eSports: A new kind of sport

By Julian del Prado

(Andrew Rush/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
(Andrew Rush/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

There has always been debate about what qualifies as a sport. Is golf really a sport? Or is it just a game, since the people involved aren’t exerting themselves as much as, say, basketball players. Chess is often called a sport, and yet the entire event takes place sitting down. Even curling, an Olympic sport, is often ridiculed for bringing slightly overweight middle-aged contestants to the same event as gymnastic Olympians.

And then there are eSports. Online games that resemble sports in their construction are becoming an international phenomenon, and they challenge many assumptions about spectator sports.

While eSports flourished in Asia far before they did in the United States, the release of Starcraft II in 2010 catalyzed the meteoric rise of eSports in North America. As the game gained more players and a base of viewers willing to watch streams of semi-professional and professional players, the stage was set for an even bigger eSport: League of Legends (LoL). Not only is LoL free to play, it’s one of the biggest video games on earth with 27 million daily players and 67 million monthly players.

In 2013, the LoL World Championship netted 34 million viewers, making it the biggest eSporting event in world history. Additionally, professional LoL players are now able to get sports visas from the United States government, making LoL a nationally recognized sport. So what is it about these games that make them just as fun to watch as to play?

For starters, much like a real sport, watching an eSport can and will make you better at it. While watching salaried professionals gives players a look at the ultimate possibilities offered by the game, thousands of players streaming online offer varying levels of seriousness with which to watch the game.

YouTube yields tons of “top plays” and tutorial games by semi-professionals who make money by streaming and offering commentary. Online personalities tied to the game create a shared sense of community among players who all seek to get better or who just like playing. Not only that, but eSports offer the same kind of impossible fame that sports like football and basketball do.

Even though there is a less than 1 percent chance of getting into the NBA, thousands of kids aspire to just that and work endlessly to improve their game. With a concrete ranking system from bronze at the bottom all the way to the coveted Challenger rank for the top 50 players, eSports like LoL make climbing to the top seem like a distant possibility, but a possibility nonetheless.

Regardless of their popularity, the question remains whether eSports should truly be considered sports at all. For the sake of salaried professional players, it certainly makes sense; after all, to be denied a visa on the grounds that their livelihood is only a game hardly seems fair. These professionals train for months on end perfecting strategies and game mechanics, which led me to consider eSports similar to chess and golf. The mental strain of these games also causes players to get worse with age on a professional level, which I feel supports that argument.

With new strategies coming out every day and patches designed to alter the feel of each game on a regular basis, eSports feel fresh and dynamic in a tournament setting. Certainly performance-enhancing drugs factor in less, which I appreciate. League of Legends even has fantasy leagues online, with amateur LoL players scoring themselves through a roster of professionals based on their performance in a given week. While there may always be naysayers who consider chess, golf and eSports to be detached from “real” sports like football and basketball, the growing community of eSports players and fans may soon be outnumber them.

Julian del Prado is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]