A Question of E-Sports

I’m no e-sports analyst or sporting professor so don’t expect this article to contain any citations or an elaborate bibliography.

I’m just a guy who loves writing about games and who happens to watch e-sports too. I’ve decided to tap my thoughts onto a virtual page, considering the relationship between e-sports and sports, and why it’s here to stay.

The competitive gaming scene has come a long way, and in the last few years it’s seen some pretty astonishing growth. Just by taking a look at statistics provided by Newzoo1 can we see confirmation: the global number of e-sports enthusiasts in 2014 equated to around 88 million in total; 13 million watch e-sports and regularly participate in amateur tournaments, 19 million do so occasionally and 56 million are regular viewers. Strikingly, these numbers represent the minority: 117 million viewers occasionally watch e-sports but don’t participate in any competitive gaming. Of all e-sports viewers, 40% don’t play any of the top e-sports franchises.

Taking a quick look at 2015’s statistics, there’s been a 27% increase in the number of viewers year on year. There were 147 million occasional viewers and 113 million e-sports enthusiasts; that’s extraordinary growth. Interestingly, Newzoo found that the number of occasional viewers, whilst rising, actually show a smaller increase. They believe this is due to the number of e-sports enthusiasts increasing thanks to the global reach that competitive gaming has accrued. So by looking briefly at these statistics, we can see that e-sports is reaching more and more people, inspiring them to take up competitive games and becoming a regular in the scene.

“…e-sports is reaching more and more people, inspiring them to take up competitive games and becoming a regular in the scene”

E-sports has always found a place in Asia – most notably, South Korea. Gaming is part of their culture; if you ever find yourself in South Korea, it won’t take long before you stumble into a “PC Bang” (literally translates to PC room) as they’re practically everywhere. At these LAN-fields you can pay a relatively small fee to sit down and play games on a decent rig away from home. You could gather a few of your mates and arrange a few games of Starcraft II (or forty). I’ve even heard of restaurants, cafes and bars offering certain discounts dependent on your competitive ranking in League of Legends, being cool with gaming discrimination, but also showing that video games are ingrained in their culture. It won’t be a surprise to them if after the 6 o’ clock news, a game of League of Legends takes precedence over a nature documentary. Perhaps even more illustrative of their penchant for the competitive gaming scene is the audience that it attracts. Often I’ll tune into the LCK (Korean League of Legends series) and find members of the crowd covering their faces as they shyly wave their memes to the cameras that have trapped them in a slow, uncomfortable zoom. They’re only shy because they’ve probably missed school to be there, not because they’re afraid they’ll be harassed on the street for being a geek. Being a fan of e-sports is totally fine.

It’s not always been exclusive to Asia. Counter Strike has always had a cult following in Europe, with many top players seemingly hailing from Sweden or Norway. Still, it’s not wrong to say that Asia, particularly South Korea and China, have had the biggest scene for the longest period of time, but now that’s beginning to shift. With the successes of games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, we’re finding that viewership numbers are soaring in North America, Europe and also Brazil. Yes, Brazil is finding a foothold in the competitive gaming scene, producing top organisations such as Luminosity in CS:GO who’re now challenging the top, long established teams: Fnatic, NiP and EnVy Us most notably. In League of Legends we’re finding World Championships aren’t being dominated by the South Korean and Chinese teams anymore. Fnatic and Origen, both European teams, reached the semi-finals and gave them a real run for their money.

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Big Numbers – 27 million log in to play League of Legends everyday and 36 million tuned in to watch the 2015 World Championship Final between SKT and KOO Tigers.

When I think of a traditional sport, I think of rugby, football and tennis. I suppose we call them “traditional” sports as to compete at the highest level or even at a fairly basic level, it requires some form of physicality. Even if you’re hand-eye co-ordination is abysmal, as long as you end up sweating, going home bleary eyed, falling into your bed resembling a tree being felled and waking up with a slow groan, you’ve had a good game of tennis – a good game of sport. Take a look at Roger Federer, the attributes that make him great aren’t just restricted to his perfect technique and angelic footwork. He glides around the court commanding the ball and gleaming like a stallion, but it’s his mentality that separates him from the rest. He has the ability to hit an ace at a crucial moment or produce a shot that breaks the laws of physics just when you thought he was down and out. In sport, almost always, the winners are those who play smart. Sure, you can have a team filled with muscular specimens, but if they can’t co-ordinate or work as a team, they certainly aren’t going to cut it.

