A tournament for a video game has generated a huge prize pool – more than $10.2-million – signalling the arrival of big money to the niche world of professional gamers.
But in a twist that could push competitive gaming into the mainstream, the source of the blockbuster prize - the largest in pro-gaming history - isn't a corporate underwriter, it was raised largely from fans through a unique marketing and audience participation scheme. And as the tournament's July 18 start date nears, it is reasonable to believe the winner's purse may eclipse the $11-million mark. With a pool that large, each member of the winning team stands to become an instant millionaire.
The ability to find that kind of success in so-called eSports – short for electronic sports – may even encourage prospective gamers to stow worries about their financial future and dive headfirst into the competitive gaming landscape.
"I think [The International, an annual tournament for the online game DOTA 2] will be the most pivotal moment to date for mainstream awareness of eSports partially because of the prize pool, partially because it's going to be another packed stadium," said Alexander Garfield, the CEO of Good Game Agency which owns and operates Evil Geniuses, a popular professional gaming team. He added that a November eSports tournament was played in front of a sold-out crowd at Los Angels' Staples Centre. "I think the more of these 'packed stadium' data points we bring to the public, the more they [will] pay attention."
The game being played, DOTA 2, is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) developed by Valve Corporation, a prominent computer game company best-known for creating the popular Half-Life series and for running the Steam distribution system.
Set in a fantastical world, DOTA 2 pits two teams of five players against one another as they attempt to destroy the opposing team's base with a champion that each individual player selects from a pool of over 100 uniquely talented heroes. The MOBA genre – which includes Riot's League of Legends, DC Comics' Infinite Crisis and Hi-Rez Studio's Smite – is often linked to the recent resurgence of PC gaming, largely due to its mostly free-to-play mandate.
While all of those games are available to download and play for free, they typically make money by offering players the option of purchasing aesthetic items and, in some cases, additional champions via their in-game store.
But DOTA 2 may have perfected the freemium model and at the same time ushered in a new age of marketing the game's premium content by creating a downloadable package that offers players a wealth of aesthetic in-game items and a chance to help fund the tournament.
As of May, players have been able to purchase The International Interactive Compendium ($9.99 USD) with the knowledge that 25 per cent the purchase goes straight into the tournament's prize pool. While such items as in-game emoticons are available to all players who purchase the compendium, other items, such as additional animated costumes are granted to players who "level up" their compendium. This is done by either completing in-game objectives, watching the tournament's matches or purchasing compendium points via DOTA 2's online store (a portion of which also goes into The International's prize pool).
"DOTA 2 players around the world feel they have bought into the championship and done a good thing for the community, while getting the in-game rewards that enhance their own personal gaming experience." said Heloise Thompson, a video game analyst at Ender Analysis. "In the case of The International, the rewards last for the duration of the tournament, meaning there is an incentive to play DOTA 2 and watch more of the tournament during that period."
The Seattle-based tournament (now in its fourth year) shattered expectations set by last year's $2.87-million prize pool – which, at the time, was one of the largest prize in eSports history.
"There is no equivalent I can think of for the World Cup or any other international sporting event, where players can have such a personal and big buy in," says Ms. Thompson.
Vancouver's Artour Babaev has been playing DOTA since he was 12 years old and will be one of around 80 players competing in the high stakes event. The 18-year-old gamer – who goes by the screen name "Arteezy" – is a member of Evil Geniuses' five-player DOTA 2 team and believes that The International's unprecedented large prize pool will help bring more mainstream awareness to the niche and will help legitimize it as a viable and profitable spectator event.
"I think it shows that there is a market here for sponsors as advertisers to gain value," said Mr, Babaev. "eSports can be profitable, you just need to be smart about it."
Future prize pools could be even larger if other companies adopt Valve's crowd-funding strategy. In the MOBA landscape, DOTA 2's popularity pales in comparison to its competition: DOTA 2 garnered 8.8 million unique players last month while League of Legends attracts 67 million players a month according to its website.
"The amazing success of this strategy means tournaments will certainly start to think about new ways to provide gamers with rewards through buy-ins like The Compendium, such as League of Legends," said Ms. Thompson. "[DOTA 2's prize pool has set] a standard for eSport prize money around the world."
South Korea is the founding nation of eSports, and in that nation gamers are celebrities and competitions are broadcast on national TV. In North America, competitive gaming has grown in popularity in recent years but still has a ways to go before that starts happening. The generation that grew up playing video games has discovered their geeky pastime now offers teenagers and young adults a shot at a seven-figure payday.
However, for Mr. Babaev, the prospect of becoming a millionaire by the end of the month hasn't altered his nearly eight-hour-a-day training regimen or changed his competitive mindset.
"Money isn't the primary motivation, winning is," he said.