It's amazing how much time some poker pros spend playing games other than poker. Some of them are in the pit playing blackjack or craps. Others enjoy card games like Magic: The Gathering, which has its own poker-like ecosystem of tournaments and star players. But the biggest diversion of them all might be video games – more specifically, competitive video gaming, or E-Sports.
How big has E-Sports become? You can bet on it at Bodog Sports. The 2015 League of Legends World Championship is underway in Europe, with 16 teams competing in the Group Stage. Odds are available for all the matches. More than $2.1 million in prize money is up for grabs, with over 50,000 people watching live on Twitch at press time. That number will balloon to eight figures for the final matches on October 31.
E-Sports may seem like the hot new thing, but just like poker had been around before the Moneymaker Era, video game competitions have been going on since at least 1972. Atari hosted a big Space Invaders tournament back in 1980 with over 10,000 players. Business picked up when the Internet went mainstream in the 90s, and the more powerful the Web has become, the more people have been drawn to E-Sports.
League of Legends (or LOL for short) is one of the top “battle arena” multiplayer games in E-Sports. This Riot Games release from 2009 was said to have 27 million active daily players last year, with 67 million people playing at least once a month. Riot Games hosts the World Championship; the game itself is available for free, but users can pay more for added features – in 2013, the company made $624 million in revenues. The tournaments are basically for marketing.
In theory, E-Sports can be lucrative for the players, as well. But most of the top pro stables are made up of young men, usually 15-25, who spend countless hours honing their craft while their handlers reap much of the benefits. There's always the fame, though. Last year's LOL champions, Samsung Galaxy White, were treated like rock stars in their native South Korea before splitting apart and joining other teams.
This year's top clubs, according to the LOL World Championship website, are Edward Gaming (EDG), LGD Gaming, and SKTelecom T1 (SKT). EDG, from the Chinese city of Guangzhou, is the big kahuna of these three teams; the members include five Chinese players, four South Koreans and one from Hong Kong, all males, and all between 17 and 21 years old. This team won four of the six major tournaments it played in 2014 and came second in the others.
Teams from Europe and North America are starting to make inroads, as well. There are three representatives from each continent at this year's Worlds, plus teams from Thailand and Brazil. But it's the South Koreans who still maintain a stranglehold on E-Sports. If my math is right, of the 91 players at this year's championship, 33 are Korean. Expect that to change as the sport wraps its tentacles around the globe.