Spectator gaming

This December’s UK edition of Wired is its second annual ideas issue: 25 ideas and trends to look out for in 2011. I contributed one of these, on the idea of “spectator gaming.” This is a slightly expanded version of my published text.

Seoul’s Olympic Park, 17th January 2010: over 50,000 live spectators and millions more TV viewers are watching one of the sporting spectacles of the year. It’s not football, not baseball, but videogaming: the finals of the Starcraft Ongamenet professional league, an arena in which legendary players like Lee Jae-Dong, alias The Tyrant, earn over a hundred thousand dollars a year.

This kind of fandom can seem an intractably Asian phenomenon. Increasingly, though, it’s looking like a glimpse of the global future. Last year, the World Cyber Games boasted 600 participants from 65 countries, with half a million dollars in prizes. This September, Britain’s first national console gaming league was launched in a burst of glamour at Leicester Square. This November, the UK gets its first TV channel entirely devoted to video-gaming, Ginx.

Farmville alone would rank among the world’s 25 largest countries by population; mainstream games increasingly rival movies for budgets, looks, sounds, performances and sheer action heft. It may largely be playing out on YouTube rather than your television screen but, as games continue their inexorable rise into the heart of popular culture, it’s becoming as natural to be in awe of an elite gamer as it is a premiership footballer. After all, watching experts move electronic armies across a field is inherently no stranger than watching 22 people kick around a ball.

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