People walk past a billboard advertising the latest installment of the "Call of Duty" video game near Times Square in New York on Nov. 6. Games are being taken more seriously as a form of media and of communication — possibly because they seem to have cracked the code for growth at a time when so much of the economy is stagnating. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The crowd roars. The players take the field. And then they boot up their game controllers.

Wait, what?

That’s right, video gaming is a spectator sport. And a big one. Thousands of fans in Europe and Asia flock to see their favorite “esports” professionals fight it out in games such as “Battlefield” or “League of Legends.”

In May, a tournament run by the Electronic Sports League filled Frankfurt’s 35,000-seat Commerzbank-Arena to watch a “Defense of the Ancients 2” tournament — complete with color commentary, star players and a grand prize of more than $200,000.

It may be hard to imagine such a thing happening in the United States. But, in fact, 60 percent of Americans play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group. That’s more than the percentage of Americans who tuned into the last Super Bowl , pay for cable or subscribe to Netflix.

“No one wants to take video games seriously, for some reason,” video game historian Keith Feinstein said with a touch of exasperation. “It’s the culmination of all human endeavor; every art form wrapped up into one. And yet it’s still a constant surprise that it’s so popular.”

But this year — really! — could mark their breakthrough in mainstream entertainment. Gaming inspired three of the biggest deals in business this year: Microsoft’s $2.5 billion deal for the “Minecraft” game studio, Mojang; Amazon’s $1 billion acquisition of the game-streaming social network Twitch; and Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of the virtual reality gaming firm Oculus VR.

This is no longer a niche market.

“There is a sense this year that something has shifted,” said Jeff Rutenbeck, dean of American University’s School of Communication — one of dozens of schools that now offer degrees in game design.

Growing up

Games have been on a slow burn for years. Feinstein noted that a major talking point about their rise — that video game sales pull in more money than the movies — was first made by Time Magazine way back in 1993. And in the past 20 years , the game industry has grown more impressive:

Last year, the movie industry pulled in $10.9 billion at the U.S. box office.

The music industry reported $7 billion in sales.

Game sales tallied more than both, combined, at $21 billion.

So why the sudden interest from other big-name companies? Part of the reason for the boom could be that gamers, as a group, are simply growing up — and growing into an important consumer segment.

“It’s my belief that the entertainment people consume for the rest of their lives is what they found compelling in their late teens,” said Strauss Zelnick, chief executive of Take-Two Interactive, whose “Grand Theft Auto 5” broke six sales records last year, according to Guinness World Records.

Zelnick said the market is poised to become even broader as parents share a passion for gaming with their children. “As a new generation grows, it stands to reason that the entire category will grow,” he said.

“Minecraft” is a perfect example of a game that reaches across generations — which is one reason Microsoft was willing to pay so much for Mojang.

The game lets players build nearly any object, from a wooden bucket to a mansion, out of Lego-like blocks. It’s a sandbox game. There’s no story, except the one that you make up alone or with friends. Some groups create worlds with crime-fighting Marvel characters and others feature Harry Potter.

The openness of that structure inspires dedicated communities of players who feel a certain creative ownership of the game — the type of audience engagement that is worth billions. (Mojang notched $33o million in sales from “Minecraft” in 2013.)

What makes the game tick, Feinstein said, is that it taps into the imagination in a way that kindles something in almost everyone.

“I tell people, ‘If you have anything left inside of you that isn’t dead, you’ll realize this is truly special.’ ”

Hitting critical mass

Enthusiasts, though, aren’t the only ones driving the market. Much of gaming’s recent growth has been spurred by the now-ubiquitous smartphone, which has put a lightweight game console in nearly everyone’s pocket. Thanks in large part to mobile games, more adult women than teenage boys identify as video game players.

(Just let that one sink in for a moment.)

Rutenbeck said talking about games used to be a guaranteed conversation killer. Now? It’s estimated that one in three Americans play mobile games, whose broadening appeal is generating more interest than ever in the gaming world at large.

“I just was on an airplane, and all five people I could see were playing mobile games. Including me!” Rutenbeck said.

The ubiquity of video games helped the industry shake its image as the hobby of loners. Today, even people who don’t play games might read industry news (think: “Gamergate”) — or at least know the big titles, such as “Candy Crush” and “Clash of Clans,” the mobile game so addictive that it reportedly almost derailed the Kansas City Royals’ historic season.

ESPN is even getting into the action. The network’s streaming arm, ESPN3, aired its first esports coverage this year of a tournament at Seattle’s Key Arena.

As exciting as playing the big stadiums is, the audience is even bigger online. Some tournaments have logged up to 23 million concurrent viewers. That’s roughly the same number of people that tuned in to watch the Game 7 of this year’s World Series.

Twitch, which lets professionals and amateurs live-stream games they’re playing through their computers and video game consoles, pioneered this phenomena. By the time Amazon bought it in August, Twitch was the fourth most-trafficked site on the Internet — with subscribers and the advertising base to go with.

Craig Levine, vice president at Entertainment Sports League, said he hopes the enthusiasm for live esports will seep into the U.S. market in the next couple of years.

The leagues hope esports could be the next poker, in that it’s an activity that is surprisingly popular when broadcast. (Some universities even offer scholarships for talented players, as they would for other sports.) And the industry has been heavily supporting the push. Intel, for example, sponsors a major tournament.

Nuturing these communities “reinvigorates the business model,” for game companies that have long relied on releasing blockbusters at the holidays, Levine said. “It’s no longer about selling them a game once every year. It’s about being able to offer value on an ongoing basis.”

Twitch is a major part of it as well, Levine said. Not only does Twitch make it easier for leagues like his to find new viewers, it also brings to light gaming celebrities who may just be broadcasting from their living rooms.

“It’s like the new YouTube. People will find you,” Levine said. “That definitely is a huge part of this. Anyone can become a Twitch star if you’re a top player or just an interesting personality.”

The promise ahead

Games are also being taken more seriously as a form of media and of communication — possibly because they seem to have cracked the code for growth at a time when so much of the economy is stagnating.

Increasingly, gaming companies are looked at as a source of innovation beyond the entertainment sector.

When Facebook bought Oculus VR, a company developing a virtual reality headset, a lot of people scratched their heads. But the social network made it clear that it wasn’t interested in Oculus exclusively for its potential in the gaming world.

“Gaming is just the start,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg told analysts in March. “After games, we’ll make Oculus a platform for other experiences.” It holds promise for telehealth services, he said, or simulating a classroom on the opposite side of the world.

Facebook is far from the only organization looking to games for inspiration. Some uses you might have guessed: the Army, for example, has deployed video games for years in training people for combat or even flight surgery. But other endeavors are more surprising. Rutenbeck is launching a journalism fellowship at American University to figure out how game development can help writers. Feinstein, the historian, is also the creative director at a firm that devises games for museum exhibits.

“Really, anybody who is trying to develop an engagement strategy — a political party, an advocacy group — should look at game design,” Rutenbeck said. “It’s a constant challenge to design and redesign. That’s an important lesson for all kinds of sectors to hear.”

With the holiday season fast approaching, The Washington Post presents the top tech gifts this year, and whether you should get it or skip it. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)