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Switzerland

Is This Sport? Video Game 'Athletes' Train For Victory As E-Sports Booms

Video game competitions can attract millions of spectators online. A Swiss "cyber athlete" shares his story as the booming industry sets its sights on real-world credibility.

Mathieu "Maniac" Quiquerez at  ESL One Cologne 2014
Mathieu "Maniac" Quiquerez at ESL One Cologne 2014
Dejan Nikolic

GENEVA — They call themselves Flash, Moon, Admiral Bulldog or even Ferrari_430, and they can bring in annual earnings of more than $500,000. The young professionals of electronic sports (or e-Sports), who stay online for more than 10 hours a day, can be compared with famous athletes, as millions of people watch their exploits.

Mathieu "Maniac" Quiquerez is one of Switzerland's best e-Sports athletes. He ranks in the top 5 for the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), which calls for multi-player strategy and team coordination, and includes killing your adversary and adapting to changes of virtual background.

"This is a first-person shooter FPS," Quiquerez explains. "A set of 5 vs. 5 might take about 45 to 60 minutes." Knife, machine gun, automatic weapon and hand grenade: "Maniac" never skimps on resources in order to win.

This 24-year-old from northwest Switzerland is actually a member of the French team, which is one of the best in the world. Quiquerez just returned from an intensive training camp in Paris and winning first place in a youth tournament in southern France.

E-Sports has seen a major boom over the past two years, as the number of tournaments and prize money have multiplied, while game rules are becoming more and more rigorous. The latest major competition of CS:GOdrew crowds of more than 20,000, and was broadcast live. The next tournament in Cologne, Germany includes a prize of $250,000 for the winning team.

"I still couldn't live on my passion for e-Sports," says Quiquerez, who took in about $13,000 last year and has a degree in the psychology of labor and organizations. "Also, the social status of the cyber athlete is not always clear."

After beginning his "training" at the age of 10, he became a professional in 2011.

Big ambitions

This burgeoning online entertainment industry can only get bigger. That's what the business information and analytics software company iHS believes, projecting that the e-Sports sector could reach $300 million in ad revenue alone by 2018. Revenue for another popular game, Dota 2, just reached $10 million, for example.

"There is no precise figure on the international revenue, since it's a new industry," says Heinrich Zetlmayr, director of Turtle Entertainment, the major actor for e-Sports. "We are the FIFA in the e-Sports world."

His company, founded in Cologne, Germany, is the owner of the Electronic Sports League (ESL), which gathers most of the top cyber athletes in the world. Among ESL's key events are l’Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), the biggest worldwide competition.

The fastest growing market for e-Sports is China, followed by the U.S. and South Korea. "We have transformed from niche market to mass market," says Zetlmayer, whose organization doesn't have any direct competitors.

The business model of this emerging industry is based on the traditional sports industry: sponsorships, advertisements, merchandising (selling games), broadcast and ticket sales. They've already attracted top-shelf advertisers such as Intel, IBM, Red Bull and Microsoft.

Live coverage of electronic competitions attracts millions of viewers, which may also help explain why Amazon last month bought Twitch, an industry leader in video game broadcasting. Meanwhile, video platform Dailymotion reports that e-Sports coverage has already supplanted current events as the most-watched videos.

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