Something changed. It used to be that eSports was almost a dirty word, a concept that even people who played games sneered at. It was like it was trying too hard, clawing at our legs to get us to notice it. Well, now it's all grown up. Now, it's looking down on us, saying, "I tried to tell you." Millions are now hooked, myself included, and it's only getting bigger.
So where does the future lie? This year, the League of Legends World Championship Finals were held at Sangam Stadium in South Korea. This is a venue that hosted football matches at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, but this year 45,000 people went to watch a video game. The equivalent tournament for Dota 2, The International 4, had a prize pool of nearly $11 million with the winning team, Chinese crew Newbee, taking home $5 million.
With stats like that, it's almost impossible to think about the future. You can't get a much bigger venue, and the prize money is already astronomical. Viewing figures are always getting higher, but the way people are watching is changing, too. The foundations of esports are already in place and very strong. The future lies in the ways you'll be watching and interacting with like-minded individuals.
People are watching professionals play, sometimes even more than they play themselves. However, it's not a solitary pastime like you might expect. You've heard of a Super Bowl Party? In October, League of Legends fans were having World Championship Parties across the globe. You've heard of going to the bar to watch the football game? Well, more and more esports bars are popping up all the time.
Meltdown is one such establishment in London, and it held its own Worlds Party. The time difference meant that, in the UK, the event started at 8 AM. Surely nobody would travel that early on a Sunday morning to watch people on the other side of the world play a video game?
"Gamers are traditionally a bunch who are better at staying up late than they are at getting up early, so we weren't really sure how it would turn out," Duncan Morrison, the owner of Meltdown, told me. "In the end, though, the attendance was incredible—the place was completely full and the atmosphere was amazing. It went better than I could've hoped."
The Meltdown franchise is slowly spreading. "We tried to organize ' Barcrafts' [a party where people would gather to watch a StarCraft event] in Paris, but we met a lot of problems with poor internet connections, sceptical owners and frequent clashes with traditional sporting events," said Morrison. "This led to us frequently ending up just inviting all the attendees back to our house to watch the games. It was at one of these 'couch crafts' we thought of opening a dedicated bar. That idea became the original Meltdown in Paris, and now it's spreading across Europe and the world.
"There are plenty more Meltdowns opening all the time, mostly in France and Belgium this year, but that should change in 2015," Morrison continued. "We're planning on upgrading the London bar in 2015, and are always open to the idea of expansion in the future, when the right opportunity comes along. As for the UK, if anyone is interested in opening their own franchise, they're very welcome to get in touch and we'll give them all the details and support that they'd need to make the next step."
It's venues like these that will attract more people as time goes on, and they're doing wonders to promote the esports scene, particularly in the UK, which is lagging behind the likes of France, Germany and Sweden in terms of participants. However, Morrison sees the tides shifting: "It's definitely growing in the UK. The League of Legends Championship Series selling out Wembley Arena would've been unthinkable a couple of years ago."
And that's exactly what happened back in June. "We're seeing new people getting into esports every day, and that too is only going to grow as more people are exposed to these amazing games," Morrison told me. "With teams like Fnatic headquartered in London—and companies like Gfinity launching very ambitious plans for London events—the future looks very bright."
BBC Newsbeat reports on League of Legends taking over London's Wembley Arena
Meltdown plans to raise $4.7 million to build a new esports arena next year, intended to house 500 spectators. They hope to be competing with Major League Gaming in the US and the esports League in Germany very soon.
Sometimes, though, you can't catch an event live. You might be busy, or you might even be asleep if you're in the wrong time zone. When games are being live-streamed on Twitch or YouTube, the action is recorded and uploaded as a VoD (video on demand). This way, you can watch what happened after the fact. Arena.gg is an upcoming project developed by No Moon Ltd. It's a way for groups of people to catch up on videos they missed in perfect sync.
I spoke with Guillaume Borkhataria about the project and where watching esports is heading.
"My business partner, Lorenz Bauer, and I can rarely watch pro matches live, because we're either asleep or at work," he said. "On the rare occasion that we can watch a video together we are never really in sync. One of us screaming, 'Holy crap! Did you see that?' down Skype kinda ruins it for the person who's lagging behind.
"We originally built a web-app called LetsGaze.com. The aim was to let people in long-distance relationships watch movies together in perfect sync. However, we were personally using it as a hack-y solution to our problems with watching game streams. Then we had a 'wait a minute...' moment and decided to use our tech to build Arena.gg."
Not only will you be able to watch videos with other people, you'll also be able to discuss them, with access to player stats and the like. This fixes another problem they had with watching streams: "On the bigger streaming sites, the chat gets so saturated with trolls and spammers."
With this new platform, maybe you'll be able to have some intelligent discussion, instead of your comments getting swallowed up by the usual emoji spam and "copypasta."
China's Newbee win big at Dota 2's The International 4
I asked Guillaume what he thinks watching esports will look like in five years, and he made some bold claims. "It's going to be way ahead of traditional sports spectating; it's just much more engaging," he said. "From a technical standpoint, game data can tell us everything about a match, down to the exact vector of a bullet. And let's not underestimate the impact that virtual reality will have on the spectating landscape, literally putting you on the arena floor of the game you're watching. That's the closest thing you're going to get to being a streaker without getting butt naked and running around."
You might think that, in order to be taken seriously, esports would have to find its place on broadcast television alongside regular sports. Dota 2's TI4 and the 2014 LoL World Finals were actually broadcast on ESPN, despite claims earlier this year from the channel's president that they're "not real sports." The fact is that online viewership will continue to grow whether big companies are involved or not. The 2014 League of Legends World Finals didn't need a lot of help from TV to get 11.2 million concurrent viewers.
In reality, it's broadcast television that's in trouble. The CEO of Netflix recently stated that traditional TV will be dead by 2030, with viewership down 50 percent in the 10-year stretch between 2002 and 2012. The continuing rise of esports might do well to avoid the sinking ship entirely, as gaming could well be a big part of the online revolution.
You might wonder where the future of esports lies. The truth is, it's kind of already here. All that's left is watching communities grow around it. If you're not on board already, you probably soon will be, like it or not. In Korea, professional game players are treated like rock stars. It won't be long until the rest of the world catches up.
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter