It’s a sunny, brisk fall day in New York City. Fans from all over the world are packed into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, ready to watch their favorite players in action. The lights blaze on the main stage and music blasts through the stadium, while the crowd roars in the background. At stake is a massive trophy and a quarter-million dollars. It could be the scene of any WrestleMania event or the Super Bowl.
But this isn’t a typical sporting event. It isn’t even “sports” in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a rapidly growing industry estimated to be worth about a billion dollars, and it shows no sign of slowing down: this is electronic sports, or eSports.
In this world, professional players are often teenagers or young adults who have transformed their love for video games into lucrative careers. Their skills are so revered amongst fans that they have what one could almost call a cult following, to the point where fans affectionately refer to favorite players by their digital username or handle. ABC News spoke with members of Team Liquid, one of the biggest and most popular teams in the U.S., who count Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson as some of their investors. Team Liquid was one of the teams that competed in the ESL One Tournament at the Barclays Center this past October and helped introduce us to their animated world.
"When people imagine gamers, they expect us to be in the basement and just somewhere really simple," said Wilton “Zews” Prado, Team Liquid’s coach. "And when we play in these arenas it’s something kinda just -- out of this world. We get to play in front of 20, 25 thousand people depending on the arena. Over millions live, watching at the same time."
For this particular tournament, the teams played a game called “Counter-Strike,” a first-person shooting game where two teams of five either try to eliminate each other or plant a “bomb” in a designated area -- like a “Capture The Flag” in cyberspace. Eight teams competed in preliminary rounds not open to the public over three days, until it was down to the final four that participated in the finals at the Barclays Center.
For Team Liquid, passing the preliminary rounds was no problem.
"We are one of the top teams in the world," said Jonathan “Elige” Jablonowski, who was a 17-year-old living in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when he first started his pro-career four years ago. He now jets all over the world and the U.S. with the rest of the team, often playing in front of sold-out audiences.
"I'm from a really small town and just getting out of the state was a big deal for anyone back then. So for me to be going to multiple countries, multiple weeks throughout the year... I mean half the year I'm not even at home maybe like four months or five months," Elige explained. "I'm traveling throughout the year so it really is an awesome opportunity and I love it."
For many of the players, becoming a professional gamer has been an unexpected, whirlwind ride.
"As a kid I really liked playing videogames," Nick ‘Nitro’ Cannella, the captain of Team Liquid said. "My mom was mad at me and my dad had to work at 5:30 in the morning and I would be up waking him up and screaming… yeah, I was always addicted to games."
Cannella’s mom eventually did come around to his hobby-turned-career, despite his dropping out of college at Louisiana State University to pursue eSports professionally.
"I ended up playing Counter-Strike professionally by 2013. I was in college at LSU, I had to play with a professional team, I had to drop out," Nitro said. "I figured that university would be there by the time I got back and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I took it and never looked back."
For Team Liquid, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity means that its players are catered to in every way so that they stay in prime shape. There is an army of personnel assigned to keep the players in good mental and physical health, from sports psychologists to physical therapists. The co-owner of Team Liquid, Steve Arhancet, also built his team a brand new 9,000-square-foot facility in Los Angeles complete with a personal chef, so that they could train with the best equipment.
“If you were to ask Serena Williams, ‘What kind of racket are you going to end up using?’ she’s going to be very particular about the type of racket, right?” Arhancet said. “For our gamers, they want to be enabled to have the very best.”
To those unfamiliar, it may appear that video games involve very little skill or strategy. However, seamless teamwork is often essential for victory, and team members will spend hours training together and perfecting their role on the team. To accommodate the amount of time that is required for the players to spend together, some eSports teams such as Philadelphia Fusion offer mansions for them to live in.
“Every one of these guys dreams of playing -- they love video games. And it’s only a dream to get to do it for a career professionally,” said Roston “Thelonious” Yoo, a member of Philadelphia Fusion. “With this league and this organization, we really do try to make that dream lifestyle of achieving the top level of the game and being treated like the star that they are.”
Members of Team Liquid attribute success in gaming to transforming not only their lives, but also the lives of their families.
“I don’t have a car, because I don’t like to drive,” said Epitacio “Taco” de Melo. “But I gave a car to my sister, and it was from eSports. Like, eSports gave me that, and I’m so thankful.”
The business of gaming has grown so large that mainstream institutions have begun to take notice. Colleges across the nation have started building e-Sport arenas and implementing e-Sports into their program.
“ESports seems to fit in with the rest of our traditional athletics seamless,” said Randy Sieminski, the athletic director at the State University of New York, Canton. “There’s more similarities than differences. It’s getting students together. It’s having a coach, it’s developing roles, and having teamwork and sportsmanship.”
And as the industry continues to boom, Sieminski says that he sees further expansion opportunities into this field as well, including creating new majors.
“We have submitted a proposal for an eSports management major here at SUNY Canton,” Sieminski said. “We want to continue to grow that in conjunction in many ways with our academic majors and what we offer here.”
The benefits of implementing an eSports program at SUNY has already paid off, with some students citing it as a major reason they chose to attend the school.
Emily Oeser, a rare female gamer who is the captain of SUNY Canton’s “Overwatch” team, said she went from wanting to be a music major at a different school to choosing SUNY because of it offered eSports in its curriculum.
"When I arrived my freshman year when we announced e-Sports I was so I was so happy," Oeser told ABC News. "I can finally become what I wanted to be as a kid -- just play video games all day. I can just do that, I can become an athlete and then my dreams will come true."
But the life of a gamer is not all fun and games. Members of Team Liquid admitted to some downsides of their unexpected careers, citing nonstop traveling and fatigue as drawbacks to their jet-setting lifestyle.
"I still don’t like traveling that much," admitted team captain Nitro, who is married and has dogs at home. "It’s definitely hard to keep up with all the jetlag and stuff like that."
Still, for their enthusiastic fans, they put on their game face.
Back at the Barclays Center, Team Liquid pulls through to the finals to compete against a team called “mousesports,” based in Berlin. Cries of “USA” fill the stadium as fans rally behind Team Liquid, the clear favorite. And in a close game, Team Liquid and mousesports go head to head, each fighting for the lead.
But in the end, it’s not enough. Team Liquid finishes second, devastating its players. And despite their youth and obvious disappointment, they remain consummate professionals throughout, signing countless jerseys, posters and banners for the fans who have lined up for them in spite of their loss.
And fans who support Team Liquid are rewarded in a few months when they bounce back to win the IBP Masters Championship. Their victory -- hard fought and won, just like any other sport.
"The whole team was feeling amazing... We finally did it. Not that we didn’t think it was possible before, but just actually accomplishing it really makes a difference,” Team Liquid said.