E-sports are turning silly teenagers into disciplined professionals ... To get an insider’s perspective on the rigors and sacrifices demanded by a career in gaming, I spoke with two veterans of the trade: 22-year-old Peter “ppd” Dager and 25-year-old Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora from Evil Geniuses (EG). In spite of their young age, both have years of competitive experience and are the most senior members of a five-man squad that includes a pair of teenagers. They carry the EG banner into mythical battle in Valve’s massively popular Dota 2 multiplayer game, which today hosts the grand final of a $10 million tournament known as The International. Captained by ppd, EG came within just one win of reaching tonight's final against Team Newbee, but in the end had to settle for an honorable third place and a $1 million prize. ... The life of a pro gamer requires uncommon discipline and perseverance, because the obstacles to success are as numerous outside the game as they are fearsome inside it. Parents won’t respect what you do, fans won’t understand when you fail, and most of the money goes to only the very best. As tough as that is, passion, team camaraderie, and a growing acceptance of e-sports as a legitimate career path are making competitive gaming bigger than ever.
In the spring of 2014, after a decade of visa problems, the Hassan family moved out of its spacious house in Karachi, Pakistan, to an apartment in Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago near O’Hare International Airport. They were a family of eight, two parents and six kids, jammed into a three-bedroom space. Money was tight and work unsteady; for most of them, the move was a struggle. But their 15-year-old son, Sumail, was thrilled—being in the U.S. meant less lag time when he played Dota 2. ... Sumail started playing Dota 2 as a 7-year-old. Now 16 ... His payday after one month as a professional gamer, and just before his 16th birthday, was $200,000. By mid-August, he could be a millionaire. ... By now, Cinderella stories like Sumail Hassan’s are a reliable staple of e-sports. These are, after all, games anyone can play at home, and the prevalence of high-speed Internet allows practically everyone to play everyone else in the world. The promise that a player can be plucked from obscurity and win huge prize money is part of what makes e-sports so popular—and it's wildly, crazily popular. About 27 million people watched the final of last year’s League of Legends championship, about 9 million more than watched the San Antonio Spurs clinch a stunning Game Five in the NBA Finals. ... As Sumail put it in one of his first interviews at the Asia tournament in February: “You have to go pro or just leave it. It’s a time waste if you’re not going full pro. It’s not for noobs.” ... A pool of maturing talents who by now have been playing games since they could walk, and the increase in tournaments, has transformed e-sports. ... But what’s really making it stick this time is live streaming.
To get to ReSTART you can either ruin your life by playing video games 20 hours a day or you can take Route 202 15 minutes south from downtown Redmond. The road runs between stands of pine trees so tall that they register as dark green canyon walls. The whole landscape, once you get clear of the strip malls and self-storage facilities, feels damp, forested, vaguely Jurassic. ... has treated something like 200 people. A typical stay lasts between 45 and 90 days, and costs $26,000 (expensive-sounding, but typical for live-in rehab of any type). Upon arrival patients must surrender all digital devices. Nearly every ReSTART patient is a male between the ages of 18 and 28. ... video games are the meth of the digitally addicted world: wildly popular and horribly destructive. It isn't that video games are so different from other online fixations, the founders of ReSTART believe, it's just that they're more extreme. The devout social-media user might worry what people think of the witty “character” he plays on Twitter; Callum cared so much about the fate of his World of Warcraft alter ego—a tall blue-haired elf he named Voga—that he adopted the schedule of a Navy SEAL.
The video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, in which players form teams of terrorists and counterinsurgents and shoot at one another, is a favorite of the professional e-sports circuit. A tournament in early April sold out Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, where the NHL’s Blue Jackets play, and generated 71 million online views over four days. In May, TBS and WME/IMG will launch their own league for CS:GO, as the game is called, streaming games online and broadcasting them on TV on Friday nights. ... The game’s current success has made it easy to forget that CS:GO wasn’t an immediate hit for game maker Valve. It was the latest in the aging Counter-Strike series and came out at a time when there was no shortage of other shoot-’em-up games to choose from. Everything changed when Valve introduced something new: decorative virtual weapons, known as “skins,” that could be acquired in the game and sold for real money. ... In-game purchases weren’t new, but the cash trade was Valve’s special twist. Within two years, the number of people playing CS:GO had grown 1,500 percent. Today, there are 380,000 people around the world playing the game at any given time. ... People buy skins for cash, then use the skins to place online bets on pro CS:GO matches. Because there’s a liquid market to convert each gun or knife back into cash, laying a bet in skins is essentially the same as betting with real money. ... By one estimate, more than 3 million people wagered $2.3 billion worth of skins on the outcome of e-sports matches in 2015. ... The best way to get players deeply engaged in games, the company had determined, was to give away virtual items of random value and encourage a robust market to trade them.
