Once a niche hobby, esports takes big stage in Vancouver

The Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -- When thousands of fans pack Rogers Arena this weekend, it won't be for a hockey game or rock star.

The crowd will cheer professional video gamers as they battle for the more than $25 million in what's being described as the esports Super Bowl.

This week is the first time the International Dota 2 Championships are held in Canada. Fans and organizers say the tournament's success shows esports has exploded from a niche hobby to a booming industry.

About 15,000 tickets for Saturday's finals sold out almost immediately and at least 10 million others are expected to stream the action live online, said Erik Johnson of Valve, the company that created ''Dota 2'' - a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game - and runs the tournament.

''It'll be a packed house. It'll be loud,'' he said. ''Everyone in the audience plays this game. They all have their favorite teams but they're also cheering for the game and just want to see great play.''

It's the eighth year Valve has put on the tournament and every year, competition gets more difficult and the prize pool grows, Johnson said. The winnings come from in-game purchases and this year's purse - including more than US$11 million for the first place team - is the biggest in esports history, he added.

For gamers, making it to the big stage requires an incredible amount of focus, Johnson said.

''It's their job,'' he said. ''They're not playing games for fun in their basement. They're all super competitive people who have that competitive drive that most high-end athletes have and their outlet for that happens to be our game.''

In ''Dota 2,'' a player controls one of 10 characters, split into two teams of five. A team wins by destroying a large structure in the opposing side's base. There are dozens of unique characters available to play in the game, each bringing its own strengths to the battle.

Last year's victors, Team Liquid, have spent months preparing for the championships, said the team's co-CEO, Victor Goossens. They even formed a partnership with technology giant SAP to develop software that uses analytics to improve their training and in-game performance.

The team's players and coach - who are from Germany, Bulgaria, Finland, Jordan, Lebanon and South Korea - have been on the road for weeks, flying first to the Netherlands for three and a half weeks of intense practice, then to Vancouver 10 days before the competition began.

''You cannot do this if it's not the sole focus and priority of your life. And the degree of dedication that you need to be playing at this level, it's really intense,'' Goossens said.

The Vancouver Canucks' home stadium was transformed for the event, with the arena darkened, except for green and purple lights that gave it an eerie feel. Two large glass structures were erected at center ice, each outfitted with computers and gaming chairs, ready for competitors from 64 different countries to log on.

Four massive screens suspended from the ceiling broadcast every animated move the gamers made. A smaller inset screen flashed close ups of the players' faces, contorted in concentration or excitedly chattering with teammates via headset.

Spectators sat rapt in the stands, gasping and cheering as battles brewed.

The complexity of the game is what intrigues Gwen Rickerby, who watched Wednesday's action live, wearing the helmet of a legion commander, one of the game's characters.

The esports community is similar to fans of traditional sports, Rickerby added.

''It's just like people following their favorite football or hockey (team). It's just the same, you're just watching a different game,'' she said.

In Vancouver, one group is looking to capitalize on the growing popularity by building a esports stadium where players of all levels can train or play for fun.

The Gaming Station wants to have five purpose-built gaming facilities across the country in the next nine years, said CEO Dan Cybak.

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