Amid blue lights hanging from the ceiling, booms from inflatable sticks and cheering fans, you might think you were at a concert, but this particular crowd is watching large screens of people playing video games.
Around 2,200 Hongkongers attended the second Hong Kong E-Sports Tournament Grand Finals, a two-day video game contest at the Kowloon Bay International Trade and Exhibition Centre last weekend. That’s twice as many people as last year, the first time that Hong Kong had a competitive gaming, or e-sports, tournament.
The total prize pool for all four games - League of Legends, Ultra Street Fighter IV, StarCraft II and Heroes of Warcraft: Hearthstone - came to HK$1.5 million.
Last week, e-sports got another big boost from Amazon, when the company paid around US$970 million for Twitch - a site that allows users to watch other people playing video games.
Hong Kong Esports, the company that organised the tournament, already has its own team of pro gamers, but the goal of the event is to show Hongkongers that gaming can be a career, says CEO Derek Cheung.
Hong Kong Esports was only established last February, but they already have investors to keep them going for the next three years or so.
“We persuaded our investors by telling them how big the gaming industry is, and with exposure, we can get money from casual gamers, the real spenders,” Cheung says. “For this market to flourish, we need a certain amount of money so star players can really make it their life.”
The tournament has certainly managed to attract people like 22-year-old Carmen Yeung, who wasn’t playing video games just a few years ago. But she became interested in League of Legends, started watching professionals play online, and handed over HK$50 this weekend to see her first live tournament on site.
“This is the first time I’ve put this much effort into an online game,” Yeung says. “I can’t believe that an event in Hong Kong can attract so many people. When I’m here, I’ll be excited along with everyone else -- when people applaud, I’ll cheer with them. I’ll be excited too when I watch at home but I won’t get as worked up as I am here.”
To get an audience worked up, e-sports tournaments have commentators, also known as casters. For the League of Legends tournament, Hong Kong Esports paid for 25-year-old caster Benjamin Novotny to fly over from Taiwan.
“I can’t play as good as the pro players and I’m too old to do it now,” Novotny says. That’s how he decided to be a caster, and he’s been doing it for about two years.
“When you’re watching a football game, the most exciting part is when a ball is about to hit the goal and whether or not the goalie is going to hit the ball out of the net. In a game of StarCraft II or a game of League of Legends, there are multiple moments in the game when it is exciting,” he says.
To ramp up the excitement for viewers, Novotny will research the teams that are competing so he can tell in advance whenever a player is about to try a major move.
“That’s the more important part for a caster; you have to use your voice to make the game exciting,” he says. “I would watch a video of someone else casting and then I would think to myself, okay, pull that into my head, try to memorize the way they’re putting intonation into their voice, learn what they’re stressing.”
He shows us what he means:
Hong Kong Esports plans to organize more tournaments like this, and some viewers, like 23-year-old Lee Ka-man, are already convinced that gaming can indeed be a career.
Lee points to Hongkonger Kurtis Lau Wai-kin, also known as Toyz, a former League of Legends player whose team won the 2012 World Championship. Lee, who counts herself a casual gamer, says Hong Kong needs to keep promoting e-sports.
“I don’t think that being a pro-gamer means you don’t have a good future. Look at Toyz. He’s a spokesperson for so many brands, definitely a successful man. You can get famous from playing computer games,” Lee says. “I think society has come to accept e-sports as a career in recent years. If I can earn money, I’d be a pro gamer any day.”