On Sunday, February 1, nearly 150 million people tuned into Super Bowl XLIX to watch the Patriots and the Seahawks battle it out. Meanwhile, 100,000 other people enjoyed a different kind of battle: watching two fighters going by the names PPMD and Armada take each other on in a virtual world. They were watching an event called Apex, a fighting game competition that occurs every year. Apex’s main event is the Super Smash Brothers tournament.
Competitors duke it out in all of the Smash Bros. games, with prize money for the winners coming in at over $10,000. Over one-thousand competitors fought to claim the prize at the event, hosted at a hotel in New Jersey. In the world of e-sports (electronic sports, or professional video game competitions) though, this event is rather small. Last year, the game company Valve hosted “The International 2,” a Dota 2 tournament that garnered almost 20 million viewers, about 1/7 the number of people viewing the Super Bowl.
E-sports began in the 1980s with small tournaments hosted on college campuses or out of individual homes. It grew slowly over time, eventually exploding in the late 2000s primarily due to the ready availability of live streaming, allowing anyone to watch tournaments from the comfort of their own homes. As fans of the sport grew, so did the level of competition. Modern e-sports players have their own teams, sponsorships and even media managers. And the prizes for winning tournaments have scaled up accordingly: In 2014, the equivalent of over thirty-million US dollars was given out across the globe in prize money.
Although online streaming has allowed e-sports to become more available, the popularity of the genre can be explained by a number of factors. These factors include the popularity of video games; the rise of “video game personalities,” people who record themselves playing and commenting on games; and the relatable experience of playing the game.
Sean Plott, a professional “StarCraft II” commentator, thinks watching e-sports is so popular because you can play the same game as the professionals, in your home, whenever you want. If you see a pro use a really cool strategy in one game, you can immediately fire up your version of the game and try that very same strategy within minutes. Online streaming also allows viewers to have conversations with the streamer and with other viewers. Overall, this system leads to a more engaging and entertaining experience for the viewer.
So, if you have a chance, I encourage you to take a look at what professional video games look like. Tournaments and streamers for a wide range of games can be found all the time on Twitch.tv, currently the most popular streaming service. And remember, whether you play Smash Bros. by attempting to get a “neutral-air double-shine jump-cancel” or just Falcon-punching everything in sight, the most important part of playing a game is to do whatever lets you have fun playing it.