The elite pros make a good living. Millions are tuning into championship games, both in person and online. Investors are coughing up cash to get a piece of the action. But this isn’t traditional sporting. Welcome to professional video gaming, or eSports.

The arena goes dark, illuminated only by projectors on the stage. A growing murmur rises from the tens of thousands of spectators in the audience. At home and in bars all around the world, another million viewers are holding their collective breath.

In a ceremonial voice, Nick “Tasteless” Plott and Daniel “Artosis” Stemkoski announce the players coming up on stage as the audience roars with excitement. Tonight, the winner will go home with $100,000 and the most prestigious title: World Champion.

Shaun ?Apollo? Clark and Sean ?Day[9]? Plott, shoutcasters at the Intel Extremes Masters. Photo Courtesy of ESL-World.

Shaun “Apollo” Clark and Sean “Day[9]” Plott, shoutcasters at the Intel Extremes Masters. Photo Courtesy of ESL-World.

This isn’t Wimbledon, it’s eSports

This scene could be a professional football, basketball, or tennis championship broadcast on a major TV network and endorsed by a brand of watered-down beer. But it isn’t. Instead, the audience is rooting for players of a video game called StarCraft II. The announcers, both from the US, are called shoutcasters.

Electronic sports (abbreviated eSports), is essentially competitive video gaming. Since the late nineties, eSports has been growing; at first in South Korea and, more recently, in North America and Europe with games like Starcraft II, League of Legends, and DotA 2.

With accumulated earnings up to $250,000 per year, the best professional gamers make a good living. They also have to practice extensively (often more than 12 hours a day, every day, to achieve their technical speed and precision), live in their teams’ facilities, and travel the world multiple times a year to compete in international tournaments (84 offered a prize-pool of over $20,000 in 2012).

Intel Extreme Masters in Cologne, Germany (2010). Photo by Johann Recordon.

Intel Extreme Masters in Cologne, Germany (2010). Photo by Johann Recordon.

The kids are watching, but they’re not the only ones

Twenty years ago, most people would consider video games as kids’ stuff. But 135 million US citizens (40% of the population) are now playing at least one hour per month. That’s a tremendous amount of potential viewers who understand the skill and thrill of the game. And so eSports grows.

In spring 2012, 1.35 million unique male viewers aged 18-24 tuned in to watch the final day of the Major League Gaming tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, twice the audience of the 2012 Rose Bowl for the same demographic. Last October, 8.2 million viewers of all ages and genders watched the World Finals of League of Legends in Los Angeles, more than half the audience who watched Roger Federer defeat Andy Murray in Wimbledon last year.

Dr Pepper, LG Electronics, and Monster Energy have started to put big bucks behind eSports teams and tournaments. CBS recently locked in partnerships with two tournaments organizers (Major League Gaming and the North American Star League) and two Internet channels that stream eSports competitions (twitch and Own3D).

Investors and entrepreneurs are also getting interested. The San Francisco-based live streaming company twitch raised an additional $15 million from Bessemer Venture Partners in September 2012 and partnered up with Sony Online Entertainment for their next game, PlanetSide 2. In the meantime, Los Angeles-based Sean “Day[9]” Plott went from professional player to professional shoutcaster to eSports entrepreneur, advocate, and advisor. His daily online show reaches its 562th episode as I write this article, scoring up to 3 million views for his most popular episode on YouTube and a steady 10,000 live viewers on average each day.

Merely an evolution

Will we see competitive video gaming at the Olympics? Will our kids dream of becoming professional gamers?

There’s a strong resemblance between eSports and traditional sports. Most major tournaments host their games offline, meaning that they bring the players together on a stage—in person—to battle in front of an ever-growing live audience. And just as people would go to the local bar to watch the Superbowl, eSports fans have Barcrafts or Pubstomps in which the crowd can cheer, all together, for their champions.

Speaking to Forbes, shoutcaster Sean “Day[9]” Plott said, “eSports work for the same reasons that sports work. There is something tribal about gathering with your friends and hanging out and taking sides and rooting for your heroes.”

In November, we talked about the rise of Transmedia as a new genre. We do not yet know how much that will change the world of story telling as we know it, but we are pretty convinced it is opening some interesting new ways of communicating.

Similarly, we do not know if eSports will remain popular forever, but all signs point to its staying power:

First, it has mastered a medium that most sports are only starting to touch: online streaming. Considering that fewer and fewer young viewers are watching traditional TV, this is sure to be an important part of the equation in the years to come. Second, the revenue streams and audience figures show a clear evolution over the past 10 years and an ever-growing interest in eSports from both its consumers and from the business world.

Finally, eSports is based on a solid platform that is now well established: video games. To understand just how big the potential market is, consider that here in San Francisco from March 25 to March 29, the Game Developers Conference, or GDC, the largest and longest-running professionals-only game industry event, attracts over 22,500 attendees with more than 400 lectures, panels, tutorials, and round-table discussions. So yeah, I think eSports is here to stay, and I’m a fan.

Find out more about swissnex San Francisco’s event series around gaming and GDC.