The Rise of eSports

By Bryce Bower, Co-editor

My journey with video games started on my dad’s computer — the Windows ’95 operating system. Math Blaster, Richard Scarry’s Busytown, and Buzzy the Knowledge Bug were my first voyages into the electronic world. As I grew older, the games I played grew with me and increased in difficulty and complexity. I was now playing LEGO Rock Raiders on Windows ’98 (wowzers!) and Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64 when I went to my friends’ houses. I never would have guessed back then how big of an industry video games would be today.

A true classic. Courtesy of Strong Museum

Electronic sports, or eSports, are video games played at a professional level. What most people don’t realize is the amount of money being put into these competitions. Defense of the Ancients 2’s (DOTA 2’s) prize pool for its international competition last year was over $24.6 million. Just this winter, several American sports teams heavily invested in the North American League of Legends Championship Series. Of the 10 teams in the North American league, four of them are now backed by NBA teams. The Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Houston Rockets paid $10 million each just to secure a franchise for the eSports team they invested in.

The most played video game in the world is called League of Legends, also known as LoL or League. Two teams of five players compete against each other to destroy their opponents’ base. Each player has a specialized role and controls one character within the game, and must work together in real time with his or her teammates.

Courtesy of The Score Esports

In a 2016 interview with Polygon, the CEO of Riot Games and creator of League of Legends stated that LoL had over 100 million monthly players worldwide. If the League player-base was a nation, it would be the 13th most populated country in the world. This same company reported over $2 billion in revenue last year. The craziest part? The game is free to play. Players can pay money to purchase in-game cosmetics for different characters. This, combined with sponsorships from big name companies like Intel, Logitech, Geico, and Coca-Cola are making sure Riot has more money than they know what to do with.

The League of Legends World Championship in 2014 was held in Seoul, in the one of the stadiums used in the 2002 World Cup (football/soccer). The best teams in each region in the world, those who accumulated enough wins during the regular season, travel to compete in one big tournament. There were 45,000 in attendance at that final match between Korean “heavyweights” Samsung Galaxy Team White (now just SSG) and South Korea Telecom Team 1 (now SKT). Last year’s LoL world finals were streamed live by 73 million viewers, with commentary and analysis in 19 different languages.

To the casual observer, these games may seem boring or repetitive. But much like playing ping-pong or watching soccer, you can play the game a million times, and it will always be a unique experience. There are so many different parts and strategies to these games. In 2009 UC Berkeley even started offering a course on “enjoying the art of competitive StarCraft.” It is a two credit class which goes from the basics of playing the game to advanced topics like “trends in unit population dynamics”, how to make complex cost benefit analysis of actions, and analysis of great matches and strategists. When I first heard about this I thought it was equal parts hilarious and concerning.

But then I thought, is that so different than the History of Baseball class my undergrad offered? ESports teams are treating their players like professional athletes. They are given room and board in a team house, they have coaches and managers, they regularly see sports psychologists, they are paid a salary, they give interviews, and their performances “on stage” are publicly scrutinized. The International Olympic Committee recognizes chess as a sport. It is no more physically demanding as playing a video game.

Time for some etymology. The word “sport” comes from the Old French word desport, which meant “leisure”. Long aside: several English words that were acquired from Old and Middle French are now missing an s in modern French. The elimination of the s that followed a vowel is now represented by the ^ (accent circonflexe) mark above said vowel. This explains why the French word for “forest” is written forêt. Thus, at one point desport was written dêport, which explains why the orthography of the Spanish word for sport deporte is missing an s as well. These linguistic adventures are what I live for.

Soccer with cars. Why not? Courtesy of The Ringer

Back to eSports. The earliest record of the English word “sport” is from the 1300s, which meant basically anything someone did for amusement and relaxation. So why can’t a video game be considered a sport? It is something you can do with friends or by yourself, something you can practice, that takes varying degrees of skill, and can be enjoyable.

There are professional leagues for so many different games now. Older ones like Counter Strike, new ones like Overwatch. Games where you play soccer with cars like Rocket League. The sky really is the limit here. Major gaming tournaments have been aired on TV. A Chinese team offered the best LoL player in the world, a South Korean who goes by the moniker “Faker” — or, as ESPN magazine called him “The Unkillable Demon King” — a $4 million one-year contract.

ESports are on the rise. Big money is being put into this multi-billion dollar industry, and investors are starting to take eSports seriously. Japan is pushing for competitive gaming to be included in the 2024 Olympics, and they aren’t the only country. Next time someone tells you that video games won’t get you anywhere in life, let them know they have a guaranteed $70k salary if they want to go pro in League of Legends.

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