball leagues were formed in barns in the 1920s, and it has taken a long time for the sport to evolve into what it is today. By comparison, competing in live matches with other players in video games is still in its infancy, said David Ting, the general manager of e-sports at IGN, which operates the IGN Pro League (IPL), in a talk last week at the DICE Summit, the game industry’s elite conference in Las Vegas.
“The NFL was formed in 1920,” he said. “The monstrosity it is today — it took 90 years to get to this size. The NBA was formed in 1946.”
Ting believes that e-sports will become just as big as those leagues some day. Sports were invented to find the perfect human being, Ting said. But in the old days, if you lost, you died. With e-sports, you can be a gladiator without the real blood.
The idea for e-sports dawned in the 1990s, with the launch of games such as Doom, Doom II, and Quake. The Cyberathlete Professional League was formed in 1997, but it took a long time for e-sports leagues to evolve to the point where players could make a living as professional gamers and where sponsors enabled worldwide online audiences for online tournaments and live events. Many leagues failed along the way. Now, IPL is one of a number of leagues that hold online elimination rounds culminating in live events in Las Vegas.
Ting said there is a perfect storm behind e-sports today. Better broadband penetration lets anyone participate or watch online games. Younger audiences are watching content online rather than surfing channels on TV. TV revenues are declining as people skip commercials, and live content is king. Smartphones allow for consumption anywhere. And the connected culture enables the Internet to create its own celebrities. Lastly, TV production has become expensive while new games, which integrate competition directly into the multiplayer modes, drive down e-sports production costs.
Ting ran engineering at IGN and formed a small group of people four years ago, when the experience you could get at a live e-sports event was pretty amateurish. They investigated what would happen if they created online gaming competitions that could be spectated. Over time, it grew to 30 employees.
Now, the total number of people tuning in is “massive,” Ting said, with traffic doubling every six months. His league competes with other pro gamer leagues such as the World Cyber Games, DreamHack, GomTV, and Major League Gaming.
Players compete online, and then the IPL brings about 1,000 players to live tournaments in Las Vegas. The IPL tries to stay competitive by being open and adapting quickly as e-sports change. The division of IGN, which was just sold to Ziff Davis, has about 30 employees.
The IPL is doing four major Las Vegas tournaments a year and some kind of trade show promotional event about once a month. At one recent tournament, it got more than 6 million unique spectators, who watched more than 20 million hours of content over four days. The top games include StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, League of Legends, and the upcoming Shootmania from Ubisoft.
“We’re spreading the love of e-sports,” said Ting. “In terms of ratings, that’s more people than watched the Rose Bowl.”
To really overtake other sports, e-sports have to overcome challenges. Adding the ability to watch competitions within a web browser makes the spectating process more accessible. But more games need to integrate e-sports capabilities into them.
“Over time, I would love to be in The Matrix, just like Neo, stopping a bullet,” he said. “The game is where I jack in and compete on a physical and mental level at the same time.”
“I would ask you to work on the digital stadium of the future,” Ting said, speaking to a room full of game developers.