In recent years, the underground scene of eSports has taken The West by the collar and shoryuken’d the living crap out of it. Once the realm of dedicated Quake and Counter-Strike players, eSports has become somewhat of a goliath; bigger than you remember but still lacking acceptance in popular culture (whatever popular culture even is anymore). It’s surprising though, since the very concept of eSports seems a bit off. Watching other people play video games… As sports? Sure, I’m pretty good at Smash Bros., sign me up for the Olympics. The thing is, these are very serious games, and their growth is no coincidence.
Ever since video games were things, people have used them for competition. Pac-Man high scores at your local arcade, local Street Fighter 2 tournaments, and the still updated Donkey Kong high score Guinness world record are all precursors to the eSports revolution. As people grew up and games garnered popularity, we’ve gotten to this strange point where the legitimacy of video games as sports is less questioned so much as being peer pressured into acceptance; I can count at least a dozen separate occasions where I’ve overheard people discussing LoL tournaments on the train, and watching eSports at the pub with a hundred others is something I’ve done multiple times. So, what even are eSports, and what’s the big fuss over them?
eSports is a blanket term to describe the formally competitive scene surrounding video games. While eSports being sports is a debatable equality (I’ll get to that in a minute), the term has become synonymous with League of Legends tournaments and the long mocked Korean Starcraft scene. Once a niche culture comprised of a scattered community, the rise of online streaming services like Twitch and popularisation of video games in general pushed eSports into the mainstream, with tournaments housing thousands of spectators in stadiums while being broadcast to millions online. Prize pools for these tournaments can be in the thousands, even millions, and corporate sponsorship is close to NASCAR levels of ingrained. However, eSports have always faced an uphill battle when it comes to considered legitimate by outsiders.
Pictured above: Athlete.
The communities inside the eSports scene take the games very seriously, but for those looking in from the outside, it can be hard to accept it as ‘a sport’. Video games are rarely (if ever) marketed on TV or website banners as platforms for competition, and are typically sold as products of entertainment and entertainment only. So, when someone suggests the idea of using them for sport, it can seem like a joke. If video games are sports, why are there no Excel Spreadsheet Speed Balancing Hyper Leagues around the country? It can often be confusing what athleticism there is in playing a video game, since some random definition of sport from the internet probably mention physical skill in it, and it’s fair to say most popular sports are more physically oriented. However, playing the game at the level of pros is no small feat.
Sure, video games are not physically demanding, but it takes a more subtle form of athleticism to compete professionally. Games like bridge, chess, and auto racing are all sports recognised by the International Olympic Committee, but they hardly spring to mind as sports because their displays of athleticism aren’t obviously physical. Reaction time, knowledge of the meta-game, and accurate mouse movements are not not outwardly impressive feats, but for the people who have played the game, watching these players do what they do is like watching Prometheus breathe life into their monitors. It’s this understanding of the game that is integral to why we watch eSports in the first place, and why we crave mad MLG plays.
There are a whole bunch of reasons why eSports are watched by people, but one of the big ones is for seeing how pros play the game. People learn vicariously, and the most effective way to learn something apart from doing it is seeing it in action. I could tell you all about the rhythmic changes involved in Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, but hearing it in action allows you to understand how they work in the context of the piece. The same is true of game tactics, whether they be item purchases, team compositions, weapon choices, or subtle timings. Watching high-tier players adopt certain gameplay decisions allow the viewers to apply them to their own games and (hopefully) play better. Beyond learning about the meta, these games are treated as sports, and the thrill of competition is very much present in them.
Barcraft and Mobar are an eSport rite of passage.
There is nothing more exhilarating than a good comeback, especially when it’s in a game we can relate to. We all know that one guy who plays Zelda in Smash Bros, or that dude that practices Jin in Blazblue, and playing against either of them is like punching a wall. Every time they win, a small piece of your hope dies, but not a lot since they win most of the time anyway. Then one day, you win. Suddenly, doves fly in through the windows around you, champagne rains from the heavans, and the underdog is crowned the alpha. For that brief moment, you are a god. Watching that moment for someone else is just as satisfying, and it’s one of those classic desires to see them happen in most fighting game eSports. Of course, when they do happen, it’s not just you who gets to freak out.
It’s one thing to watch events unfold on Twitch, it’s another to watch the chat’s reaction. Watching eSports online is a bit like going to the pub to watch the footy finals; you’re surrounded by people shouting at the competitors and constantly saying the song playing is Darude – Sandstorm, but you get swept up in their idiocy and join in the fun. This semi-anonymous worldwide community is sometimes more entertaining than the games on show, with fanbases announcing their love and celebrating in their inevitable victory… Once they’ve conveniently changed sides mid-game to more accurately line up with their predictions, of course. These are also the kinds of people who, when playing the game, treat is as a sport, whether we like it or not.
LoL and DotA2 are fairly renowned for their somewhat… Uh… Competitive fanbases, to the point where the companies that made them have to publicly state they’re going to fix it. These games are competitive by their very design (otherwise they wouldn’t be used) and integrated with news/streams of pro games and tournaments. For many, the game is not a place to become a new competitor, it is simply a means to better themselves through play, but one does not become better through loss. For the serious players, the game morphs into an exercise in getting angry at everyone for not playing the game at your apparently godlike level, because you don’t get better through loss. That’s how ranked works, you inept scrub. So, what does this have to do with eSports? It’s the person playing the game that’s the problem, not the tournaments, right?
I AM LITERALLY THE MOST SUCCESSFUL HUMAN BEING ON THE PLANET! SUCK IT!
When you push competition and eSport legitimacy down someone’s throat, what do you think they’ll associate the game with? Alcoves of naked Ryan Goslings? Hell no; they’re gonna associate it with competition, winning, and being the very best like no one ever was. This isn’t a game, it’s a sport, so try taking it a bit more seriously than Angry Birds so I can get past Bronze 3 and into Challenger where I belong. Competition becomes more important than the game; winning means more than the enjoyment and satisfaction of play, and the act of winning can define a player’s level of self-worth. This isn’t an unexpected reaction when the company that made the game emphasises that it’s a platform for serious competition, but to say that is the only thing which gives the game merit is arrogant at best.
Don’t get me wrong, eSports are a glorious thing that should be cultivated, but there seems to be a trend where every game needs to be judged as a potential eSport to help justify it’s worth as a game. There’s more to a game than making it an eSport; they can be enjoyed as games, and expecting a game to adopt itself into an eSport is just unfair on the developers who probably want to make the game they want to make. Hearthstone is a fun game, the fact it has potential to be an eSport is just an added extra. Planetside 2 would make for an awful eSport, but it’s a fun game. Call of Duty is a bit of a chore nowadays, but watching it played competitively is still awesome. While it might be disappointing to see a game go unnoticed, there will be another to grab your, and the eSport community’s, attention.
No matter where you stand on their purportedly ‘debatable’ legitimacy, eSports are one of the fastest growing industries in the world, and it’s easy to see why. They offer everything that real sports offer in a game that I actually care about, and watching the competitors play can help me become better at the game itself. While they might be getting bigger, they’re still a long way away from being widely accepted as real sports, but that’s never been a massive concern of the eSports scene. As long as we have crazy commentators, everything’ll be just fine.
Editor’s Note: The What, Why, and WTF is a fortnightly article series that explores the culturally pervasive elements of gaming, those parts of video games that seem to have left some mark on gaming as a whole or Nick just finds really interesting. It is in no way an academic source, despite liking to pretend it is.