In the last few years, gaming as a spectator sport has become something of a phenomenon, from YouTubers earning lucrative sponsorship deals broadcasting their gaming exploits to the explosion in professional tournaments and leagues collectively known as esports.

For the uninitiated, esports takes gaming to another level, pitting teams of highly trained teams against each other. As the stakes have grown ever higher, the money men have spotted the market’s potential and are rapidly moving into the arena, tempting talent with pots of gold for their efforts.

The original pioneer of ‘sexy football’, Ruud Gullit, set up a FIFA esports academy to train players, while UEFA launched their inaugural eChampions League this season with May’s Final worth $100,000 to the winner. With Sky Sports getting in on the act, recently devoting an entire evening to the ePremier League, it’s perhaps unsurprising that esport as an industry is projected to be worth in excess of £1.4 billion by 2020.

Against this backdrop I approach the Bowlers Exhibition Centre (BEC) in Manchester for the ESL Premiership Spring Season Finals with four top teams specialising in first person shooter, Rainbow Six. This is something of a first for the ESL (formerly the Electronic Sports League) with all previous events being held from the organisation’s home base of Leicester or as part of a larger third party event such as ComicCon. It’s also something of a coup for Manchester to be the chosen host of a record ESL crowd.

Copyright: ESL. Credit: Katy EyreI enter an arena bathed in red, the stage of combat lit dramatically by whirling spotlights intermittently settling on the ultimate prize, a snazzy looking trophy which wouldn’t look out of place held aloft at Wembley. In another nod to more traditional spectator sports, replica team jerseys are on sale and proudly worn by several spectators filtering into the venue.

Chatting with fans as they take their seats, I discover that many support a specific team and are willing to travel to watch them. One supporter had driven up from Derby for the day and was off to Milan in May to watch one of the big European tournaments. He was quick to highlight the synergy between fan and player and the sense of community this fosters, a bond sports such as football have irrevocably lost sight of in recent years. In part, this stems from the fact that supporter and pro are playing the same game and specialising in the same operators (in-game avatars with specific stats and skills). In saying this, there is still the prerequisite hero worship which forms the cornerstone of any sport with star names in attendance accosted by swathes of gamers posing for photo ops.

Copyright: ESL. Credit: Joe BradyAnd then the show begins, a dramatic countdown, pulsing light show and swelling classical music acting as the precursor to a full in-studio pre-match show on the big screen, which wouldn’t look out of place on ESPN. The commentary appears to favour team Vexed, so I decide to support the underdogs, MNM, much to the chagrin of my helpful guide from Derby.

Maps are chosen and battle commences, coaches pacing behind their teams, coordinating and orchestrating the opposition’s downfall. Gaming is exceptionally strategic with each player having a role and skillset to complement their teammates, as they either attack a building to defuse a bomb or defend their position and see out time. It’s certainly a far cry from my days playing Call of Duty which generally lasted ten seconds before I took a grenade in the face.

These two professional outfits are extremely well matched, trading wins to loud cheers and attempting to prey on each other’s weaknesses. This is a truly tight contest, punctuated by individual feats of ‘clutch’ gaming which tap into a sense of both jeopardy and drama.

Copyright: ESL. Credit: Katy EyreA quite frankly superb groin shot, replayed in slow motion on the big screen, raises ‘ooohs’ from the crowd and takes the score to 5-3 in favour of MNM who eventually win a pulsating contest.

In just a few short and absorbing hours I have gone from complete novice to a proud supporter revelling in a glorious victory.

So, congratulations all round to MSM for a memorable win, the ESL and Bowlers Exhibition Centre for hosting a fantastic spectacle, and – at a time when professional sports are beset by cynicism and disconnection – the gaming community who seem hell bent on turning esports into a form of competition that any gamer can aspire to.

By Chris Holmes, Gaming Editor 

Main image – Copyright: ESL. Credit: Joe Brady