ESports aren’t going anywhere, or at least anywhere but up. Recent reports show that worldwide eSports viewership has topped 134 million, with more than $600 million at play. League of Legends tournaments have pulled in larger audiences than the likes of the MLB’s World Series or NBA finals. The next Dota 2 International prize pool has already exceeded $12 million, the biggest in eSports history. Games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are predicated upon the popularity of eSports, whereas commercial hits like Call of Duty have leveraged professional play to reach otherwise impossible heights. The industry is a giant, and it’s still waking up.
Team eLevate, an umbrella organization specializing in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Battlefield 4, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and World of Tanks is among those riding the surge. The team was founded in 2012 and has since won and topped in dozens upon dozens of tournaments across all games it covers. I recently sat down for a phone conversation with eLevate’s Call of Duty Team Manager Nathan Wilson, Call of Duty players Nick “Classic” DiCostanzo and Josiah “Slacked” Berry in the hopes of getting an inside look at the goings on of the professional FPS scene. PR Specialist Kevin Scarpati and Global eSports Manager Drew Holt-Kentwell of Razer, one of eLevate’s many sponsors, also weighed in.
It’s often easier to aspire to play professionally than to actually do so. Slacked, 18, caught the bug roughly four years ago while watching competitive Halo. After transitioning into Call of Duty play, he had to compete in several events before even becoming a blip on the professional radar. Contrastingly, Classic, 23, benefited from friends on the inside, so to speak. He saw that he had the skill, he said, and decided to form his own squad. With the release of Call of Duty: Ghosts, he doubled down on competing and, shortly thereafter, was able to join a friend’s pro team. It takes time and effort to break into Major League Gaming.Playing competitively has changed the way they both view Call of Duty. “I can’t go into a public match and have fun anymore,” Classic said, “but I can play with my friends and have a good time.” Similarly, Slacked now spends far more time practicing with teammates than he does in the public queue. Understandably, casual play feels repetitive after playing professionally. Both agreed that, after playing against the best, public matches are relatively easy. So it’s on their professional standing that Classic and Slacked stay focused.
Classic has been playing Call of Duty professionally for roughly a year now, while Slacked has been in it since he was 15, over two years ago. “I want to grow my social media, and with me just graduating high school, I’m going to try and put this forward as a career and see where it can go,” Slacked said. “Obviously, I want to grow my YouTube, my streaming, my Twitter—to help me and better myself.” Classic, who will soon earn his first degree, has somewhat simpler plans: “I want to win,” he said with a laugh.
The industry itself has plenty of room for growth as well. While MOBAs like League and Dota have dominated viewership for some time, Wilson has seen first-person shooters like CS:GO and Call of Duty start to catch up. “In the past few years, those games have really ramped up fast,” he said. “That’s really what I want to see.” And going forward, Wilson believes shooters have an edge: relatability. “I think one of the unique features that eSports offers, especially Call of Duty, is the sense of community that they provide,” he said. “These fans are able to actually talk with their favorite pros, they can watch them in their livestreams, sometimes play with them. You don’t have that in many other pro sports, if any.”
Razer agrees. “FPS games are inherently easy to watch and commentate,” Holt-Kentwell said via email, “therefore the synergy with the audience will always be more accommodating.” While there will always be expert maneuvers to gawk at, the everyman can easily keep up with where the bullets are flying. Scarpati appropriately likened this to the NBA: “If you watch a basketball game, it’s just watching two teams run up and down the court,” he said over the phone. “The premise is there. There’s a lot behind scoring baskets, but a casual person can pick up and follow that.”This sense of community goes beyond just shooters, mind. Video games are universal and the entirety of eSports benefits from their amicable design. There’s no disconnect between countries, for instance. Korean teams play the same games as North American, European, Chinese teams and so on, so there’s also a sense of global community. We regularly see this at eSports events, in no small part due to the social nature of gaming.
