Game recognizes game: virtual spectator sports on the rise

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • October 15, 2014

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Despite what your mother said when you were young, there is now a way to make money by playing video games all day—but you have to be really good.

If you haven’t heard of the game League of Legends from your nerdy friend, you might have missed an important piece of gamer news. This game, along with others like Starcraft and Defense of the Ancients, are holding international competitions that are bringing in fans by the thousands and dollars by the millions. The professional esports arena is rapidly coming into its own, and it’s time for traditional sports to make room for this novel, innovative movement and the unprecedented access it offers viewers to their players of choice.

In August, New York Times tech reporter Nick Wingfield examined the growing popularity and media attention professional gaming has attracted and identified some signs that esports is about to take off in a big way.

“Game tournaments sell out giant arenas, and some attract at-home audiences larger than those of top traditional sporting events,” Wingfield wrote. “Madison Avenue’s highest fliers, like Coca-Cola and American Express, have lined up as sponsors. Prize money has reached seven-figure sums, and top players earn six- or seven-figure incomes and attract big and passionate followings, luring a generation of younger players to seek fame and fortune as gamers.”

Despite these worthy votes of confidence, esports have only received attention from within the communities and gamers that are likely to engage in and with the product. For others, to even consider pro-gaming as a legitimate enterprise is ridiculous: Video games are the exact opposite of sports.

John Skipper, president of ESPN Inc., is one of those people. When Amazon decided to buy the video game streaming site Twitch for $1 billion, Skipper responded with a dismissal during a media conference in New York. “It’s not a sport — it’s a competition,” Skipper countered. “Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition.”

Still, esports’s status as a “competition” didn’t stop ESPN2 from airing the Defense of the Ancients 2 world championships back in July, which resulted in a social media firestorm from confused, angry fans of traditional sports. Twitter lit up with numerous iterations of “What the hell is happening on ESPN2?” and “This isn’t sports.”

Despite this skepticism, there are a few areas where esports has a distinct advantage over traditional sports, namely fan engagement. This is why Twitch was such a valuable, worthwhile purchase for a retail behemoth like Amazon. As the world’s largest video game streaming site, Twitch reports hundreds of thousands visits to its site to watch huge tournaments featuring the world’s best players. The site also says that people visit the site to watch the same players stream their personal practice games. These streams also make it possible for fans to get tips and chat with their favorite players via webcam.

These streams allow remarkable access to players and a window into their playbooks. Pro gamer Dennis Fong offered a comparison during an interview with the New York Times: “Imagine if LeBron James and Michael Jordan, in every practice and every live NBA game, had a GoPro camera strapped to their chest and they had an earbud where they can hear people ask direct questions and occasionally answer it when they’re playing.”

It’s technological advantages like these that make pro gaming so engaging. Not only can fans communicate with professionals through unprecedented channels, they can also play with them. League of Legends professionals play on the same servers as everyone else, meaning that players who reach the highest levels of the game—something that requires considerable dedication—get to play with the professionals.

Though esports fans see their games as matched with traditional ones as from a conceptual standpoint, traditional leagues like the NBA and NFL still have significantly more money to play around with. With only a handful of big sponsors, esports are still a far cry from having entire cities back them. But the sports world is becoming more diverse and inclusive, and esports will one day swim in the mainstream.