“I’ve even heard of restaurants, cafes and bars offering certain discounts dependent on your competitive ranking in League of Legends

Traditional sports have their own rules and systems in place that govern what happens on pitch or on court. By participating in a sport you’re signing yourself up to physical exertion in a very specific and controlled manner. You aren’t meant to be flailing your arms around in a field somewhere – feel free by the way – you’re sticking to a set of laws that have seen the test of time and require you to channel your physical prowess in a specifically defined way. Not only are sports confined to the pitch so to speak, they also have systems that operate externally, which in turn affect what goes on internally. Players might transfer to new teams or the organisations they belong to might suddenly be swallowed up by enormous global corporations who pour tons of money into their development. It’s these systems that people also engage with and become absolutely captivated by. Keeping up with the latest trials and tribulations of your favourite team is basically keeping up with things like who’s staying and if money exchanges hands. It’s these systems that form a whole sport, at least in my mind anyway.

Only very recently a member of North American League of Legends team – TSM – Soren Bjergsen was named as an official Red Bull Athlete. Twitter Gaming was also born recently, and, perhaps most importantly, ESPN has announced their foray into e-sports saying that they’ll cover e-sports with the same vigor and coverage as that of traditional sports. As you can see, these aren’t just small companies getting involved; there’s some pretty big players who’ve been supporting e-sports growth. Intel plays home to the IEM (Intel Extreme Masters), and players often sport merchandise that have badges from companies such as ASUS stitched onto their jackets, looking like proud members of the scouts just down the road. Coca Cola partnered with Riot Games, and Red Bull has decided to support and promote a top player. Let’s not forget that BBC Three hosted the League of Legends World Championships Finals last year and the Dota 2 International had an $18.4 million prize pool. Thanks to streaming services like Twitch and Azubu, e-sports have begun to gain interest from companies looking to invest in its future. They see something in the scene, the buzz that surround the games and the increasing viewer rates.

Looking at League of Legends or CS:GO, it’s easy to see that the influx of money and popularity has made the e-sports scene mirror that of traditional sports. There’s transfers between teams, organisations buying players, players moving regions to find success and scandals related to match-fixing and exploits. It’s obvious that e-sports has all the springs and bolts that make up the larger competitive machine. However I’m certain that if I went around the streets of my local town or city and asked people what they thought about e-sports, they’d probably say “what even is that?” before realisation slowly dawns on them and they scoff, “that’s not sport”.

I’d show them these videos just to bask in their confusion:

If you’re well versed in e-sports you’ll have a sense of what actually occurred in these videos. If you aren’t – they’re on top of their game. What makes these plays so impressive are the reaction speeds of both players: they were able to think on their feet in such a short space of time. It’s their ability to make split second decisions whilst tying this with a mechanical deftness that most ordinary players like you or me wouldn’t have a hope of pulling off. Even if they’re moving a mouse, or pressing some buttons on a keyboard, this just isn’t an argument you can turn to. These button strokes and mouse clicks translate to a game at hand.  They aren’t physically exerting themselves as hard as other athletes, but what they are doing is channeling their skill into a virtual arena. They’re embodying a virtual character to their fullest potential, mastering techniques in the real world, both mentally and physically, to succeed in game.