He was 5 the first time he saw a pinball machine, at Wally's Burgers in East Vancouver, British Columbia. They had to stand him on a wooden crate just so he could see what was under the glass. The game was called "Twilight Zone." Something in his brain lit up. Even then, they knew he was different. There were doctors at the time who suggested he might never talk, that reading and writing were out of the question, that foster care was an option. His parents remember days when he was content simply to spin for long periods of time in one place. He was drawn to the electricity in exit signs. If he was left alone for a moment, he would bolt. He connected to the world by solving puzzles. ... The IFPA now ranks nearly 45,000 players around the world. A pinball tournament is played somewhere on earth almost every day of the year. Prizes are growing and machines are becoming more technical. ... "It's got flow," he likes to say, which means it's played somewhat chaotically throughout, one combination leading naturally into the next, in contrast to the meticulous catch-and-shoot style it takes to grind down great wide-body games of the '90s like "Twilight Zone." A flow player is thought to be a more natural entity, unpredictable and pure. Robert likes to think of himself as a flow player. And sometimes this instinct gets him into trouble. ... More than his wanting to be the world's best pinball player, Robert wants to be its most charming. Alone in the garage, between the drop catches and target shooting, he diligently practices charm. ... Few subcultures in America are instinctively wired like the culture of pinball to see autism as a gift rather than a disability.
The first-person-shooter game pits terrorists against counterterrorists and was played by an average of 342,000 people at once in 2016. Its biggest tournaments, such as the ELeague Major scheduled for Jan. 22-29 in Atlanta, can have million-dollar prize pools and as many as 27 million streaming viewers. An estimated 26 million copies of the $15 game have been downloaded since its debut four years ago, helping make its manufacturer, Valve, the world's leading distributor of PC titles. ... While other titles such as Call of Duty offer similar gameplay, one distinctive feature has helped fuel Counter-Strike's growth: collectible items in the game called "skins." Although they don't improve anyone's chances of winning, the skins cover weapons in distinctive patterns that make players more identifiable when they stream on services like Twitch. Users can buy, sell and trade the skins, and those used by pros become hotly demanded. Some can fetch thousands of dollars in online marketplaces. ... Valve controls the skins market. Every few months, it releases an update to Counter-Strike with new designs. It decides how many of each skin get produced and pockets a 15 percent fee every time one gets bought or sold on its official marketplace, called Steam. Valve even offers stock tickers that monitor the skins' constantly shifting values. ... Some $5 billion was wagered in skins in 2016 ... roughly $3 billion worth flows to a darker corner of the internet -- one populated by fly-by-night websites that accept skins for casino-style gaming.
To the uninitiated, the figures are nothing if not staggering: 155 million Americans play video games, more than the number who voted in November’s presidential election. And they play them a lot: According to a variety of recent studies, more than 40 percent of Americans play at least three hours a week, 34 million play on average 22 hours each week, 5 million hit 40 hours, and the average young American will now spend as many hours (roughly 10,000) playing by the time he or she turns 21 as that person spent in middle- and high-school classrooms combined. Which means that a niche activity confined a few decades ago to preadolescents and adolescents has become, increasingly, a cultural juggernaut for all races, genders, and ages. How had video games, over that time, ascended within American and world culture to a scale rivaling sports, film, and television? Like those other entertainments, video games offered an escape, of course. But what kind? ... Technology, through automation, had reduced the employment rate of these men by reducing demand for what Hurst referred to as “lower-skilled” labor. He proposed that by creating more vivid and engrossing gaming experiences, technology also increased the subjective value of leisure relative to labor. ... As with all sports, digital or analog, there are ground rules that determine success (rules that, unlike those in society, are clear to all). The purpose of a game, within it, unlike in society, is directly recognized and never discounted.
The takeaway: Gaming may be mainstream entertainment, but game companies are hit-driven—and none has successfully expanded beyond videogames. ... Activision Blizzard hopes to be the first. It’s not just dragon-centric TV shows that are being spun out of its massive vault of proprietary characters ... There are multiple movies under development, loosely based on the bestselling war-game franchise Call of Duty. There’s a newly launched consumer products division, tasked with developing everything from comic books to apparel based on Activision Blizzard’s intellectual property. ... And most notably, there is an “e-sports” empire in the works—a major foray into the booming world of competitive videogaming. That genre, once merely a niche, is reaching a tipping point. About 385 million people worldwide are expected to view e-sports events in 2017—mostly online, but increasingly on cable television and at live competitions. ... It might be more accurate if ESPN not only distributed football games but also owned the National Football League—and made all the footballs in the world as well.