“I might go to a baseball or football or basketball game,” Wilson said, “and I might go with my friends, and [they’re] really all I talk to. Maybe the person sitting next to me. But you go to these [eSports] events and all these pros are accessible. There are amateurs watching, sometimes there are stations to play. You get to meet a lot of people who are there watching.”
“You know, you can’t go shoot with LeBron James,” Wilson said. “You can’t play with those guys unless you’re a personal friend. You don’t get to see his life’s story besides what the press has and what you see in interviews. [eSports players] are putting their own content out. They’re on stream every day. They’re engaging. You have a sense of connection with that person on a more personal level.”
It’s more among different shooters that you’ll start to see some division. CS:GO, for example, is an older and more active crowd in Wilson’s experience. Razer attributes CS:GO‘s growth, which has thus far outstripped other shooters, to the way Valve handles and monetizes the game. All those fancy cosmetics and in-game sales go a long way toward financing the competitive scene. With that kind of money, Wilson said, came opportunity. It brought team houses, dieticians (yes, they have those) and whiteboard strategy meetings. Professional Call of Duty isn’t quite at that point, though eLevate does see it heading there.
In the meantime, Call of Duty does have its own trump card. The reputation of the series—including all those Doritos and Mountain Dew promotions—has earned it a staggering social media following, which is invaluable for teams like eLevate when marketing players and events. So when trying to engage with the Call of Duty audience, Wilson said, they often take a more social media-centric approach, whereas CS:GO fans tend to react better to streams. That said, the two audiences are more similar than different.The real valley is between shooters and MOBAs. “LoL has some 70 million people playing each month so we imagine that MOBAs will continue to dominate the market for the foreseeable future,” Holt-Kentwell said. “RIOT is carefully trying to grow the competitive landscape of League of Legends through the LCS via salaries for professionals and coaches and subsidies for housing and travel. With this kind of infrastructure in place we expect to see MOBAs growing at a consistent rate, comparatively to FPS games which have (generally) less support from their developers.” CS:GO is an interesting wild card in this trend, but the fact remains that MOBAs dwarf FPS activity.
This begs the question of whether FPS and MOBA leagues and teams would benefit from working together more closely in the future. But while Call of Duty and other shooters may get a boost from piggybacking on the flood of League and Dota activity, at the very least Wilson doesn’t think they need to. “I think as we grow,” he said, “we’re going to fill more stadiums, fill more space. Combining them… I mean, we all have the same love of eSports. But I think we need to grow [independently] as well, and then we can kind of start merging them.”
But while the many branches of eSports—FPS, MOBA, RTS, etc.—may become closer, the industry on the whole will likely remain entirely its own, despite the prodding of those who expect it to mimic traditional sports. Outrage followed ESPN’s 2014 declaration that eSports weren’t ‘real’ sports. Critical gamers pointed toward professional chess, which has long been recognized as an official sport by the International Olympic Committee. Surely a digital test of wit with just as many variables to account for should be worthy of the same title.Team eLevate finds the argument moot. “Trying to live in this sports shadow denies [eSports] its uniqueness and its ability to do what it was made to do,” Wilson said. “I don’t think it needs to be considered a sport.” Even after his experience with eSports, Classic isn’t sure if they qualify but agrees they are similar. They’re built on the same sense of competition. The risks are the same. The audience is just as real.
Still, there are some aspects of sports that eSports would do well to learn from. “Now, as far as scalability, the brand identity that sports have, I absolutely think that should come, but it will come in due time,” Wilson said. “They way they do roster stability, the managing entities over the NBA and NFL and stuff like that, that might be something that could be adopted and is good.”
“We’re a generation that can adapt and shift on a dime,” he continued. “I think we come out of this on top. Sport or eSport, whatever we want to call them, I don’t think it makes a difference to us.” Funnily enough, the core tenet of eSports, at least as Wilson put it, is little more than an echo of the reason behind the success of video games altogether: “I’m not just watching; I’m engaging.”