Esports is one of the fastest growing—and most cutthroat—industries in the world. A confluence of technology, culture, and determination has made this possible. Players around the world compete for millions of dollars in prize money, and companies like Amazon, Coca Cola, and Intel have invested billions. Esports are now regularly played live on national TV. Hundreds of people have dedicated their lives to gaming, sacrificing their education, relationships, and even their bodies to compete, committing themselves with the same fervor of any professional athlete. In Good Luck Have Fun, author Roland Li talks to some of the biggest names in the business and explores the players, companies, and games that have made it to the new major leagues.
Follow Alex Garfield as he builds Evil Geniuses, a modest gaming group in his college dorm, into a global, multimillion-dollar eSports empire. Learn how Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill made League of Legends the world's most successful eSports league and most popular PC game, on track to make over $1 billion a year. See how Twitch.tv pivoted from a video streaming novelty into a $1 billion startup on the back of professional gamers. And dive into eSports' dark side: drug abuse, labor troubles, and for each success story, hundreds of people who failed to make it big. With updates on recent developments, Good Luck Have Fun is the essential guide to the rise of an industry and culture that challenge what we know about sports, games, and competition.
"eSports is so (relatively) young as a trend that it doesn't have much longform writing - and this carefully reported 2016 book skillfully looks at teams like Evil Geniuses and the shape of the competitive gaming landscape." – Simon Carless
"Good Luck Have Fun offers a fascinating collection of stories from the frontline of the emerging world of eSports."– T.L. Taylor, professor at MIT, author of Raising the Stakes: E-sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming
"An in-depth look at electronic sports . . . Li successfully explores a number of gaming issues."– Publishers Weekly
"Having been a part of the industry for over a decade, Good Luck Have Fun was nostalgic and took me on a trip down memory lane."– Stephen "Snoopeh" Ellis, former League of Legends LCS player and current eSports adviser
WHY VIDEO GAMES MATTER
On October 19, 1972, two dozen students gathered at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to do battle among the stars. They piloted ships through a speck-filled void, shooting missiles and dancing against gravity in one of the world's first video games, Spacewar. First prize was a year's subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.
Spacewar was played on the Programmed Data Processor-1, an early computer that weighed 1,200 pounds and was limited mostly to academic centers. A group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the game, which was primitive but joyful, sucking players in and creating a community.
"Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e., nonbusiness hours) in North America, hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friends and wasting their employers' valuable computer time. Something basic is going on," Stewart Brand wrote in Rolling Stone.
Competition has always been a central part of video games. The first arcades measured skill with high scores. Top players could etch their names in three-letter combinations, showing off to subsequent players until they were knocked down. Spacewar's source code was released for free, but as video games became a commercial enterprise, developers saw the potential of formal competition as a way of attracting more customers.
In 1980, Atari created the Space Invaders Championship, where thousands of players competed. The competitive show Starcade was broadcast on television the next year. In the 1990s, the Nintendo World Championships were held, where kids showed off their Super Mario skills.
Games became more complex, supporting more players and richer graphics and systems. The Internet heightened competition, spawning communities that formulated and dissected strategies across the globe.
Four decades later, competitive video gaming, also known as electronic sports or eSports, has become a global phenomenon. Millions of viewers watch competitions every month, and players train full time to compete for cash prizes that reach seven figures.
The professional gamers clicking furiously and staring intently at screens would be familiar sights to those students at Stanford four decades ago, even if their branded headphones and colorful team jerseys might seem strange.
Technology's penetration into virtually every aspect of our lives has made gaming ubiquitous. Video games are played around the world, from Stockholm to Seoul to San Francisco, between players connected almost instantly by the Internet. Streaming video competitions are a click away on a computer, tablet, or phone. Broadcast costs have plummeted thanks to investments and the tenacity of some key entrepreneurs. But the most critical factor in the success of eSports is the passion, if not outright obsession, of the players, tournament organizers, investors, game developers, and, above all, the fans. They made it possible, and their flaws and struggles have made eSports an imperfect phenomenon. No one got into eSports originally to get rich, but now they can.
Passion isn't always enough. The industry is littered with the digital fragments of teams, players, and organizations that no longer exist, with a legacy of unpaid salaries and defunct websites. Companies can live and die in days, teams shuffle rosters constantly, and players quit after poor results or when "real life" intrudes. Scandals like match fixing, unpaid prize money, and fraud abound. For all its growth, regulation is almost nonexistent. If the NBA and NFL are entering a fat and lucrative middle age, eSports is still the twenty-five-year-old who got a killer job but hasn't figured his life out yet.
The adversarial and interactive nature of video games makes them different than most other art forms, like film, television, music, and theater. The struggle against a computer or human opponent means that playing can become a craft. Many of the best games allow players to clearly differentiate themselves through skill, falling somewhere between the curated, individualized experience of traditional art and the competitive nature of sports. Games transport the player into an entirely new virtual place through sights and sounds. It's a new medium, and for some, a frightening glimpse at a future detached from reality: a waste of time.
Do video games matter? The question can be expanded. What value do athletes or actors or artists bring? Their contributions to society through competitions, movies, and artwork aren't entirely tangible, yet many are beloved more than those who provide the food, shelter, and jobs that directly sustain people.
