What can pin tens of thousands of people to their screens for hours on end to follow intense competition of computer games such as Counter-Strike or Hearthstone?
'Even though competing takes place within computer games, motivations are primarily the same as with traditional sports spectators, explains Aalto University Researcher Max Sjöblom. Together with Postdoctoral Researcher Juho Hamari, he has been examining the reasons attracting an increasing number of spectators to watch electronic sports, eSports.
Simply defined, eSports is a form of competitive sports utilising information technology, which in practice means playing video games. The theme of the game is insignificant; instead, the sport-like nature emerges from the competition. Indeed, according to Max Sjöblom, many popular eSports games are such that it would be impossible to transfer them into the real world.
'Even though these games are far from traditional sports, the reasons for watching them are largely the same. In our research, spectators particularly appreciated the skill of players and the sense of drama. Despite the fact that video games are often considered violent, our results indicate that, on the contrary, spectators do not perceive eSports as an aggressive form of media, even though the experienced aggression of eSports positively correlates with spectating frequency', Sjöblom explains.
Sports commentary from sofa at home
The first steps towards eSports in its current form were taken when different national rankings started to be compiled on gamer performance at the beginning of the 1980s. The next leap was the opportunity provided by playing games via the internet with opponents living far away.
'Being independent of time and space is a major part of eSports. All you need for eSports is access to a computer at home or even at an internet café', Max Sjöblom emphasises.
'You cannot just set up a football match out of nowhere in the middle of the night, but it is possible to participate in eSports from anywhere in the world, both as a sportsman and as a spectator.
In fact, eSports has become a significant business activity and is one of the fastest-growing areas of the entertainment industry. The prizes for major tournaments can amount to hundreds of thousands of euros, and there is a constant increase in the interest of sponsors. The growth in popularity and the technological advancements have also opened up possibilities for professions still unimaginable at the turn of the millennium. The story of Janne 'Savjz' Mikkonen, who streams games and gives commentary on eSports, is a good example of this.
'My life was pretty much overturned by the live streaming service Twitch. I was first streaming my own playing and when I became increasingly well known, I started to receive invitations to compete in events. Having success in these resulted in more visibility for my channel, which created a huge snowball effect', he reminisces.
Of course, it is by far not easy to make money with eSports. According to Janne Mikkonen, it is important for people to find their own thing in streaming that sets them apart from the mass of others trying to reach success. For commentators, it is also essential to be competent and professional – not unlike traditional sportscasters.
'You must know how to highlight interesting facts, for example on the backgrounds of the playersand naturally also know the game itself and its strategies well', he emphasises.
According to Max Sjöblom, Janne Mikkonen is a good example of a wider breakthrough occurring in the labour market.
'More and more people end up living their lives as entrepreneurs and make their living based on various sources of income, such as producing contents to a number of different channels. Similarly as other aspects of life, sports have moved online; in a way, eSports is a natural part of a wider change.'