Just like any traditional sport, you could’ve been granted an unparalleled amount of skill thanks to your mum’s or dad’s genes, but this doesn’t make you top-tier. The same goes for e-sports: you might have a mechanically skilled player but if they can’t work within a team or pluck up the will to train hard everyday, they aren’t made of champion material. Communication is vital in e-sports; you’ll see players with headphones dangling off their wrists, neck, forehead and finally you’ll find a pair over their ears; obscuring a pair of earphones encased snugly inside. Of course this is representative of just how important it really is. You’ll have shot-callers, literally a team-member who calls the shots and makes the decisions so you don’t get a clash of opinion. This doesn’t mean the other team members don’t think for themselves, they’re always shouting out positions or information and it becomes immediately obvious that the best teams are those that are friends off screen too. And yes, they train too. Often they’ll engage in scrims (friendly matches) against each other, practice mechanics and aim to play the game like a full time job. When major tournaments loom over the horizon, every team steps it up. It’s not a game to them, it’s a career.

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North American CS:GO team Cloud 9 in action.

I can still hear people scoffing, “it’s just a game” and I don’t buy this either. Anyone who relies on this phrase is trying to shut down your argument in one fell swoop without thinking clearly. It’s a nervous tick which is blurted out with fake heroism, followed by a puffing of the chest and a quick, clumsy crossing of the arms, “what you got then scrub?”

Well first I’d thank them for pointing out the obvious: it is a game. I assume their argument lies within the notion that games are “just for fun”; if you aren’t having fun, then it’s not a game. They might even add that by playing a game competitively, you’re taking it too seriously, sucking the fun out of an experience meant to be enjoyed in your leisure time – bollocks.

We choose to take part in sport because we enjoy whatever physical activity we’re taking part in. Whether it’s running because we enjoy embracing the great outdoors, or boxing because we’ve enjoyed hitting things from a very young age, competition is integral, but so is fulfilment. I understand that if you delicately brush the layers off a sport like you’re taking part in an archaeological dig, it would result in you discovering the words “Git Gud” from the very beginning of C++. This also applies to video games in the sense that they are also grounded in a competitive spirit. I’m not playing the original Super Mario Bros. to gawp at the pixels; I’m hopping on Koopas and dodging hammers because I want to beat the stage. And because I want to beat the stage, I’m having a good time.

“They’re embodying a virtual character to their fullest potential, mastering techniques in the real world, both mentally and physically, to succeed in game”

Having said that, people’s notion of “fun” and “enjoyment” are very different. Some people might enjoy the depravity of Dark Souls, but some want a more relaxing experience like Animal Crossing. This contrast between games also illustrates the nature of video games: it’s not just about “having fun in your leisure time”, it’s branched outwards to become a bunch of different things. Take Gone Home as a perfect example. It goes against everything I’ve just said, but supports my argument as a game that extended the boundaries. Undertale is heavily narrative based, and Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture could be described as a walking simulator. You could par them off with “well they’re just walking simulators, they aren’t games”, but games nowadays aren’t all about guns, violence and winning. The gaming genre and the people who play games are beginning to come to terms with the fact that playing a game can mean wandering around a town with almost zero direction. The driving force being your curiosity, piecing together clues found in secret locations or even creating your own narrative thanks to the noggin you’ve been granted with. The landscape is changing to the point where gaming is treading new and exciting ground. You can have so many different experiences in games that the statement, “you’re taking it too seriously, it’s not fun and it’s not a game” is extremely reductive. Gaming can be a career, a competitive hobby, a leisurely pastime or a emotionally gripping narrative journey. What I’m trying to say is, gaming has grown to become so much more, that by seeing it as a juvenile activity you’re missing the – much bigger – picture.

Everybody's Gone to The Rapture
You can’t even swing your fists at it.

Having said all this, it still makes me a little sad to think that there’ll be a stigma attached to e-sports for a long time. You’ll have all manners of folk playing Call of Duty competitively online, screaming at the T.V “I pressed the trigger, I swear to God, I f-“. The list of games that also come with competitive multiplayer are pretty lengthy to say the least, and it’s got the point where if a game doesn’t come with competitive multiplayer it’s a little bit of a shocker. However as soon as you place these games on screen with a high broadcast quality, commentary and analysis, people start to say that it’s all a bit silly.

It’s obvious how I feel about e-sports and I think it’s naive to think that those who belong in the industry are a bunch of geeks. Of course they are. But they’re hard-working and talented, putting in a ton of effort to make it all happen so an increasing number of us can sit down and watch some quality gaming. It’s this growth and influence that makes e-sports want to rid itself of the stigma.

