As many as 12,000 video-game fans are crowding into KeyArena this week to watch teams of professional gamers square off in the International Dota 2 tournament.

Share story

It’s just shy of midnight on a Tuesday at the Mecca Cafe in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne, and the kitchen staff is overwhelmed.

The late-night rush to the eateries near KeyArena could have followed a concert or basketball game. In this case, though, the mostly male crew of diners spilling out of booths and lining the counter has wandered two blocks from the arena after a nearly 12-hour marathon of watching video games.

As many as 12,000 people descended on KeyArena this week to watch teams of professional gamers square off in the International Dota 2 tournament. At stake in Saturday’s final round is a $6.5 million prize, part of an $18 million purse, the largest in e-sports history.

E-sports, as competitive video gaming is known, is big business and is now attracting the likes of Amazon and Microsoft. Increasingly, the Seattle area is a focus of the industry.

Tournaments like this week’s will dish out a combined $71 million in prize money this year, industry tracker Newzoo estimates. The firm expects total global e-sports revenue to pass $250 million this year, fueled by sponsorship deals, sales of merchandise and advertising.

E-sports promoters also highlight statistics showing some video-game matches draw more online viewers globally than the television audiences of major U.S. sporting events.

“From a numbers perspective, it’s truly massive,” said Bryce Blum, a 27-year-old Seattle lawyer who left his job at an established firm earlier this year to start his own practice advising e-sports teams and organizations. “The question is, what does it take to get mainstream?”

Popular awareness of e-sports is growing, but still largely limited to communities of gamers.

Most Seattleites know something about the Seahawks or Mariners. But many people would be hard-pressed to name any of the handful of leading e-sports games, much less the teams that participate.

Competitive video gaming has its roots in face-to-face competitions in the 1990s, hosted everywhere from community centers to hotel ballrooms and churches.

Late in the last decade, widespread Internet broadband and Web streaming on a global scale made it possible for players to compete from a distance, and for more viewers to tune in.

“There was this lightning-in-a-bottle moment” with the arrival of live streaming, said Marcus Graham, a former professional gamer and commentator who works for streaming service Twitch.

Hard evidence of a growing audience drew the attention of advertisers and sponsors, eventually including the likes of Coca-Cola.

“Before that, e-sports was footing that bill on its own,” Graham said.

In e-sports, analysts and industry insiders say, advertisers found a way to target an elusive audience: young, typically employed men who spend lots of cash on consumer goods but have unplugged from broadcast television and other popular media.

Last year, spent $970 million, the company’s largest-ever acquisition, to buy Twitch. And this week, Microsoft, historically a minor player in e-sports, put up $1 million in prize money in a bid to boost interest in its Halo franchise.

The Twitch deal raised the e-sports profile of the region, which has deep roots in video games as the home to Nintendo’s U.S. headquarters and Microsoft’s gaming arms.

Seattle has plenty of competition as a locus of e-sports. League of Legends and Call of Duty, two other popular e-sports titles, tend to hold their main events in the Los Angeles area, home to the developers behind those games. And many participants and sponsors in the industry are scattered from Eastern Europe to China.

It was a pair of former Microsoft employees who founded Valve, the Bellevue studio behind Dota and another e-sports favorite, Counter-Strike.

Dota, short for “Defense of the Ancients,” is a fantasy-themed multiplayer game in which teams of five players pilot hero characters battling for control of a map.

To promote the coming release of Dota 2 in 2011, Valve sponsored a tournament that coincided with a major gaming-industry trade show in Germany. In 2012, they moved the tournament to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.

The event outgrew that space two years later, settling at KeyArena in a configuration that put the teams in soundproof boxes, with giant screens above and live commentary broadcasting the action to the audience.

Outside the arena this week, Valve and a slate of hardware makers sold gamer-focused devices and apparel. The matches going on inside were beamed to a pair of large outdoor-video screens for players camping out by food trucks or the merchandise stands.

And in a reminder of the sometimes low-profile nature of the events, a woman passing by explained aloud to her companion, inaccurately, that the event was a place for people to buy computer games (Dota is free to play).

Katie Karpenko, a 23-year-old recent college graduate from Sacramento, Calif., who made the trip to Seattle for this week’s tournament, is used to that kind of misunderstanding. When she told friends she was traveling to attend a video-game tournament, the question was always the same: “Are you playing in it?”

Karpenko does play Dota — but says she isn’t nearly good enough to compete with the teams squaring off in Seattle.

E-sports boosters expect awareness to keep growing as the generation that’s always been around video games comes of age.

“I grew up in a generation where it was not uncommon for me to play sports with my friends, and play video games with my friends,” said Blum, the Seattle lawyer. “My kids will grow up in a world where that’s even more prevalent.”

Some professional video-game players have celebrity status in Asia, particularly in South Korea, an early leader in professional video-game squads.

But the U.S. is still waiting for the breakthrough player who helps legitimize the sport in the public consciousness, said Michael Pachter, a video-game and digital-media analyst with Wedbush Securities.

“Much like chess is a sport, and poker is a sport that we watch on television, they have to socialize the public to accept that it’s really a story,” he said.