By evoking strong emotions, professional gamers and the games they play become worthy of attention. Fans vote with their money, but also their time.
Games have grown to be a cultural force and an economic powerhouse. The research firm Newzoo projects that global video game industry revenue will exceed $100 billion by 2017. And eSports is gaining a larger chunk of that investment every day, with Deloitte projecting eSports revenue of $500 million in 2016.
The late film critic Robert Ebert claimed that video games could never be art. But there is a beauty and aesthetic to a pro gamer's movements, his or her reflexes, the coordination and sequencing of a team in harmony. Skill clearly differentiates good players from bad.
What makes a good player? First is mastery of mechanics, the physical control of play through mouse clicks and keyboard taps. In a shooting game, gun accuracy and player positioning are essential.
In other games, skilled play resembles an orchestra of feints and strikes as characters traverse the digital space, following an underlying plan that's often invisible to the casual observer. Explosions, gunshots, and fireballs are just the chrome on strategies that can resemble movements on a chessboard. Strategy arises from knowledge of games' systems, and how to maximize efficiency, and it is the second pillar of the pro gamer.
And the top games constantly evolve, so strategies shift. Successful competitive titles receive continual balance changes and even new characters, changing and challenging players to adapt and be flexible. Software updates, which adjust gameplay mechanics or stats, mean that no single strategy can remain dominant for too long. The collection of strategies and preferences that shape competition, known as the metagame, is always in motion.
The challenge is balancing this evolution without diminishing or disrupting the skills and experience that separate casual gamers from the pro players who commit their lives.
"What does it take to get really good? You have to sacrifice everything else in your life," said Frank Lantz, director of the New York University Game Center. "If that thing is going to change next week or next month, that is a tragedy.
"At the same time, you need enough flexibility that the game can evolve," said Lantz. "It's a healthy sweet spot between being stable enough that people can master it at a deep level and flexible enough that it can evolve and grow and improve."
Competitive team games, which are the most popular titles in 2016, add another layer, requiring communication and coordination, usually between five players. Beyond actually playing the game, teams have to manage emotions, finances, and focus.
Is eSports actually a sport?
The idea seems preposterous from one view. How is clicking a mouse and typing on a keyboard at all comparable to the exertions of leaping, running, or swimming through physical space? The body is not visibly engaged, aside from the fingers and the mind.
Yet is gaming all that different from NASCAR? Or chess? Or poker? All of which have been broadcast on ESPN, the American arbiter of what is a sport, or at least what resembles one enough to commit the airtime. And in the 1990s, ESPN2 broadcast competitive Magic: The Gathering, the first collectible card game, where players battle by "summoning" fantastical creatures and hurl spells like Lightning Bolt and Lava Axe at each other, all represented by cards. There's a precedent for new competitive platforms emerging. The E in ESPN stands for entertainment, and in January 2016, it launched a dedicated eSports section on its website.
Part of the unease over the growth of eSports is a fear of the new. Gaming has only been present for a few decades, compared to thousands of years of history for sports like track and field or swimming. But basketball and baseball only developed in the last century. And gaming now has decades of history to build upon.
Veterans of eSports say it's ultimately irrelevant if competitive gaming is characterized as a sport. It has all the elements of competition: high-stakes winnings, a barrier to competition that takes skill and training, the excitement of fans, and now, the technological infrastructure to back it all up.
Translating the competition inherent in games into a formalized, regulated environment has been a struggle. Leagues like the NBA and NFL are the product of many years of commercial dominance. Gaming has relatively young companies, and only a handful have been around for more than a decade. Control is complicated by the presence of the software developer, who has distinct copyright ownership over a game.
Traditional sports may have originated from one creator, but that figure is often disputed, and the rules of play are tweaked and localized throughout the world. Leagues may also adjust rules as they see fit.
A major video game, however, is a commercial product. There is usually one company responsible for its development, with the most to gain financially from a game's popularity. But a developer is not a tournament organizer or league operator, and only a few companies have sustained games as eSports.
The role of the developer is crucial as the arbiter of design and a potential enforcer of rules. Just as basketball and baseball developed from tiny fields and courts to massive stadiums with only the guidance of a business overlord, eSports has required investment and leadership to leap from bedrooms into giant arenas.
The potential scale of eSports is enormous. Like gaming, it is a global enterprise, with gamers in the heart of the American Midwest, in crowded PC cafés in South Korea, and in European cities like Moscow and Berlin.
It is still dwarfed by traditional sports, with an estimated $278 million in eSports financial activity in 2015 according to Newzoo, compared to revenue of over $10 billion for the NFL and $21 billion for European soccer leagues. Viewership for the championship of the top game League of Legends hit 32 million in 2013, compared to a peak of 120 million viewers that watched the 2015 Super Bowl.
But the pace of growth is outstripping every other major entertainment sector. Global brands like Coca-Cola, American Express, and Intel have entered a market that was laughably tiny just five years ago.
For players and fans, competition goes beyond a career. It is a passion, if not an obsession. The agony of defeat can be just as compelling as the joy of triumph. Win or lose, eSports may not change the world. But it has already changed millions of lives.