Pro-gamers aim high in esports competitions

Lee ‘Jaedong’ Jae Dong found himself only a step away from the first place prize. Again, he was given the opportunity to end his legacy as a "silver mine," or to continue to achieve second place. Jaedong was confident. He had already defeated two champions of previous finals.

"Who’s going to take me down now?” said Jaedong in Korean through a translator, “I don’t think there [are] any enemies who can stand up to me."

Jaedong, a 23-year-old from South Korea, plays video games professionally in an industry known as eSports. Competitive gaming has been a steadily growing trend over the past decade. Starcraft, a fast paced science fiction strategy game made by developer Blizzard, gained notoriety in South Korea during the late 90s. Though no longer the most popular professional video game today, the game's sequel, Starcraft 2, treks on as a staple in popular eSports.

Players often use online pseudonyms to represent themselves. While Jaedong uses his last name, many players use more abstract names such as ‘NaNiwa’ or ‘INnoVation.’ It is a tradition that derives from players adopting these identities as online personas.

Jaedong's match was not one of athleticism, but one of cunning and dexterity. Inside soundproof booths, the two players commanded armies at lightning fast speed through keyboard commands and mouse clicks. The winner would walk away with a $100,000 prize and the title ‘world champion.’


The players choose one of three “races,” one human, the other two different varieties of aliens, that defines the units they can use and how they can use them. The game hinges on the players managing not only units on a battlefield, but also the resources needed to recruit these units. Games usually last 10-30 minutes, with both players acting in real time, as opposed to taking turns. Between resource management and careful positioning of units, players often reach speeds of over 600 actions per minute (APM).

Two weeks before Jaedong competed for the grand prize at the Starcraft 2 World Championship Series (WCS) Grand Finals on November 9 in Anaheim, California, I attended a preliminary world final here in Toronto. It was the end of WCS Season 3, the last season in the annual series. The 16 players who accumulate the most points by the end of Season 3 would move on to the Grand Finals. For some players, it was their last chance to qualify.

At the Season Three Finals, the passion of the fans was unquestioned. They roared the names of their favourite players with deafening volume, some of who were not even present. The Swedish flag was held above the crowd in celebration of ‘NaNiwa,’ a Swedish player who was not in the Season 3 Finals but had advanced to the Grand Finals in November (making him the only non-Korean to qualify). Earlier, Sean ‘Day[9]’ Plott, commentator and pillar in the Starcraft community, spent two hours giving out signatures to a line of people that wrapped around half the room.

Though watching someone else play video games professionally may seem strange, the phenomenon has all the ingredients of a spectator sport. To the trained eye, the fast paced game provides constant visuals and ever changing action. The gamers become relatable characters for the audience to root for. And rivalries with (short) histories have already sprung up between teams and individuals.

Jon Quinn is the President of eSports Canada, a Canadian organization that hosts eSport related events. He says that although at least an interest in video games is required to appreciate eSports, there's definitely appeal to a massive audience.

"It's the same as kind of playing street hockey and then being able to see pros. And then there's that production value. And you get to hear people talk about it and kind of share that same passion on a professional level," says Quinn.

This sort of interest has taken hold in South Korea, where eSports can be seen on television. The biggest games are also occasionally shown on TV in Scandinavian countries where a small eSports community is gradually gaining popularity, but they have yet to find their way onto most mainstream television in the West. Typically, live games are streamed over the Internet on a free online service called Twitch. Here, the community comes together not only to watch the tournaments, but also daily practice sessions.

"There's always been talk that the next level for eSports was getting on mainstream TV, and there's kind of been this shift where people realize that we don't need to be on TV," says Quinn, "Yes that's a perk, yes that's awesome to be featured on TV. But we don't need that to be our next level. We can create our own niche of streaming online and creating our own form of entertainment."

More and more, eSports are proving to be a viable platform for telling good stories. The rise of the underdog was clearly shown when ‘ByuL’ defeated Jaedong just before the Season 3 finals, earning himself a place among the world's best players last weekend. The retirement of a legend was shown when ‘Stephano’ left Starcraft to study engineering last August. And the ever-changing landscape of trending strategies lends itself well to defining champions, such as ‘INnoVation,’ that need to be taken town by the next rising star.

Mike Rugnetta says in an episode of the PBS Idea Channel that sports are not about feats of strength or dexterity, but rather "about personal histories and backgrounds. It's debates about who is the greatest and who deserves to be a champion.

Because online video games can be run so cheaply and quickly, there are huge numbers of games played over the course of a year. WCS, for example, takes place over three "seasons" in the course of a year.

All of this is for just one championship hosted by Blizzard. There are several others held throughout the year with sponsors such as Red Bull and Intel. Theses tournaments serve as arenas for narratives to be written With so many championship competitions being held at once, there are many opportunities for players to make names for themselves. Unlike more traditional sports, which allow a full year for the competitive landscape to define new champions, eSports is in constant flux. The champion of one season might struggle in the next due to a slight rebalance of the game's rules, or even just from being studied heavily by the competition.

This is what makes Jaedong's prevalence in the pro-gaming scene so impressive. Over the passed year he has earned 5 silver medals, making him the second highest earning player in WCS, but has yet to take the gold. Though apparently never the top player, Jaedong remains the most consistently high ranking one.

Before the game, commentator ‘Day[9]’, announced that “by being in the finals, Jaedong is officially the most successful pro-gamer in history, across all games.”

Jaedong’s team captain, Geoff “INcontrol” Robinson, recounted Jaedong’s disappointment when he fell just short of the gold medal in another prestigious championship called Dreamhack Open earlier this year.

“I walked into that first booth when he took second place at Dreamhack and he had tears steaming out of his eyes because he wanted it so bad,” said Robinson, “And it was at that moment that I saw him, and I knew that he was perhaps the most special player that I had ever encountered in my entire life.”

Jaedong lost to a player known as ‘sOs’ 4-1 in the Grand Finals. But he isn’t giving up. He will be competing in the next Dreamhack: Winter 2012 in Sweden. It is yet another chance for Jaedong to become a champion.