By Curtis Skinner
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Teams of video gamers playing characters ranging from wizards to monsters have exchanged virtual punches, fireballs and lightning strikes over the past five days as they battle at the Dota 2 International tournament in Seattle.
By the end of Saturday's finals, five players will be more than a million dollars richer.
Now in its fifth year and playing to a sold-out crowd in the 17,000-seat Key Arena, the International has grown every year in size, popularity and possible winnings for players. The tournament launched in 2011 with a then-groundbreaking grand prize of $1 million and now offers an $18 million prize pool.
Video games have long been a moneymaker for the tech sector, forecast to generate some $111 billion in revenue this year by consultants Gartner Inc. Over the past several years, playing them has turned into a full-time job for a select few top-tier players, as interest and prize pools have ballooned.
According to Valve, the publisher of Dota 2, about 11.5 million users log on monthly to play the game, in which two teams try to destroy each other's bases in an online arena. The teams that make it to Saturday's final will be the world's best.
Players and teams have come to the United States from China, South Korea, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere to compete for a share of the prize pool - with roughly $6.6 million going to the winning five-player squad.
Tickets for this year's event sold out and hundreds have registered to attend so-called "Pubstomp" viewing parties at bars and internet cafes in cities from Los Angeles to Sandy Springs, Georgia.
Hundreds of thousands of fans have tuned in daily this week to watch streams of the event on sites such as Twitch. TV, while thousands more have packed into the arena to cheer on their favorite players live.
Ben Mussett, 24, drove two days from his native Ohio in a car packed with friends. He said he found watching video games, which he and other young fans refer to as "eSports," more appealing than traditional spectator sports like basketball and football.
"Traditional sports are kind of boring," Mussett said, "eSports are the future."
His pal, 24-year-old Becca Eagen, agreed: "I've never watched or enjoyed sports the way I've enjoyed this."
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Scott Malone and Digby Lidstone)