Cyber Athletes

The industry is blowing up: with millions of fans and even more money, the professional gaming world has crossed the line into legitimacy. The term "professional gamer" can still conjure images of deluded, Doritos loving geeks who rarely leave their parents' basement -- especially for the older generations -- but the reality of it all couldn't be more different. These players are just as dedicated as traditional professional athletes and even score similarly on psychological tests for mood, reaction time and concentration. BBC aired a special entitled The Rise of the Cyber Athlete where they determined that the skill set required of a traditional sportsman and that of a professional gamer are one and the same, involving decision making, communication, verbal strategizing and dedication, as well as things like muscle memory and technical aptitude. The hotly contested debate here is whether or not pro-gamers can be considered true professional athletes.

Beginning with arcades, gaming as a spectator sport then went to the internet where online network communities were set up. The dawn of broadband and incredibly fast streaming took the idea to a whole new level and now it has all snowballed into massive stadium worthy events. It was estimated that in 2013 over 71 million people watched competitive gaming.One professional gamer compares the live matches to feeling like a rockstar -- complete with fans pounding on the windows of the tour bus. Asia is where esports (aka electronic sports a term for organized video game competitions) is thriving the most; popular pro-gamers are teen idols in South Korea where they began being licensed as early as 2000 and often Taiwanese stadiums will have tens of thousands of fans spilling out after capacity is reached. Support is growing in the US and UK with significant help from the video streaming platform Twitch, which allows gamers to live stream their capabilities and even monetize their streams. Which leads to another somewhat surprising aspect of the pro-gamer world: the money. No longer are these kids playing for chump change -- there are rumored million dollar payouts but a more reasonable estimate of the higher end of the salary spectrum would be around $200,000. Plus endorsements. Plus Twitch cash flow. So for all the parents out there terrified that their child aims toward professional gaming, they can find relief in the fact that there actually is money out there. 

Professional teams exist all around the world and new additions are scouted both through tournament play and rookie online gaming. And this isn't a shoddy operation -- teams are known to have Gaming Houses, where the players live and train, as well as nutritionists and sports psychologists. Training takes up anywhere from 10-16 hours per day, seven days per week. Just like with traditional sports, pro-gaming requires a mix of innate talent and extreme dedication. That natural ability must exist to a certain extent and then the player must decide what to do with it. If they aren't dedicating their lives to perfecting the skill, they won't make it very far. That drive and motivation is paramount. Just as it is for real athletes. 

The traditional world of sports seems to be outright ignoring the staggeringly fast rise of competitive gaming popularity. The numbers are undeniable; 10,000 people showed up in the flesh for the E Sports League finals and over one million people streamed it live. In fact, 43% of all online streaming happens on Twitch. The audience for pro-gaming not only exists, but it is redefining how sports are watched by not relying on television. But can we refer to them as sports? Many argue that video games will never classify as true sports; ESPN president John Skipper once described esports as "not a sport - [they're] a competition." However, if chess is considered a sport, isn't it strange that video games are not? 

Packed arena in Asia for tournament finals

Talent, dedication, teamwork and agility are required to excel in both traditional sports as well as video games and it seems that this is one of those "be on the right side of history" debates. Gaming is important; not only is it revolutionizing sports as we know it, but also as technology continues to advance and we integrate more gadgets into everyday life functions, virtual capability is only going to become more valuable. The future is now and video games are definitely sports.

For more listen to the broadcast on 5 Live Sport at BBC.