The crowd
in New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom watches as two Korean teenagers prepare to fight to the death. The teens sit on a stage, inside a glass box, oblivious to the announcers and the hundreds of chanting fans. Above them, a thirty-two foot screen broadcasts their every move. The countdown begins. And then…the teens start clicking.

This is Red Bull Battle Grounds, a two-day tournament in which eight of the world’s best Starcraft II players send angry virtual military units across a digital landscape to destroy their enemy’s virtual bases. The players took different paths to get here — the tournament’s only female contender, Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, beat over 700 players in an online tournament, while others qualified through other in-person events in Europe and the U.S. — but they’re one and the same in their top-notch gaming abilities. To put their olympian talents into perspective, the players average an apm (“actions per minute”, or how many moves they make in the game by clicking or using their keyboards) between 200 and 400 throughout the 10-30 minute games. 300 actions per minute is roughly equal to five actions per second.

Starcraft II

Starcraft-Three-Races-Gear-Patrol

Released by Blizzard Entertainment in 1998, StarCraft is one of the most popular PC games of all time. Its sequel, Starcraft II, is the third most popular game in eSports. In the game, players control one of three races, each with their own backstory and advantages.

Terrans
Humans exiled from Earth. On the defensive side, Terrans have the best arsenal. Their scan ability easily reveals cloaked and burrowed units, and their Lift-Off ability allows structures to come off their moorings for quick troop deployment or last-ditch escape efforts. Buildings, mechanized units and organic units can all be healed.

Zerg
A hive-mind race intent on genetic purity. They produce all units from centralized hatcheries. Although their units are weaker, they’re also cheaper, encouraging players to overwhelm enemies through “swarms”. Many zerg units also produce the creep, a living carpet that spreads over the ground and allows most units to move 30% faster.

Protoss
A race of psionic humanoids. Their warp ability allows them to teleport between pylons, and their sentries can create offensive or defensive force fields. Though their units are more expensive and take longer to produce, they’re heartier in battle.

In the past decade, the word “nerd” has acquired new meaning, thanks in part to the ever-growing prominence of technology in society and the success of those like Bill Gates — or, more recently, Mark Zuckerburg — who capitalized on the title to develop business personas. The word’s application to the video game audience has shifted too, largely because an entire generation who grew up gaming is now well into adulthood and never kicked the habit. John Bain, a professional eSports caster who goes by the online alias “TotalBiscuit”, suggests that accessibility to games has also mitigated the stigma that used to be associated with the word. According to Bain, “nerd” these days “just describes someone who knows what they want and goes out of their way to get it.”

Changing economics also seems to play a part in the paradigm shift. The video game industry has become a money-making juggernaut. In September Grand Theft Auto V crushed world record game and movie ticket sales buy grossing $800 million in its first day on shelves; it topped $1 billion in three days. Putting that into perspective, Forbes called it the “biggest entertainment launch in history” and noted that the fastest film to hit the billion dollar mark, The Avengers, took a full 19 days to do so.

That boom in revenue carries over to professional gaming in a big way. Over the past four years, the industry’s highest grossing player earned $415,788. And that’s just from tournaments. Many players also generate revenue through sponsorships and ads on live streams of their practice sessions. At the Red Bull Battlegrounds event, the eight players competed for $50,000 in prizes, including a $20,000 first prize. Those high purses mean that the perception — and reality — of “gamers” is on the move from time-wasting couch potatoes to successful professionals.

Still, many stop short of calling the gamers “athletes”. The debate epitomizes eSport’s quest for social legitimacy. But many industry experts aren’t worried. “It’s like when comic books were first having their rise,” said Sean “Day[9]” Plott, a former Starcraft: Brood War champion turned professional eSports caster. “Everyone lost their fucking minds. There was this one guy, Fredric Wertham, who even wrote articles about how superheroes promoted the homosexual agenda. And then it sort of went away as people realized, ‘oh, these are just comics’. I suspect the same thing will happen with the competitive gaming scene.”

The numbers speak for themselves. eSport purses have come a long way since October 19th, 1972, when Stanford held the world’s first video game tournament. “Free Beer!” read flyers. “First prize will be a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone.” Eighteen years later, The Nintendo World Championship offered a grand prize of a $10,000 savings bond, a new 1990 Geo Metro Convertible, a 40-inch rear-projection TV and a gold painted Mario trophy. Quite a jump, but peanuts compared to today’s massive purses.

What changed? For one, the advent of live streaming. Arriving in the early 2000s, live streaming allowed anyone with a computer to cheaply and easily watch anything in the world. As Day[9] pointed out, the number of people who wanted to watch eSports had been growing for years. Live streaming gave them the opportunity.

The years between 2000 to 2012 saw an exponential rise in both number of eSport tournaments and the monetary value of those competitions’ prizes, although prize money for this year hasn’t yet been reported, video game prize money in 2012 reached over $10 million, split among a whopping 696 tournaments. Compare this with data from 2000 — approximately ten tournaments, totaling $348,776 in prizes — and you’ll see how far eSports have come, and just how far they’re going.

For instance, one of Valve Software’s recent tournaments, The International, offered a $2.8 million prize pool, over 4.5 million unique viewers tuned into live streams, most of them coming from a service called Twitch. Billed as the YouTube for gamers (or the ESPN of eSports), it allows professionals to broadcast live streams of their games or practice sessions and interact with fans.

“The environment is akin to one in which Michael Jordan is practicing on his private court and you’re on the sideline asking questions”, said Marcus djWHEAT” Graham, another popular eSports commentator. The Verge recently reported that Twitch reached monthly traffic of 45 million visitors this August.

In the Hammerstein Ballroom, the crowd erupts. Fan favorite Choi “Bomber” Ji Sung has just defeated teammate Jo “Golden” Myeong Hwan, who announced his retirement only a day earlier. He’s had a great career, but it’s time to call it quits. He’s 19. If that’s not a sign of the changing landscape, what is?