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Courtesy of Red Bull

Courtesy of Red Bull

On a perfect September Sunday in Washington, D.C., 1100 fans, many waving boom sticks, stared intently as two of the world’s top StarCraft II players battled it out on stage at the Red Bull Battle Grounds finale. The popular real-time strategy game, which was released in 2010, is the story of three fictional groups — the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg battling across the galaxy. The competition is played in eSports leagues, like the World Championship Series and the Red Bull Battle Grounds is one of the events where competitors compete for a chance to play at the WCS Global Finals.

Both competitors had noise-cancelling headphones on and deftly maneuvered to try to outwit, outmatch and outplay the other competitor. After a good play, the fans knocked together boom sticks and waved signs in the air with their favorite competitors’ name on it.

Finally, after four matches that took an hour in total, Choi Ji Sung, better known as “Bomber”, came through to beat Kim “Cure” Doh Wook. As the boom sticks banged together, suddenly a canon full of confetti shot through the air and Ji Sung chugged a Red Bull and lifted his hands in the air.

The 1100 fans were part of what had been a four-day long event in Washington, D.C. which featured a panel on the growth of eSports, meet-and-greets with the competitors, two days of competition and later an after-party.

“The last big event in DC I think was in 2010, so it’s the first time in a really long time. And we’re like, ‘Oh my god our favorite players are coming,’ so we were really hyped, following the qualifiers, following the events before the main tournament,” said Austin Kim, a 20-year-old student at George Washington University. “Once we got here we were so amazed.”

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Because the competitors of the sport are still so accessible, Ryan Kiernan, 17, said he picked his favorite players by who was the most likable. “I was really hoping Cure would win because he was the most humble,” he said.

The walls of the auditorium at the Lincoln Theater, where the event was held, were adorned with large portraits of each of the competitors. There was merchandise for sale — t-shirts, sweatshirts and mousepads — in the front lobby and spectators watched the two gamers on a large overhead screen.

For those who aren’t in the eSports world, the concept seems ridiculous: Watching two people compete at a game on stage while there’s nothing to do but watch it unfold on a big screen. But according to a study from IHS Technology, viewers watched a whopping 2.4 billion hours of eSports in 2013 up from 1.3 billion in 2012. In August, Amazon acquired Twitch, an internet video channel where users can broadcast and watch people playing videogames including StarCraft, for $970 million.

“It’s clear that Amazon will want to find more content that it can control,” Forrester analyst James McQuivey told USA TODAY’s Brett Molina earlier this year. “Twitch is a good fit this way because it captures people’s attention for hours a week and it also creates a product tie-in opportunity that Amazon can capitalize on in a way that Google could not.”

Companies like ESPN (through its partnership with Major League Gaming), Amazon and more have made deep pushes into gaming. With a market of mostly young men who can become transfixed for hours on a platform, it has the potential to be an advertisers’ dream. And as corporations like Red Bull become increasingly more involved, prize money and the professionalization of the sport have increased as well.

“I think a lot of companies are seeing the value in investing money in the space just because of the amount of people involved in the space,” said Alex Rodriguez, one of the play-by-play announcers for the event. “There’s various reasons why eSports is getting big … but basically I think a lot of companies are seeing the value and placing money in something that people are attached to or believe in or whatever.

“That’s basically what eSports is. It started as people coming together in a community and playing games and seeing who’s the best in competitions and that eventually just grew and grew and grew to the point where you’re having thousands and thousands of people involved in this.”

Rodriguez is one of those people who have helped the sports grow — he began commentating in his college dorm room. Other announcers like Kevin Van Der Kooi were former players — Van Der Kooi was a European champion at another game before he heard a broadcast that he thought he could improve.

“I was just a player, I really liked to play StarCraft,” said Nathan Fabrikant, 21, a third commentator at the event. “I ran an online stream … a couple of people were really dedicated to helping me get out to tournaments. Once I got to see what a live event was like I got more motivated and as far as doing commentary for events like Red Bull, it really just came from putting a lot of time in, working on it, watching a lot of pro games and eventually trying to do commentary and things like that.”

Choi "Bomber" Ji Sung celebrates winning the championship on the final day of Red Bull Battle Grounds Grand Finale/Courtesy of Red Bull

Choi “Bomber” Ji Sung celebrates winning the championship on the final day of Red Bull Battle Grounds Grand Finale/Courtesy of Red Bull

Becoming a professional gamer means an almost unparalleled amount of dedication and single-mindedness for many. For weeks leading up to the Red Bull Battle Grounds Finale — as he does for all competitions — Ji Sung had a simple routine.

“All I do is eat, work out and everything else that I’m awake for it’s all put into practice,” he told For The Win through a translator as an adoring crowd of fans waited patiently for his autograph.

Coming into the finals, Ji Sung was considered a favorite because of how well he’d been playing. He breezed through the opening round of the tournament, winning all of his games. On Sunday, though his games were close he never dropped one which experts said, required deft skills and last-minute moves. For the effort, he received $20,000 and a Red Bull trophy.

At 26, he has earned more than $204,000 in winnings from StarCraft II, making him the 79th-highest overall earner in eSports according to esportsearnings.com.

In November, along with 15 of the other top StarCraft II competitors, he will head to BlizzCon in Anaheim, California for the finals of the World Championship Series. The 16 competitors will battle for a top prize of $100,000 in a single-elimination tournament.

So what put him ahead this time?

“Given the caliber of skill from all of these players, Bomber puts a lot of pressure on himself to win, especially this tournament because his sponsor is Red Bull. He was picked up by them in the last year and he told us at least in his interviews that he thought it was important to show good games for his sponsor,” said Fabrikant. “He’s one of the guys that, while he’s very competitive, he already has all the championship berths on lock for this year … he’s going to be at BlizzCon, he made it to the biggest Korean single tournament that there is and he’s had really good results in the American [World Championship Series].

“So I think the thing that gave him the most motivation was not having that much pressure but people doubting him.”

Ji Sung saw it slightly differently.

“When I woke up from the bed, I immediately had a mindset of I already won the championship,” he said.

Courtesy of Red Bull

Courtesy of Red Bull

Source: Red Bull
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