Even Man United want a shot at esports
EARLIER this month, Valencia CF signed four new players - but none of them is a professional footballer.
Instead, they strategise in the online card game Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft.
The Spanish club are tackling a new kind of league: Gamergy, Spain's biggest online gaming event, which opens today.
It is not the first major football club to venture into professional competitive video gaming, or esports - a growing industry where the definition of "live sports" is being rewritten.
Here, victory does not depend on physical ability but a player's nimble fingers and mental acuity.
Skilled gamers can be in demand, just like top athletes, though they are better known by their in-game handles, like Faker or WildTurtle.
Star players can earn salaries and prize money of up to US$12 million (S$16 million), said The Guardian newspaper.
Last month, Bundesliga side FC Schalke 04 signed an
esports team for League Of Legends, a football game with over 67 million players a month.
Also, rumours surfaced two weeks ago that Manchester United could be next, by signing players for Overwatch, a first-person shooter game.
Tech sites and blogs reported that the football giants are apparently in a bidding war with professional esports firm Fnatic - dubbed the Manchester United in the esports world.
MORE PEOPLE WATCH GAMING
The surge in esports' popularity is backed by an uptick in gaming spectators who flock to watch live video-game "matches", much like going to the stadium for a sporting clash.
Some of these gaming events are held in sleek studios with live audiences, and gamers lined up on stage.
Many games are streamed live on sites like Twitch and YouTube Gaming, where the appetite for play video and commentary is at insatiable levels, industry insiders say.
"There are hundreds of millions of users watching gaming content every month," YouTube global head of gaming content Ryan Wyatt told Agence France-Presse (AFP) last week.
He admitted that he is surprised "that it is this big now".
On YouTube Gaming, for instance, billions of hours of gaming content are being watched monthly, he noted.
More are also tuning in to Amazon's Twitch.tv which lets people broadcast game-related content as live streams.
"Overall, viewership is skyrocketing," a Twitch spokesman told AFP last week.
The trend has catalysed the rise of the "celebrity player" such as Swedish gamer Felix Kjellberg, alias PewDiePie.
His YouTube channel, on which he posts videos of himself playing video games, has 45.5 million subscribers.
In comparison, Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo has 43.3 million followers on Twitter.
"They (the gamers) are superstars in their own right," Mr Wyatt was quoted as saying.
BATTLE FOR FANS' ATTENTION
The rivalry among esports broadcasters is also hotting up.
Social network Facebook this month allowed people to use their accounts to log into Blizzard Entertainment games, such as World Of Warcraft.
The move paves the way for fans to use Facebook's live video service to broadcast play in real time, reported AFP.
Britain is set to get its first 24-hour esports TV channel, reported Guardian last week.
Ginx eSports TV will air as part of the sports section of Sky TV's electronic programme guide to some 37 million households, making it the biggest
esports TV channel worldwide.
It will broadcast ELeague, which debuted on May 24 and has live coverage of the hugely popular video-game series Counter-Strike.
Other fringe players include Yahoo Esports, which launched online three months ago, and ESPN which has started covering esports news.
Despite the rise of computer games as a spectator sport, it remains unclear whether traditional sports teams can find the net in the virtual world, or score an own goal.
Valencia's marketing director, Peter Draper, told the club's website: "This is a very interesting project and a challenge for Valencia CF to enter a sports sector with such a marked growth."
He may be glad to know that Schalke, who lost to Fnatic last Thursday, have won their latest match against ROCCAT in their newly adopted league.