About eight years ago, I remember vividly sitting at the Incheon airport in Seoul, looking up at the television and seeing a game of Starcraft being aired. The closest I’d ever seen something like it in North America was the airing of darts or poker; sports that were a filler for something to air on the network on Wednesday afternoons when the big sports weren’t happening.
What I saw in that airport wasn’t that. These players were being introduced and regaled like they were WWE Superstars, and the level of production in airing these games made it seem like a big deal.
This 2007 EVER Starleague intro for their final 16 tells you just how serious professional Starcraft: Brood War play was being taken back then:
The game itself was surrounded by a culture that viewed it as a sport, despite the fact that it wasn’t athletic. And until recently, eSports weren’t viewed as a real thing.
In North America today, we see big ticket networks provide full eSports coverage, like ESPN’s eSports News, which puts the relatively young pro-gaming industry right up there with globally established and culturally significant sports like boxing and tennis, and on the same platform that showcases professional football, hockey, and baseball. That’s a big deal.
Its rise to prominence in North America has coincided with a few things. The rise of games solely focused on player-vs-player (PvP) interaction, like DOTA2 and League of Legends, has brought about a platform on which players can regularly compete. Additionally, the younger generations who grew up with video games are capable of both consuming eSports media as well as seeing it as an investment. In Asia, where e-sports has a 15-year headstart, the infrastructure for the sport is established with team owners who are invested in the growth of the sport and its players, experienced scouts and recruiters who can find rising talent, and trainers who work with teams to level up their skills. North America is only now starting to have that same infrastructure.
Ultimately, though, the viability of professional eSports is directly related to the rise of the geeks. A professional sport needs an audience, and it’s only now that one has emerged. Traditional sport replays make obvious how skillful the player is; even non-soccer players can watch an athlete execute a bicycle kick, see that it’s difficult and recognize the skill required. eSports are not traditionally best consumed in replays and are especially hard for non-players to appreciate. We’ve reached a tipping point where there are enough recreational players who themselves can recognize the difficulty of the sport and the skill required, and have the passion to follow a team and be invested in their success.
Here’s the thing: the explosion of eSports isn’t a story about players getting paid a lot of money to play video games. Overpaid athletes doesn’t make a a game a sport; an audience willing to buy into that game, does. Electrified spectator crowds at events, trash-talk between rival fans, and the anticipation of upcoming games: these are the hallmarks of professional sports. The rise of eSports in North America isn’t and will not continue to be a story about games or players, it’s a story about fans and how we collectively have shifted the culture to appreciate and recognize the games we’re excited about.
Are you an eSports fan? What games/teams are you following? Tell us in comments!
Featured Image Credit: artubr | Flickr (CC 2.0)
Image Credits: Jakob Wells | Flickr (CC 2.0)