Video gaming finding its market as spectator 'sport'

Video gamers get their own league complete with dragons, jungles — and sponsors.

The outside world fades away as Vincent Alonso dons his headset and hears his teammates' urgent voices and the exotic sounds of a video game land populated by monsters.

The University of Maryland student believes the rush he experiences from "eSports" — shorthand for electronic sports — is beginning to translate to audience interest as the gaming industry tries to turn mythical-world competitions into events with real-life spectators, sponsors and profits.

"I have absolutely zero doubt it's going to take off," said Alonso, 22, a computer science major and a prominent enough gamer to have been featured on the website of League of Legends, a popular online game he competes in with his highly rated university team.

Countering old stereotypes of solitary video gamers playing in their bathrobes, eSports tournaments are spreading in popularity as sponsors buy in, players become cult celebrities and an increasing number of games are streamed online and even televised.

"You tend to think young, single, male," said Hank Boyd, a clinical professor of marketing at Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "The group is becoming more broad, more diverse. It's become a cultural phenomenon.

"Even Frank Underwood is a gamer," said Boyd, referring to Kevin Spacey's character in the Netflix drama "House of Cards."

Americans already spend more on video games than on going to the movies — nearly $17 billion last year, compared to a little more than $11 billion on movies, according to figures in a new report from PwC, a global accounting and consulting firm. And New York-based SuperData Research projects global revenue for eSports in 2016 to reach $892.8 million.

"Advertisers love its audience core" of 21- to 35-year-old males, Boyd said.

On May 24, the website Twitch began streaming live coverage of eLeague, a series of professional tournaments created by TimeWarner's Turner Broadcasting and talent agency WME | IMG. Games also are televised Friday nights on TBS.

eLeague players compete in "Counter Strike: Global Offensive" — a shooting game that requires teamwork — and are based in Turner's 10,000-square-foot arena in Atlanta, which is equipped with 26 cameras and features live studio audiences.

Teams of five players each, with names like Ninjas in Pyjamas and Luminosity, compete for a $1.4 million purse. The players — sometimes shown in gladiator poses and wearing eLeague shirts — are interviewed during the coverage. Fans' comments about the unfolding games fly up the right side of the screen. There are ads for sponsors such as Arby's, Buffalo Wild Wings and Credit Karma.

Turner said the live coverage on Twitch, its distribution partner, generated 4.3 million video starts during the tournament's first four days. The coverage on TBS, a Turner station, averaged 509,000 viewers during its initial Friday prime-time broadcast.

"We've seen really rich engagement" from 18- to 34-year-olds, said Craig Barry, chief content officer for Turner Sports.

Barry expects the audience to grow as narratives are developed around popular players. Ultimately, the network hopes to develop a soap-opera like roster of heroes and villains.

The new league may feel marginal to some, Barry said, but it's no more obscure than some Olympic sports.

"You have a two-week period where everybody tunes in to the Olympics. They're watching sports they don't usually watch," he said. "I once found myself watching curling because I was emotionally connected to this one curling athlete."

To make the eLeague more compelling, the producers allow viewers to see images hidden from players. For example, only the audience might see a player hiding behind a door — a device intended to create tension for spectators.

A key to eSports' fan attraction is their social nature, Boyd said.

"You can have a live chat window and talk to other folks and say, 'I'm a gamer, you're a gamer,'" he said. "They can share some of the nuanced points with you."

The players, too, must interact frequently. It's a much different experience than playing games alone.

Andy Zhang, 18, a Maryland student and former teammate of Alonso's, likens the teamwork to basketball.

"Basketball has roles like the point guard," he said. "In League of Legends there are five roles, too, and there's that feeling you get when you make a really good play and your whole team congratulates you."

Some might wonder whether video gaming should be considered a sport.

"I would absolutely define it as a sport," Alonso said. "It's a lot like chess but a lot faster, obviously. You have the mechanical aspect of pointing the mouse and pressing the buttons on the keyboard."

The Big Ten Network — which frequently broadcasts Maryland athletic contests — is considering adding coverage of video games involving the conference's college teams.

"We want to take the next step and include all of the schools that are participating. We're in the due-diligence stage still," said Jordan Maleh, director of digital and consumer marketing for BTN, which broadcast an exhibition contest in April in partnership with Riot Games, creator of League of Legends. Ohio State defeated Michigan State in the game.

"We're talking about a whole new fan base that, to be honest, may not even know what the three letters [BTN] stand for," Maleh said. "It's a whole new, younger-skewed fan base."

And it's a group not accustomed to paying money to watch online games.

"Most people watch eSports on channels that are free, like Twitch and YouTube," Maleh said.

BTN did not charge a fee for nonsubscribers to watch the Ohio State-Michigan game on the BTN mobile app.

All of the 14 Big Ten schools except Nebraska have League of Legends teams.

"This was really big in Asia first, particularly Korea," Boyd said. "Over time, I think we'll get more Americans into the sport."

jebarker@baltsun.com

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