The midday sun blazes outside but it’s dark in the Sun Arena at Time Square in Pretoria. The only illumination comes from the bright pink and purple artificial lighting and the backlights of screens that cast a neon glow on the faces of the gamers in front of them.

At first glance, what’s going on inside this arena doesn’t seem at all comparable with what takes place at the city’s other sporting stronghold, Loftus Versfeld. But don’t be fooled by the lack of blue face paint, rucks and Steve Hofmeyr songs; Rush is one of the country’s biggest annual tournaments, dedicated to the world’s fastest growing sport, e-sports.

E-sports is the competitive practice of video games among teams of professional players and, yes, it’s a real sport.

Usually, when I venture that statement, I get a stern finger waved at me. "All that Mario and Luigi business is not a sport, it’s brain-rotting nonsense." Stern finger goes on to insist that a sport is an activity that requires you to be outside, while admitting they enjoy playing squash. Or that in sport you must move around and not just sit in one place moving your hands; yet enjoy watching Formula One. If e-gaming isn’t a sport, then there’s definitely some finger-wagging needed in the direction of ESPN. Last weekend the sports channel screened The Overwatch League’s grand finals live from the Barclays Center in New York.

Outside the ESPN viewership, on July 28, the Barclays arena was packed with 20,000 people. Close to 300,000 more watched via Twitch, Amazon’s online video game spectating streaming platform, as team London Spitfire won the $1m prize. Twitch is in part responsible for the sport’s 38% year-on-year revenue rise. It’s expected to crack $908m globally this year. Considering that more than 1.2 million viewers tuned into the league on Twitch over the course of the 17 days, racking up a total of 12 million views, it’s little wonder that brands have invested close to $700m to align themselves with the e-sports industry.

Locally, though video gaming is already a R100m industry, e-sport communities are only just taking off. Nevertheless, sponsorship of the two biggest-name tournaments in SA comes from telecommunications companies that try to leverage the online gaming angle to peddle their internet-providing wares. VS Gaming is the e-sports subsidiary of Telkom, and Rush’s main sponsor is Vodacom’s youth-skewed 4U platform.

"By backing the most popular games in the tournament we wanted to make sure the association was there in terms of Vodacom 4U, to unlock the fact that we want to be the youth’s preferred connectivity partner," says Bronwyn Makeen, MD of Vodacom 4U and Chatz Connect.

In the Sun Arena tweens are warming up on the tournament’s iPads for the 4U-sponsored mobile Fortnite tournament while Makeen explains how the tournament is the perfect place to show off her brand’s fibre capabilities in practice directly to the youth market.

Fortnite is the biggest online game in the world. It has 125 million active players across PC, console and mobile platforms. This is thanks mostly to its highly addictive free Battle Royale gameplay mode. The premise is much like its Japanese movie namesake, where a group of people are dropped on an island and have to kill each other until only one survives. Violence is subverted with cartoon-like characters and graphics in bright candy colours. The absence of bloody details makes it far more kid-friendly than most of the shoot-’em-ups you find on the shelves. Though it’s free to download, in-app purchases are where the developer, Epic Games, makes its money — $2m a day from iPhone users alone.

As Lauren Das Neves, organiser of rAge — SA’s biggest annual video gaming, computer, technology and geek culture exhibition — and its e-sports spin-off tournament, Rush, points out, many players on the Fortnite stand are aged 10 to 12. That’s why it is as important to educate parents about e-sports as it is for the kids to participate, she says.

"A lot of parents are sitting at home and saying: ‘Get off the computer.’ They don’t understand that their kids are talking to their friends on TeamSpeak and they are actually doing the e-sports thing at home. This is a great space for parents to come with their kids and go: ‘OK, now I get it.’"

And instead of being the supposed enemy of homework, gaming can be a means to future education. Many universities, including the Ivy League Columbia, now offer scholarships for e-sports, with a university in Germany entirely dedicated to the practice. Locally, Mind Sports SA runs an official schools league across 17 schools and gives the opportunity for youngsters to win Protea colours in gaming.

It’s not just all play; people need to understand that gaming is a viable career path, says Das Neves.

Work hard, play hard

Professional gaming athletes get paid big bucks for sponsorships and ad revenue on their streams. And that’s before first-prize payouts that can be millions of dollars. Or, in the case of this year’s VS Gaming Festival Fifa PlayStation winner, Thabo "Yvng Savage" Moloi, R400,000 — a nice slice out of the overall R1.5m prize money.

As with all good sports tales — in fact, in good ol’ Rocky fashion — the 16-year-old Die Fakkel High School pupil, a first-time e-sports competitor, smacked down the firm favourite, last year’s winner, Zuhair Ebrahim, 4-1. He walked away with the money, title and the chance to represent SA overseas at the Fifa eWorld Cup — a yearly gaming version of the real thing, complete with antidoping standards.

The most exciting part of e-sports in a country like SA is that it’s a great leveller. Traditional physical sports are a costly and often elitist endeavour that can cut off real talent due to geography, class or cash flow. All you need to compete in e-sports is a game, a machine, a lot of time — practice always makes perfect — and data.

Though PC gamers are seen as the masters of the scene, with costly machines that need constantly upgraded parts for their (genuinely superior) speed and accurate gameplay, there are cheaper ways to get involved. Moloi’s PlayStation 4 would set you back R5,000. Considering his recent victory, that’s cheap at the price.

Or you can just use your smartphone. The mobile e-sports scene is small, but thanks to free-to-play classics like Fortnite and Hearthstone it’s only a matter of time before more games make their way onto your small screen.

With a lower cost to entry, it’s little surprise that teams like Soweto-based Ekasi eSports have appeared on the scene.

They started with no equipment and built themselves up to become the first black-managed gaming organisation in SA.

They are driven to find more keen gamers in what they call "historically disadvantaged communities" so as to contribute to the growth of "an inclusive, competitive and professional gaming ecosystem in SA".

The same goes for the gendered aspect of sport. In video gaming, physical strength gives way to dexterity and everyone can compete for the same prize money. According to a PwC study, the gender split in gaming sits at 50/50. But, the study also found, more women identify as professional gamers than men.

"It was very difficult in the beginning," says Jana "SaltyMonkey" du Toit, captain of Bravado Gaming’s all-woman Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team, Bravado Finesse. "Most people didn’t want to play you because they either didn’t want to lose to girls or they didn’t feel like the skill level was similar or beneficial to them. To a great extent that was true. The skill level wasn’t quite there.

"But we did find people who were willing to assist us and play us."

Now there are entire local leagues exclusively for women gamers. Better yet, for the first time in SA, three female teams and rising stars like Ekasi eSports had the chance at Rush to go up against big-name teams on the main stage. This is just the beginning, because underneath the pink and purple lights, it’s anyone’s game.

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