Many millions of people dedicate millions of hours globally every day to the virtual world of computer games. But how did this craze pick up in the first place? And what are the current trends in the gaming community? This article assesses the realm of computer gaming in its entirety and gives our perspective on the ‘gamer lifestyle’.
Exhibition centres around the world are doing a brisk trade, bringing thousands of gamers — mostly teenagers — together to try new titles, dress as their favourite characters and hang out with fellow fans. In the UK, there is EGX in Birmingham — home of the Counter-Strike event — Rezzed in London, the European Gaming League, and this weekend’s Insomnia festival, a thrice-yearly event described as “the Glastonbury of gaming events” by its lead organiser, Craig Fletcher. “You’ve got people camping on site four days straight,” he says.
Attracting the best video-game players in the world is key to the success of these conventions. Take 21-year-old Joshua-Lee Sheppard. He’s on a professional team, which guarantees him £1,500 a month from sponsorship, plus prize money from tournaments. He treats it as a full-time job and bought his first car with his first decent prize pot. He is now the fifth-highest-paid gamer in Britain, with total earnings so far estimated at more than £100,000. When we meet, his team has just come second in an international Call of Duty competition, sharing $250,000 (£194,000) between four of them. (The winners shared $800,000.)
That is peanuts, though, compared with what you can make if you turn yourself into a brand. A few years ago, says the commentator Alan Brice, most pros were reluctant to give interviews or do anything apart from play in tournaments. Now they know that the really big money comes from building a profile, allowing fans to watch them on video-streaming services such as Twitch, and selling merchandise.
“The big guys have 1m-3m followers on Twitter — serious power to rock things,” Brice says. “They become millionaires in their own right.” The Counter-Strike team Ninjas in Pyjamas were so popular in Sweden that McDonald’s named a burger after them in 2013. (The McNiP featured bacon, roasted onions, cheese and hot sauce.)
YouTube is an economy all by itself, and professionals are trying to muscle in on the lucrative existing market for video-game-related content there. (At the NEC, there’s a long queue to meet a superstar YouTuber called Syndicate: I wander over to the front of the queue and experience the strange sensation of standing 6ft away from someone everyone else present clearly regards as intensely famous but I couldn’t tell from Adam.
The price for the fame and the money is hard work. At this level, gaming requires intense concentration and hours of practice each day. Sheppard plays seven days a week, and in the run-up to a competition he logs on at 5pm and continues until 1am or 2am. (It’s perhaps not surprising that many of the biggest sponsors of esports are energy drinks.) In America, teams sometimes live together to bond better, and throughout the sport there is an increasing focus on professionalism. Esports is leaving its George Best phase, where sheer talent can offset an unhealthy lifestyle, and entering a new era in which the best players watch their diets and work out. “Players go to actual boot camps, and these are for games that don’t have any physicality,” Brice explains.
For those who haven’t played a multiplayer title online, it’s hard to communicate just how fast and relentless the matches can be: a typical professional game requires upwards of 400 actions per minute, and the world record, 818, is held by the Korean player Park Sung-joon.
To mere mortals, the speed, hand-eye co-ordination and hair-trigger reflexes of the pros can seem almost unbelievable. Unfortunately, that brings us to the other reason that professional esports players have such good reactions. They are young. A typical player starts at 13 or 14, challenging anyone they can find to a match online. If they’re good, they might find an amateur team (or “clan”) and start learning about tactics and the other nerdy knowledge they need, such as each weapon’s reload speed and accuracy, or the intricacies of particular maps. As they get better, they might look for opponents via the online forums on Reddit, or the esports communities on Facebook or Twitter, and eventually progress to playing for small sums of money.
There are many fears in modern society about the negatives that could accompany a lifestyle gaming. These fears range from a disassociation from the ‘real world’ to increases in violence to just being plain antisocial. However, it is hard to deny the joy that gaming brings to people all around the world and that it can even act as a way to bring people together.