Traditional sports are separated from e-sports because of their physicality. Although they share a number of similarities, when it comes down to it, at the highest level they require great physical exertion typified by stupid amounts of strength and endurance in order to beat the competition. It just isn’t the same; they’re sitting in gaming chairs, sipping red bull occasionally with mouse and keyboard to hand. The image it presents diverts it firmly in the opposite direction for most people.

So what’s my take on the situation?

E-sports are cementing themselves quite simply as e-sports: Electronic Sports. With the success e-sports is having, it’s carving its own path. It doesn’t need to try and fit in because it’s already beginning to firmly establish itself. I’ve seen comments on this topic saying that we should rename e-sports to “Competitive Gaming” as in this manner, e-sports isn’t attempting to encroach into sporting territory. By renaming e-sports I’d argue there’s no movement forwards. Naming it “Competitive Gaming” isn’t attempting to occupy a “space”, and by space I mean a space in a competitive scene or competitive market. The term e-sports encompasses a larger field than Competitive Gaming because it subtly strips away the potentially “juvenile” gaming label and presents video games under an umbrella of serious activity – an electronic activity that essentially nudges its way into the category of sports. These players aren’t just good at videogames; these players are adept mentally and physically in an arena defined by a set of rules, software and programming that are arguably comparable to the rules of tennis or rugby. We have a divide – Sports and Electronic Sports – with e-sports beginning to establish itself on an equal footing. They aren’t the people on the other side of the room huddled around the nibbles because they weren’t invited to the party and making the most of an awkward situation; there’s a divide, but slowly acceptance for what it is, is creeping in.

“Gaming can be a career, a competitive hobby, a leisurely pastime or a emotionally gripping narrative journey. What I’m trying to say is, gaming has grown to become so much more, that by seeing it as a juvenile activity you’re missing the bigger picture”

Image is vital: as the more people watch, the more e-sports is taken seriously, it garners more and more of a reputation, attracting big sponsors and establishing itself more firmly in people’s minds as something that holds legitimacy.

Whilst you could leaf through a dictionary and firmly jab your finger through the paper as you point to the definition of sport, I think sports aren’t just defined by laws, rules and the like. Sports are also defined by the people who watch them and support them, doing so because of its entertainment value. The more people get behind something, the more things get called into question. The boundaries that once stood defiant begin to topple and shift through a change in reputation. It’s the image of sport that e-sports is beginning to affect: chiselled man staring at himself in the mirror, or e-sports athlete in front of screen with controller in hand. And it’s no surprise that it’s the latter we’re seeing more and more of.

As of May 2015, e-sports viewers globally equated to 134 million whilst the global market for e-sports hit $612 million. 
As of May 2015, e-sports viewers globally equated to 134 million, whilst the global market for e-sports hit $612 million. Publishers are now looking to target the expanding mobile market.

E-sports are here to stay, and we’re going to see it grow and gain even further popularity as the years go by. As this happens I still believe that the stigma of games as competitive sports will be around for a long time as people refuse to accept that games can be anything but casual. With this image, companies like Riot Games are looking for ways to break this narrow minded mentality: instead of attempting to brush up against traditional sports, they have to focus on the fact that whatever they’re doing is working. People are starting to realise that these players are talented and they train hard. The people behind the scenes or in front of the cameras are also on an equal footing, providing a classy production template for the players. As e-sports scenes like League of Legends or CS:GO (Halo, Call of Duty and Hearthstone as some other examples) command greater audiences, it’ll slowly but surely become ingrained in culture as much as gaming is a part of life in South Korea. More people will pick up these games and realise that to reach the highest level requires a remarkable amount of skill and dedication, before tuning into a stream to watch and learn. There’s a divide between sports and e-sports but the two overlap and intersect in so many ways that it’s inevitable e-sports will sooner or later be standing side by side with its athletic friend.

1 NewZoo report: The Global Growth of eSports, courtesy of EuroGamer