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What Are eSports? A Pro Videogaming Guide for the Rest of Us.

A guide to understanding the esoteric but enthusiastic world of competitive gaming, from the trenches at one of the industry's biggest events -- MLG Anaheim.

For some people, it’s esoteric and dull. For others, it’s a thrilling spectacle. Its legions of fans can recite the names and long, rivalrous histories of its many players. And right now, a major tournament has gathered the faithful in one place for a boisterous showdown.

Soccer? Nope. Professional competitive videogaming.

Many within the pro gaming world call it eSports, and the organizer of this weekend’s tournament in Anaheim, Calif. — Major League Gaming — makes a point of comparing itself to the traditional sports world, early and often. The 12-year-old company’s logo would be right at home alongside the MLB’s and NBA’s, and last year it began broadcasting the eSports Report, an online show that borrows heavily from ESPN’s SportsCenter as it recounts the latest in pro gaming news.

But there are some big differences between eSports and “normal” sports that may keep them just out of reach for non-gamers. You know, besides the whole exercise thing.

Here, then, is an attempt at an explanation of the pro gaming phenomenon for the rest of us.

The Games

One of the biggest differences between a pro sports league like like the NBA and a pro gaming league like Major League Gaming (MLG) is, of course, that the latter covers multiple games. There are five games being played at this weekend’s tournament, which concludes today. On the largest stage, Activision’s shooter Call of Duty: Ghosts; on the second-largest, Blizzard’s strategy game Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm; and on the smallest stage, three fighting games — Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Melee, Warner Bros.’ Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Microsoft’s Killer Instinct.

It’s sometimes difficult to explain why the professional players are so impressive if you’ve never seen or played the games at a nonprofessional level. The basic goals are accessible enough — usually boiling down to “kill the other guy” — but like the significance of one particular opening move or another in chess, the means to accomplishing that goal are deceptively simple.

“I think one of the issues is, eSports is just insanely fast compared to other sports, so keeping up with what’s going on is difficult,” MLG co-founder Mike Sepso said. “That challenge of, how do you get more people interested in understanding what’s going on on the screen, it’s not something unique to eSports. All sports have the same challenge.”

In that context, traditional sports have a big leg up. Basketball has been around for 123 years, while the Call of Duty franchise isn’t old enough to have had a bar mitzvah. Plus, the fields, courts and rinks in sports are boringly boxy, but each new installment of or update to a franchise can be a literal game-changer. Players (and viewers) transitioning from 2012’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II to 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts had to learn the ins and outs of 12 new multiplayer maps.

“This Call of Duty has been out since last November, so a lot of people already know the game,” professional Call of Duty player Seth “Scumpi” Abner said. “[But] teams will act online like they’re doing a certain thing, and then when they get to a tournament, they’ll do something completely different to throw you off.”

The Leagues and Tournaments

With apologies to MLG’s PR department, the MLG Championship Anaheim is definitely not directly comparable to the World Cup in significance. Not yet, anyway.

The international fandom of eSports is heavily splintered, and the jury’s still out on who really “owns” it. Is it MLG, well-known to pro gamers in the U.S.? Is it the Europe-based Electronic Sports League, or ESL, which is preparing to challenge MLG on its home turf? Is it Twitch, the video platform where anyone can broadcast gameplay, and that serves as a proving ground for games that are fun to watch?

Or maybe there is no single unifying force.

Game publisher Valve, for instance, runs a tournament called The International, solely devoted to its own game, Dota 2; this year, it used crowdfunding to build the prize pool for players to nearly $10 million at the time of this writing. Blizzard also runs its own tournaments for its eSports-friendly games like Starcraft at the BlizzCon convention in November. And last year, the finals of Riot Games’ League of Legends Championship Series sold out the 15,000-seat Staples Center … in one hour.

The Teams and Players

To hear MLG itself tell it, this is the key to understanding eSports. Sepso said the company’s sales pitch to potential advertisers focuses strongly on the players and teams, and barely on MLG or the games.

“As an advertising sales organization, we spend a lot of time talking about personalities,” he said. “Are you a Yankees fan or a Red Sox fan? Are you an Optic fan or an EG [Evil Geniuses] fan? Those are the storylines that connect for people.”

Those names he mentioned — Optic Gaming and Evil Geniuses — are just two of the many eSports teams represented here. Some, like Team EnVyUs, specialize in certain games like Call of Duty, while others like Cloud9 and Team Curse are spread out across multiple titles. Rather than representing a location like New York or Boston, teams are effectively composite brands, and sponsorship aggregators, for personalities and styles of play.

“All of these guys, if you talk to them, they’re all such different personalities,” Call of Duty commentator Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt said. “Just like traditional sports — people like Floyd Mayweather because he’s good and he’s arrogant about it. Some people like the humbler victory. You find those things and, all of a sudden, you find these teams, and you’re an EnVy fan or an Optic fan or an EG fan. It doesn’t take long.”

And what happens when players decide to leave those teams?

“Optic and EnVy have gone through major roster changes over the past few years, but the team goes on,” Sepso said. “They have the same personality, even though the players might change. It’s the same as Yankees versus Red Sox. When the Yankees traded for Johnny Damon, they made him shave his beard.”

But teams aren’t the be-all end-all of eSports. Some players that qualified to play in the championship matches are free agents, and still others didn’t, in fact, qualify initially. Adjacent to the 1,500-seat Call of Duty section is a sprawling 300-station lineup of PCs and consoles for what’s called the “open bracket.” Hundreds of attendees paid between $55 and $125 to play in the open bracket, and the best of the best get a chance to challenge the pre-qualified players onstage.

The Fans

As a relative newbie to eSports myself, this has been one of the most fun things to see at this weekend’s tournament. Attendance is something of an endurance test, with some 34.5 hours of playtime on the official schedule, though no one would dare stop a game that runs long.

Unlike most traditional sports, the live experience of watching a game at MLG Anaheim is centered around the company’s simultaneous broadcasts. That means there’s always something for the audience to listen to, complementing the gameplay. At a Starcraft match I watched, small cheers emerged when crowd favorite Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn pulled ahead, but the audience only burst into loud applause when she emerged victorious from her soundproof booth.

At the Super Smash Bros. stage, however, there were no soundproof booths, and the crowd’s hooting and hollering often drowned out the play-by-play commentators. A special round on Friday pitted players from the East and West coasts against one another, and, this being a tournament near Los Angeles, the crowd tilted heavily westward. One audience member waved a full-size California state flag from his seat, and audience members frequently broke out into soccer-style chants of “ole, ole ole ole ole!

“We’re the smallest crowd out there, but we’re the biggest crowd,” Smash Bros. commentator Chris “Wife” Fabiszak said. “I was talking to MLG staffers at lunch, and they were saying, ‘I can’t hear my game over your game.’ The finals [on Sunday] are going to bring the house down.”

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