For the first time, more people are watching a computer game instead of playing it.

That game is StarCraft II, released 12 months ago this week, and it has taken the burgeoning field of e-sports to a new level. The complicated gameplay involves each player commanding an army in a fight to the death.

E-sports, or competitive computer games as spectator sport, has been around since the late 1990s but is has been StarCraft II, specially designed to provide a good viewing experience, that is the breakthrough hit. While organisations such as the AFL and NRL need not be worried yet (the game is too arcane for the general public), the emergence of this new form of entertainment could certainly pose a challenge for professional sporting leagues in the next few decades.

Last month, 87,000 people watched the livestream of the grand final of the popular DreamHack Summer tournament, 5000 more than attended the 2010 NRL grand final in Sydney.  While the television audience of more than 3.1 million for the rugby grand final dwarfs the audiences for any StarCraft II match, the 3.2 million registered players worldwide for the game suggest the potential viewership is not far behind the domestic competitions. The money involved so far is a fraction of that of professional sports, with the top 25 players earning on average $US48,000 in a year-long tournament circuit worth about $3 million.

A good game of StarCraft, played by two top players and commented by a professional caster, combines the best elements of two player sports such as tennis with team sports such as football. The players engage in the intense tactical manoeuvring and subtle mind games of one-on-one action while the on-field drama takes on a quality quite similar to a football match, with the tide of play ebbing and flowing up and down the field as the two armies parry and thrust like a fast-paced Napoleonic war directed by two brilliant generals.

Like any new field, there are some growing pains. Popular tournaments struggle to provide quality streams when too many people are watching.

The copyright status of broadcast matches is nebulous with Blizzard, the company that made StarCraft II, holding the copyright to the artwork and music used in the game. Working conditions on the professional circuit are poor, with some of the top players retiring due to wrist injuries. Diversity is a problem, with the ratio of males to females mirroring that found in the wider computer game industry.

Crikey spoke to popular e-sports commentator and organiser of the After Hours Gaming League, Sean “Day9” Plott about some of the attractions and challenges facing this new form of entertainment.

Why are more people watching StarCraft II than playing it? It is a testament to how compelling the game can be visually — you don’t have to play StarCraft to follow the action and understand who is winning and who is losing and what is going wrong.  In short, like football or baseball or any other popular spectator sport, you can appreciate the game without necessarily being a player.  You just need a rudimentary grasp of the rules of play and a hero or a villain to root for. OK, maybe a beer, too.

Is there a diversity problem in e-sports, especially in the ratio of men to women? There is absolutely no reason why a guy should be better than a girl at gaming.  We assume that boys were early adopters of games in their childhoods and that for cultural reasons girls were not exposed to the same games at the same age.  It is only a matter of time before the ratios even up and we will find ourselves casting female programmers on the circuit.

What are the biggest challenges stopping e-sports from gaining wider recognition? For so long, traditional media channels have consisted of books, print periodicals, radio and television.  None of those environments was particularly suitable as a vehicle for esports.  Only now, with the advent of internet television and livestreaming and smart media syndicators like Justin.TV and Blip.TV are we seeing channels that support and enhance gaming.

So, interested in seeing the birth of a new form of entertainment? PC Gamer provides a gentle introduction with its “New to e-sports? The 10 best Starcraft II matches to watch now” article.