If the IOC awarded gold medals for creativity, it’d have to hand one out to the video game industry by default. After all, apart from Canada (seriously… curling?), where else could you plausibly take bizarre, seemingly random activities like slaying dragons and annihilating extraterrestrial warriors and re-imagine them as Olympic sports?
But according to today’s professional players, who earn can thousands in prize money; score lucrative sponsorships from the likes of Intel and Razer; notch up serious TV time; and travel the globe playing to sold-out arenas, legitimizing the pastime and bringing it to Beijing is the next logical step. Just ask worldwide league GGL, who’s partnered with the Chinese government to make its Digital Games tournament (which finishes in Shanghai) an official “Welcome Event” of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Likewise, rival circuit Championship Gaming Series is already holdings drafts, televised tourneys and team-driven competitions complete with managers, star players and commentators aimed at giving the field that authentic prime-time feel.
So while we’re still a ways off from seeing so-called “cyber-athletes” donning the podium alongside the likes of Michael Phelps and Amanda Beard, ponder this. The day when weightlifters and sprinters yield the limelight to “Counter-Strike” addicts may soon be forthcoming. Intrigued by the prospect, we reached out to 27 year-old Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, pro gaming’s most notable figure, both a 10-time world title holder and geek celebrity. Here, he explains why if handball can draw crowds, the prospect of “SoulCalibur IV” or “StarCraft” joining the javelin throw and pole vault as an official offshoot of 2012’s Olympic Games isn’t so far-fetched.
Q: How comparable is the training between pro gamers and that of Olympic athletes?A: More than you’d think. To be a pro gamer, you have to practice non-stop – my average regimen includes eight hours a day of play. You also have to study opponents’ moves. Dedication’s important too… I’ve sacrificed friendships, relationships and opportunities to be with my family to get where I am. So is physical training. A lot of endurance is needed to play in tournaments, meaning I also run 2-3 miles a day.
Q: How does the general level of fame associated with winning a Gears of War championship compare with earning a gold medal?
A: We get to travel the world, meet all sorts of interesting people and play games for a living – it can be a privilege and spectacle to see. But what a lot of people don’t know is that it’s also hard to do this as your full-time career, and the physical and mental demands are high. How much of a celebrity you can be comes down to business savvy. And, [as with Olympic] athletes, obviously, the highest-profile characters get the most endorsement opportunities. But like them as well, most just focus on going out and playing the best they can, not being a superstar.
Q: What kind of money is now associated with cyber-athleticism, compared with the $1 billion+ in advertising NBC raked in for its coverage of this year’s games?
A: Hundreds of thousands of dollars, now that sponsors are involved. Invest your winnings wisely, and you can even start multimillion-dollar companies making a range of products for gamers like I’ve done too. The best thing it buys, though, is a chance to inspire the next generation of athletes.
Q: OK, since you opened the door: Why should we consider the pastime a sport?
A: Look at the skills that pro athletes in other sports use, whether that’s timing, hand-eye coordination or strategic decision-making. Every single one comes into play with video games as well. We might not sweat as much, but the same level of commitment, training and purpose has to be there. Having played sports as a kid, I can tell you that in many ways, playing a real-time strategy game or first-person shooter professionally is just as demanding.
Q: Age-wise, how do most eSports contenders stack up against Olympic hopefuls?
A: On average, they’re about 18-22. Although that sometimes has less to do with ability than life itself… obviously, you can’t always devote the time needed to maintain a pro career when you’re on your own and holding down a full-time job, having to make rent.
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