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OAKLAND — While the Warriors were staging an amazing comeback in Philadelphia, their home court had been taken over by guys with names like Dev1ce, Hobbit and Skadoodle, all of them intent on blowing one another’s brains out.

I spent my Saturday watching video games. Specifically, I watched young men compete in two games, Counter Strike: Global Offensive (known as CS:GO) and PlayerUnknown’s Battleground (PUBG), at IEM Oakland 2017. Intel Extreme Masters is billed as “the world’s oldest and most prestigious pro gaming tour.” It plays major arenas throughout the world.

If this sounds like a bizarre way to spend a weekend — if you think a sporting event is primarily a way to get away from kids playing video games — you should know that esports (that’s “sports” preceded by the electronic “e”) are exploding as a live entertainment product.

According to projections by Newzoo, which charts the industry, competitive video gaming will enjoy an economy of about $700 million in 2017, a figure it believes will grow to $1.5 billion in 2020. More than 40 American universities now have varsity esports teams, including Division I schools like Boise State, Utah and UC Irvine.

IEM Oakland attracted about 6,500 spectators on each of its two days in 2016, with approximately 6.4 million hours consumed by online viewers via platforms like Twitch, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. ESL, the company that runs the tournament (and the largest esports purveyor in the world), is expecting similar attendance this year. Ticket prices range from $19 for one-day general seating to $899 For two-day Global Elite packages that included backstage tours and comfy leather-couch seating on the floor.

Growth industry? Ask Michal Blicharz, ESL’s vice president of pro gaming.

Blicharz competed in video tournaments when he was a teenager in Poland. As he described it, that basically meant 20 people toggling in an Internet café, and maybe 10 more watching over their shoulders. Blicharz, now 37, went to work for ESL in 2009. But their first arena-based event didn’t happen until January of 2013.

Blicharz remembers it well. It was in Katowice, Poland, in a large venue used for major sporting events and concerts. Blicharz was terrified that no one would come, that sponsors would be livid when they saw all the empty seats. An hour before the event, he walked on stage to find that every seat was full, with overflow in the aisles. “You should go outside,” a coworker told Blicharz. Outside the arena, a line of 2,000 people braved a freezing day in the middle of a Polish winter.

“If you told me in 2002 that we’d have 10,000 butts in seats, I would tell you you’re on drugs,” Blicharz said.

Traditional sports have noticed. Several NBA team owners also own teams in the North American League of Legends Championship Series. Warriors co-owner Peter Guber joined them in September, as part of a group that bought Team Liquid for $13 million.

Pro gaming has expanded so quickly that its regulation has not kept pace. That’s a challenge for the World Esports Association, which functions as sort of an umbrella organization for the various tours and competitions. Ken Hershman, WESA’s commissioner and executive chairman, told me the group is trying to standardize scheduling and firm up rules governing things like multi-team ownership, dispute resolution and anti-cheating efforts.

The prize money this weekend was $300,000 for CS:GO and $200,000 for PUBG, which is not unusual. Top gamers can easily make six figures a year. According to the site esportearnings.com, a 25-year-old German named Kuro Takhasomi — his screen name is KuroKy — has earned almost $3.4 million playing the game Dota 2, including close to $2.5 million this year. These guys are treated as celebrities by pale teens everywhere.

“In Sweden, I get recognized every day,” said Christopher Alesund, a 27-year-old from Stockholm who plays for Ninjas in Pyjamas under the pseudonym GeT_RiGhT. “If I go to 7-11, or go to cinema or anything like that, it doesn’t really matter where I am. … Even if I go out with my friends to share a couple of beers, celebrating, there’s always people coming up saying, ‘It’s you, Get Right.’ ”

Saturday, the court at Oracle had a divider down the middle to separate the CS:GO and PUBG sections. PUBG, introduced in March, has become one of the world’s most popular games at an incendiary rate. The game involves both murder and gathering of important tools, all on a map that shrinks during the game; by the end, only one player survives.

CG:GO is a more traditional shooter game. Teams of five men or boys — they were all male, as was probably 90 percent of the audience — communicate via radio headsets, taking turns being terrorists or counterterrorists as they try to neutralize one another while navigating dangerous warehouses and courtyards. The crowd follows their maneuvers on huge screens, cheering or groaning depending on allegiance.

Beneath the Warriors’ championship banners and the retired jerseys of Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry, two teams would play CG:GO, sitting at long counters to face the crowd, their expressions as impassive as Comcast chat support staff as they casually threw Molotov cocktails and splattered metal stairwells with digital blood.

Counter Strike teams are largely nation-based. As I watched the Brazilian squad SK Gaming face off against the Swedish team Ninjas in Pyjamas, several fans on the floor draped themselves in the Brazilian flag; one held aloft a balloon-animal version of the flag.

In a lot of ways, gaming is the antithesis of sports. What could be further from an athletic event than sitting on your butt and busily clicking a mouse?

And yet the International Olympic Committee, obsessed like everyone else with attracting a younger audience, discussed adding esports as an Olympic event at its most recent summit, in October. Gaming has already been accepted as a participation event at the 2018 Asian Games, and a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games, and the IOC is involved in staging an esports tournament in the days leading up to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The Paris 2024 bid team expressed strong interest in the introduction of esports.

When I asked Hershman, who spent 23 years at Showtime and HBO before joining WESA, how important such acceptance would be, he played it down. “It would be nice, but I certainly don’t think it’s essential,” he said. “I mean, it’s more important for the IOC to figure out how they want to interact with where the culture’s going than it is for esports to try and figure out how to get itself recognized as an Olympic sport.”

And how about the more fundamental question: Are esports really sports? Blicharz, who competed in judo when he was younger and says he was top 3 in his weight class in Poland, insists “this is absolutely a sport.”

And yet he doesn’t believe it’s an important question.

“It doesn’t matter to me if you call it competitive gaming, esports, sports,” Blicharz said. “It really doesn’t change the nature of this. It doesn’t change the emotion you have when you compete, it doesn’t change the emotion the fans have when they connect with the show or the players. … If you don’t believe this is a sport, fine by me. It doesn’t change anything.”

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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