As a theatrical venue it has seen almost 300 years of intrigue, conflict and drama, but it’s unlikely the patrons of the Royal Opera House will have witnessed anything quite like this.
The imposing building, which has recently hosted thrilling productions of Der Fliegende Holländer and Il Barbiere di Siviglia has been chosen as the venue for the 2015 European Call of Duty championships.
Replacing renowned operatic singers and sumptuous sets will be teams from all over the continent playing a multimillion-selling military shooter. Their aim will not be the adulation of an adoring crowd, though that will come, but to qualify for the world finals in Los Angeles on 27 March.
Taking place over two days from 28 February, the event will host 28 teams from the UK, France, Italy, Germany and the rest of Europe, as well as competitors from the Middle East. The prize fund is $10,000 (£6,500) but, for the qualifiers, the reward is a shot at the 2015 Call of Duty title, where $1m is shared between the three top-placing squads.
“We try to find iconic venues that are fun and different,” said Neville Upton, co-founder of Gfinity, the UK-based eSports events organiser running the tournament for Call of Duty publisher Activision. “Last year we used Twickenham, which was a fantastic venue too. We’re trying to make a statement about eSports – one of our challenges is to make people realise how big it is. We need to use iconic venues, and the Royal Opera House is certainly that.”
Professional gaming is on the rise as a spectator sport. Last year over 70 million people regularly watched eSports tournaments, mostly via live online streaming channels such as Twitch TV, which now boasts over 55 million viewers a month. The most popular titles are strategy sims like Starcraft II, and team-based “moba” (multiplayer online battle arena) game such as League of Legends and Dota 2, but shooters such as Call of Duty and Counter Strike: Global Offensive have huge followings too.
In South Korea, where eSports has been a major spectator phenomenon for over a decade, the biggest tournaments create the same buzz as major football finals or pop concerts. The 2013 League of Legends world championships were held in Seoul’s World Cup Stadium and attracted a crowd of 40,000. Pro-gaming is now gaining global traction as a spectator sport: tickets for last year’s International Dota 2 tournament at Seattle’s Key Arena sold out in an hour.
“Pro-gaming is not as big as the most popular sports, but it’s getting there,” said Upton. “However, in terms of how long fans actually spend watching, eSports fans are probably the most dedicated. The 70 million people who viewed eSports regularly last year were watching 19 times a month. What this demographic isn’t doing is watching TV, they’re watching or playing games instead. We held an amateur tournament before Christmas and got over 600,000 people watching online.”
London may soon be getting its own dedicated eSports venue. According to Upton, Gfinity is working with a partner to build a 500-seat space and has selected a location, which will be announced later in February.
“We’re going to have an event every weekend, it’s a regular venue,” said Upton. “Within five years I can imagine dedicated eSports stadiums in ever major city around the world.”
For now, however, eSports will need to slum it alongside productions of Swan Lake and the Magic Flute.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 11th February 2015 11.35 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010