eSports may have origins in basements, but it’s since made its way into stadiums to form a multi-million dollar industry. Now the meteoric rise of competitive gaming not only calls its legitimacy as a sport into question, but also whether it will one day match, or surpass, physical sport as we know it.
Video games have enjoyed a competitive dimension since the days of Pac-Man and Pong – but initials next to ‘high scores’ on arcade games are no longer sufficient for supremacy. As virtual games have changed over the decades, so too have the competitions and their contenders. Yesterday’s nerds are today’s rock stars, where gaming elites converge each year to engage in battle, complete with fan-filled stadiums, cosplay cheer squads, and higher stakes with each tournament. With titles like League Of Legends, DotA 2, and Call Of Duty raking in more players and spectators with every passing annum, the line between traditional sports and eSports is blurring at a rapid pace. So what sets them apart in the digital age?
Let’s look at the similarities. Professional gamers often train in teams, under coaches who develop their skills in their chosen game, just like any reputable sports club. In Korea and China, it’s not uncommon for teams to bunk up (literally) under one roof together, dedicating hours of gameplay in preparation for upcoming tournaments. When it comes to the main events, it’s no longer a matter of deciding which darkened internet café has the best amenities, but rather which sports stadium is big enough to contain the thousands of spectators that turn out each year to witness the virtual showdowns. And while players might not boast chiseled abs, edgy haircuts, and trend-setting tattoos, that doesn’t stop the bombshell beauties in game-inspired costume from lining up to pose for pictures with the victors.
“With a market worth US$892 million this year, it’s no wonder that a tech giant like Samsung has its own eSports team.”
There’s no shortage of fans to support these once niche hobbies either. Pledging allegiance to international teams like Evil Geniuses (USA), Na’Vi (Ukraine), and TeamLiquid (The Netherlands) across a range of games, the gaming arena’s followers are on the rise, where it’s estimated that over 214 million viewers will tune into eSports events this year alone. Not only are the rewards bigger than ever for contenders (The International, an annual DotA 2 tournament held in the US, amassed a record-breaking prize pool of over US$20 million this year), but corporate sponsors are cashing in too, from names like Coca-Cola to Samsung riding the wave of appeal. With a market worth US$892 million this year, which is expected to exceed the one billion mark in 2017, it’s no wonder that a tech giant like Samsung has its own Galaxy Pro-Game Team. Accordingly, the industry isn’t without its dark side either, with match fixing scandals and mental wellbeing woes prompting the formation of gaming associations and video game rehabs respectively.
With fans, funds, and furious competition, the only apparent difference between competitive gaming and other popular sports is the element of physicality; the requisite consideration and biggest gripe of sports fans when considering whether video games should be allowed into the club. Considered by many traditional sports followers as lazy and devoid of athleticism, it came as no surprise that its critics would include ESPN’s president, John Skipper. At a Code/Media Series conference in New York in September 2014, Skipper told audiences, “It’s not a sport – it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.” Yet, a mere seven months later, the network broadcast a college tournament of Blizzard’s online multiplayer game, Heroes Of The Storm, on ESPN2 – delighting gamers, angering sports purists, and giving eSports unprecedented legitimacy.
It’s easy to forget that these same sentiments were voiced as professional poker tournaments first hit the air. Equally absent of physical exertion, the card game likewise endured derision from sports viewers, before it took the world by storm and normalised fears of sedentary lifestyles in the process. Like professional poker players, eSports contenders demonstrate levels of tact, strategy, and hand-eye coordination that viewers comment on frequently, but often can’t match. If inactivity is the true cause for concern in spectatorship, one need only look to the stereotypical beer-chugging, Doritos-munching armchair enthusiast who follows sporting mainstays like the NFL Superbowl, the MLB World Series, and the Formula 1 Grand Prix, to see the similarities with the archetypal energy drink-guzzling, cup noodle-slurping gaming fan who tunes into eSports.
Perhaps eSports’ greatest hindrance to being seen as an official sport is it’s greatest point of appeal. Shedding the requirements of blessed genetics and agreeable appearances, the gaming world indiscriminately allows for anyone and everyone to be a part of the action, whether as spectator or contender. Although it may not replace the age-old sports we know and love, its foreseeable that virtual editions of FIFA, NBA, or even F1, may become the mainstream in the not-too-distant future; watched and championed by everyday people – just like you.