On a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in Silver Spring, the dark cavernous Fillmore theater is roaring with life. A sold-out crowd from around the nation is screaming for the elite e-athletes and thumping inflated cheer sticks in a collective thunder.
In the balconies, "games casters" in dark suits and bright ties are breathlessly narrating and analyzing the plays to tens of thousands more fans who are watching via a live video stream.
On the stage, the players are stone faced and appear unfazed by the commotion around them. They are sitting on ergonomic swivel chairs in front of computer screens and tapping away at keyboards and mouses as they try to kill rival factions on the military sci-fi strategy game StarCraft.
The gaming industry has exploded in recent years, with streaming sites such as Twitch and YouTube creating celebrities out of the best players and even launching careers for people who are expert at talking about the games. The total gaming market is expected to grow to $74.2 billion this year, according to SuperData Research.
One slice of that market, e-sport multiplayer video gaming competitions, are expected to bring in $612 million this year for games such as DotA 2 and League of Legends. They borrow heavily from the slick productions of professional football and basketball and offer big rewards for the winner. Two years ago, the State Department recognized the genre as a sport and began to offer athletic visas to competitors.
The Web has transformed the solitary hobby of gaming, expanding play beyond living rooms and connecting millions of people each day to play together or just watch. And in e-sports such as the Red Bull Battle Grounds championship in Silver Spring, real-life competitions bring together the virtual world with the real as fans fill arenas and concert halls to cheer on the world's most elite gamers.
"These are like the Olympian athletes of players," said Kyle Storey, 28, who traveled from Dover, N.H., with his best friend and fellow gaming enthusiast, Edward Juarez. They came to see if defending champion Choi Ji Sung, known as "Bomber," could recapture the title before he heads off to military duty in South Korea, one of the many dramatic personal story lines that built momentum for the finals. "The culture and atmosphere is awesome, and the story lines of the players follow the same kind of story lines of traditional sports."
At the Red Bull Battle Grounds Grand Final competition in Silver Spring, a handful of teams are competing for the championship purse of $30,000, and the finals have added suspense. The players will try out a beta version of the game that turns the one-on-one player game into a dual of partners.
The first match carries high drama. Defending champion "Bomber" and his partner Mun Seong Wong, or "MMA," will go up against veterans Chris "Huk" Loranger and "M.C.," whose real name is Jang Min Chul. M.C. came out of retirement for the tournament and is testing to see if he's lost his skills.
The players enter the stage to howls from the audience and raised fan posters pumping in the air. Stage lights sway wildly on the crowd, and a slow clap rises from the audience from the thumps of cheer sticks.
The crowd is mostly males of all ages. Reston resident Sounil Yu, 44, brought his two teenage sons, who play StarCraft with their father. They say StarCraft is one of the most challenging strategy games. Players have to be aware of a multitude of factors -- such as three different races that can be played at once and various tasks, such as mining minerals and building worker bases -- while trying to kill off enemies and defend bases. They weren't fast enough to buy tickets to last year's sold-out tournament and are attending their first e-sports event.
"StarCraft requires tremendous strategy. It's like chess but much faster and much more interesting to watch," Yu said.
The players are beginning their warm-up routine. Bomber, in a red-and-white letterman's jacket and baseball cap, adjusts the height of his chair. MMA fiddles with the distance of his keyboard to his mouse and lifts the monitor to match his line of sight. Huk replaces his rolling swivel chair with a stationary folding chair and puts a neck pillow down for extra cushion. M.C. rolls his head to stretch his neck and shrugs his shoulders up and down to get loose.
Like professional athletes, some are religious about their pre-game rituals. For breakfast, Huk and M.C. fueled up at Chic Fil-A, preparing for a full eight hours of matches.
"Meat makes victory," M.C. said in an interview.
The competitions that make careers out of childhood obsessions pay enough for a comfortable life. M.C., who lives in Seoul, made around $100,000 a year from global e-sports competitions and sponsorships. Huk brings in about $180,000 from competitions and sponsors, such as Monster beverages and HyperX.
Huk plans to eventually transition into "gamecasting," like other famous gamers who have found second careers with popular YouTube channels where they interact with fans and analyze other players.
"It's the same as when a football player retires and then they start showing up with suits and analyze the game on TV," said Huk, a Canadian who got his start in South Korea, the global center of e-sports.
That's the lucrative transition made by John Bain, known as TotalBiscuit, a former gamer who now has more than 2 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. He won't say how much he earns from YouTube ads and sponsorships but counts Sony, Sandisk and StarCraft creator Blizzard as advertisers. He gets paid for gamecasting and says an e-sports team he owns in South Korea wins around $50,000 a year in competitions alone.
At the RedBull tournament, the fast-talking native of the U.K. is one of four gamescasters paid for his commentary. It's a medium-sized tournament compared with the International DotA 2 games, which drew 12,000 fans to the Key Arena in Seattle in August to see competitors take home a total of $18 million in winnings. The RedBull tournament will hand out a total $30,000 purse.
"It's not that gamers are antisocial, but they hadn't traditionally shared their interests with those around them locally," Bain said. "Now, the Internet has taken games out of the basement and allowed enthusiasts to connect."
Jessica Yuen came from New Jersey with her former Rutger's University StarCraft club. She graduated three years ago but still counts the club members as her closest friends along with many StarCraft enthusiasts she's met online. Yuen has followed Huk since college and is rooting for the 26-year-old Canadian gamer. Over the years, her interest in Huk and other players has gone beyond their skills.
"He's just a nice guy. He cares about his fans," Yuen said.
After seven hours of matches, Huk and M.C. win.