| Hayley Tsukayama |
WASHINGTON (WP-BLOOM) – The crowd roars. The players take the field. And then they boot up their game controllers.
Wait, what? That’s right, video gaming is a spectator sport. And a big one. Thousands of fans in Europe and Asia flock to see their favourite “esports” professionals fight it out in games such as “Battlefield” or “League of Legends”.
In May, a tournament run by the Electronic Sports League filled Frankfurt’s 35,000-seat Commerzbank-Arena to watch a “Defense of the Ancients 2” tournament — complete with colour commentary, star players and a grand prize of more than US$200,000.
It may be hard to imagine such a thing happening in the United States.
But, in fact, 60 per cent of Americans play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group.
That’s more than the percentage of Americans who tuned into the last Super Bowl, pay for cable or subscribe to Netflix.
“No one wants to take video games seriously, for some reason,” video game historian Keith Feinstein said with a touch of exasperation. “It’s the culmination of all human endeavor; every art form wrapped up into one. And yet it’s still a constant surprise that it’s so popular.”
But this year could mark their breakthrough in mainstream entertainment.
Gaming inspired three of the biggest deals in business this year: Microsoft’s US$2.5 billion deal for the “Minecraft” game studio, Mojang; Amazon’s US$1 billion acquisition of the game-streaming social network Twitch; and Facebook’s US$2 billion acquisition of the virtual reality gaming firm Oculus VR.
This is no longer a niche market.
“There is a sense this year that something has shifted,” said Jeff Rutenbeck, dean of American University’s School of Communication — one of dozens of schools that now offer degrees in game design.
Games have been on a slow burn for years.
Feinstein noted that a major talking point about their rise — that video game sales pull in more money than the movies — was first made by Time Magazine way back in 1993.
And in the past 20 years, the game industry has grown more impressive: Last year, the movie industry pulled in US$10.9 billion at the US box office.
The music industry reported $7 billion in sales.
Game sales tallied more than both, combined, at $21 billion.
So why the sudden inte-rest from other big-name companies?
Part of the reason for the boom could be that gamers, as a group, are simply growing up — and growing into an important consumer segment.
“It’s my belief that the entertainment people consume for the rest of their lives is what they found compelling in their late teens,” said Strauss Zelnick, chief executive of Take-Two Interactive, whose “Grand Theft Auto 5” broke six sales records last year, according to Guinness World Records.
Zelnick said the market is poised to become even broader as parents share a passion for gaming with their children.
“As a new generation grows, it stands to reason that the entire category will grow,” he said.
“Minecraft” is a perfect example of a game that reaches across generations — which is one reason Microsoft was willing to pay so much for Mojang.
The game lets players build nearly any object, from a wooden bucket to a mansion, out of Lego-like blocks.
It’s a sandbox game. There’s no story, except the one that you make up alone or with friends.
Some groups create worlds with crime-fighting Marvel characters and others feature Harry Potter.
The openness of that stru-cture inspires dedicated communities of players who feel a certain creative ownership of the game — the type of audience engagement that is worth billions. (Mojang notched US$33O million in sales from “Minecraft” in 2013.)
What makes the game tick, Feinstein said, is that it taps into the imagination in a way that kindles something in almost everyone.
“I tell people, ‘If you have anything left inside of you that isn’t dead, you’ll realise this is truly special’.”