Esports go mainstream

The 2016 North American League of Legends Championship Series Summer Finals at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

By Jake Dehlinger

‘Esports’ is a word that is very confusing to many people. A lot of people look at the word and scoff. “Competitive video gaming? What a waste. Who would watch that?” Esports are gradually becoming more popular as time goes on. Television stations are showing games, big-name athletes and organizations are buying into gaming orgs, and advertising has gone to a whole new level. We are witnessing the coming-of-age of esports. With the stakes and money involved being at its apex, it won’t be long until esports becomes a staple along with the major sports.

What is it about esports that is so appealing? For starters, accessibility is its most important aspect. Take a look at a traditional sport such as hockey. You need equipment, the ability to travel, the money, the physical demands of the sports, and the commitment. When it comes to video games, you need a television/monitor, the game, the system you play it on, and the comfort of your own home. Looking at these differences, we see that esports demand much less of you right off the bat. Of course, there are people that game casually, but there is now an increasing number of people competing against each other with the goal of climbing a ranked ladder to show off how good they are. Think of the FIFA World Rankings. Many video games now have these ladders and rankings for individuals and teams. Now, you can compete in a hardcore manner against others from around the globe without having to leave the couch.

The stigmatism of being a nerd and playing games has always existed. You imagine scrawny kids playing games at home and not doing much else. Underneath this stigma are the reflexes and ability processing that are necessary for gaming to take place. The top gamers in the world have lightning-fast reflexes and are processing in-game mechanics. It’s more than just looking at a screen mindlessly. These players are focusing and working their hardest to be better than and outsmart their opponents. This can be even more physically and mentally draining than that of your professional athlete.

What many people do not see is the amount of training that a professional video game athlete goes through. Traditional sports athletes have practice, workouts, and many other various types of conditioning. What we see in video game athletes is training of somewhere up to 12-14 hours a day. For video game teams such as Team SoloMid (TSM), they practice pretty much all day with little free time. The athletes wake up, eat, scrimmage other teams for about 6 hours, have dinner, and then either work out physically or train in solo queue, a place where they play competitively against other players around the world. This often happens six days a week with only one off day. We see that these professional video game players are just as studious and hard working as traditional sports athletes.

Some of the most famous esports titles are house hold names: Call of Duty, Halo, Overwatch, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, etc. Every one of these games has professional leagues in which teams of players compete for massive cash prizes. Often times these players live in a “gaming house,” where they get to be with the team in order to practice and build relationships together. One game that I want to call attention to (and is my favorite game of all time) is League of Legends. LoL has become the most popular and most-played game of the last several years. It is a free game which pits five players against another five in a battle to destroy the enemy teams “nexus crystal” in their base. Essentially, the base and the outer half of the map is guarded by towers on each side. To get to the enemy team’s nexus, you need to kill their champions so that you can take down their towers and push yourselves closer to the nexus. The game itself has over 120 unique champions that take on various different roles. LoL is such a diverse game that no match is ever going to be the same as another.

LoL is undergoing its biggest transformation to date. The professional scene has been around since 2011 and the eighth-ranked season of the game starts in January. The game is popular around the world with the largest professional leagues set up in major cities like Los Angeles, Berlin, Seoul, Shanghai, Taipei, São Paulo, Istanbul, Moscow, and Sydney.

Another shot from the 2016 LoL Championship Series Summer Finals.

Each year, there are multiple international tournaments that pit each region’s best teams against each other. So besides your favorite domestic team competing against other domestic teams, should they come out on top of the league of place in the top three at the end of the year, they get to go to the World Championship tournament, which takes place in a different region each year. Imagine seeing your favorite domestic team (mine being TSM), go to a worldwide tournament to play against the top teams from Europe, China, and South Korea. Besides domestic pride, you gain international pride when your team is representing your region against the best teams from around the world (Think of Birt’s Portland Timbers winning MLS Cup and then taking on Manchester United from the Premier League in a world tournament). Every year we see multiple international tournaments taking place. In fact, the quarterfinals of the LoL World Championships are taking place now! You can find streaming links to the games with a simple Google search.

When it comes to LoL, many companies and sports organizations are now realizing the potential that lies within the game. Most recently, the North American league is making sweeping changes to how their league is run as opposed to others around the world. This past month, the league has moved to franchising. Up until now, player salaries were determined by their individual teams. This was often dependent on sponsorship deals and the popularity of the team. For example, Team SoloMid is the most famous LoL team. Because of their continued success and popularity, these players receive the most money for their skill. This is similar to the professional leagues of other sports.

With franchising, the league made all 10 teams reapply, and also received over 100 additional applications to the league. The results of this application process have just started leaking through. Only six of the original 10 teams were reaccepted. Joining the fold are one other professional gaming organization, and three teams backed by NBA franchises. What is interesting in this is that the three NBA franchises – the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, and Houston Rockets – all see the potential of the North American league and are committed to purchasing a slot in the league. Additionally, the Yankees purchased a minority ownership stake with team Echo Fox. The newly-franchised league includes a players’ association, a base salary provided by the league, money from sponsorships, and a slew of other benefits. We see that an esport like League of Legends is gaining traction and other sports organizations are starting to take notice.

We also see now that professional video gaming is becoming a serious profession. No longer are video games just a hobby. Many people are dedicating their lives to get better at their passion just as professional athletes do. Leagues are being around the world, and international competitions and the World Championships are drawing large viewership numbers. Channels such as TBS and ESPN are beginning to showcase some of these leagues on cable television as opposed to having them streamed on websites.

Much like their traditional counterparts, esports athletes follow very structured training schedules and dedicate their lives towards beating out the competition. With more money flowing into the industry and with more and more sports organizations willing to invest, it will only be a matter of time before we see esports at a level similar to that of traditional sports. The rivalries between esports organizations such as TSM and CLG are similar to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry that we’re all familiar with. The hatred and desire to crush the opponent is intense, and I feel that same passion rooting for TSM to beat CLG as I do the Yankees to the Red Sox. It’s high time that we take notice of esports, as they are well on their way to becoming mainstream. It won’t be long until your friends and children are invested. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself following along in the near future.

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