Gamers taking world by storm
Online games are attracting billions. Picture: Frederic J. Brown/AP

Mark Richardson is in pre-season training. But he's not running around an oval or court.

In fact, the 19-year-old will barely develop a drop of sweat.

His training involves sitting in an office chair, staring intently at a computer monitor while directing a mouse with robotic precision - Mark Richardson is in training to become a professional computer game player.

"I play about six or seven hours a day," he said, after taking a break from a recent tournament held in Perth.

"In six months I hope to be sponsored, making money and in South Korea playing against the pros."

It is no joke.

Mr Richardson, or "Yang" as he is known online, plays the strategy game StarCraft 2 full-time.

Like a footballer training to make the AFL, the committed gamer - who is the best player in WA - is improving his skills to have a crack on the lucrative professional gaming circuit in South Korea - a country where professional gamers are celebrities.

Many earn good money as gamers, about $120,000 a year, through sponsorships and competitions, while South Korean superstar Lim Yo-Hwan earns an annual wage of more than $300,000. "I'm committed to becoming as good as I can to get to that level," Mr Richardson said.

His unusual vocation symbolises a greater trend - one which has evolved into a behemoth.

"Gaming is big business," UWA chairman of communications studies Tauel Harper said, describing the worldwide industry which has grown from $6 billion in the early 1990s to now pull in more than $75 billion annually.

That figure is expected to grow to $115 billion by 2015.

"It pulls in more money than the movie industry," Dr Harper said. "Yet we still have this image that it is something that adolescents do, but really it's really something that most people do now . . . the average age of a game player in Australia is 29."

The growth of the industry is reflected in the Australia-wide figures.

According to an IBISWorld study, Australian gamers spent an estimated $2.51 billion during the 2011-12 financial year - a 6.4 per cent increase on the previous year. The report predicted another $1 billion in growth over the next five years.

But despite the extraordinary rise of the industry, worldwide traditional game sales - console and PC games - have softened over the past year.

Experts say it is be cause of increasing piracy on top of major corporations delaying the release of new versions of the Xbox, Playstation and Wii.

This softness was reflected during the annual E3 gaming conference held in Los Angeles in June.

Usually a magnet for nerds to ogle the latest gaming trends, this year bloggers complained about the lack of innovation and originality.

But despite the perceived lull, the hysteria surrounding new release games still blows new release movies out of the water.

In the first 24 hours of its release last month PC-based fantasy game Diablo III sold 4.7 million copies worldwide, with reports of people dressing up in full character and waiting in line for days to get first hands on a copy.

Across Australia, millions spend hours on end immersed within the imaginary worlds of their console or PC games.

And now there is another big player in the gaming world.

"Mobile games are like the gateway drug into more immersive gaming," Perth-based game developer and Murdoch University lecturer Josh Whitken said.

Downloaded on to an individual's smartphone or tablet, mobile games have emerged as the next big thing in the market.

Angry Birds - the world's most popular mobile-based game - has one billion downloads and counting, essentially meaning one in every seven people in the world has it.

"They hook you in with short-term play," Mr Whitken said.

"You can pick up Angry Birds or something like that at any time and play for two minutes, put it down and pick it up again.

"The industry is a skirt chaser, chasing the money in mobile phone platforms. Only two years ago the future was MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games, now it's all about mobile."

Mr Whitken has worked with EA Games - one of the world's biggest game development companies - before he was scouted by the now defunct Perth gaming company Interzone.

He lectures in game development and specialises in areas such as mobile device design. Along with mobile, he believes the future of gaming lies in sensory development. "There's been talk of innovations with games where you'll have something like a sensor in your shoe, to run around and play a game with," he said.

"But we (the gaming industry) haven't had our Citizen Kane yet . . . and everyone is hopeful that we'll have that hit that says: 'oh, so that's what gaming is all about'."

The West Australian

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