Back in 1903, the organization for Major League Baseball was established, marking the birth of professional sports in America. Within twenty years, there was a massive boom of similar leagues covering sports like Hockey, Soccer, American Football, Golf, Tennis and Basketball. Now in the twenty-first century, they are joined by electronic sports, or eSports. The expansion of the internet and social media have brought us into a digital age; it’s natural that our hobbies and competitions would follow suit through this new frontier, and it’s especially fascinating to break down the ways in which eSports attempt to solve the issues of their more physical brethren.
But did anyone expect eSports to expand so quickly? While “competitive gaming” has been around since the ‘80s and normalized by the ‘90s, eSports as a league format wasn’t widely picked up until the mid-2010s, within about five years of this article’s writing. Despite its infancy, the growth of eSports has been exponential; by 2019, eSports are already projected to be a billion dollar industry.
Unfortunately, eSports still have a difficult climb ahead. While the narrative is unfolding in their favor, eSports are still not fully accepted as professional sports by some, and with many of their games subject to constant change and the incorporation of new content, it’s hard to imagine a settled landscape for any title offered in this seemingly spontaneous phenomenon.
So, where does the success of eSports come from?
The answer isn’t a matter of pointing out any one aspect or group as responsible for the movement; eSports is bigger than that. The sheer scale and impact of eSports indicate that we’re dealing with something wholly cultural and that the industry’s success is as reactive as it is proactive. Through a combined focus on accessibility, self-expression, fantasy, and dynamism, eSports have become a reflection of the current generational zeitgeist.
Accessibility: Everyone is invited to participate
One of the unique drawbacks of physical sports is the restriction of gear and environmental factors. American Football and Soccer are probably the least restrictive, needing only a ball, but everything else scales up from there, reaching a peak with sports like Polo and Car Racing. Some sports require specific terrain like a tennis court, swimming pool, or an entire country club, not all of which are reasonably accessible. Then there are environmental factors: only a handful of sports can be played effectively in the rain, hardly any can be played in the snow, and special facilities are needed when the sun stops cooperating. Not to mention that for all of these sports (except for Golf), you often require the physical presence of other players, an organizational task that ranges from reasonable (most sports function just fine 1v1) to downright stupid (good luck filling a field for Baseball). It’s on this initial front of accessibility that eSports find their first major victory. They aren’t limited by environmental factors, don’t require an excess of gear outside of what many people already own, and the internet makes gathering players a cinch. Part of the success of eSports comes from this incredibly low barrier of entry: all you need is a halfway decent computer or video game console and an internet connection, things that are becoming increasingly common.
Every year, the amount of people worldwide that have access to the internet grows. Currently, there are over 240 million Americans connected, and that’s paltry compared to our European and Asian neighbors. With that large a market, it’s not hard to picture hearing that League of Legends, one of the most popular eSports in circulation, currently showcases an active player base of over 100 million players per month. You don’t even need additional funds---many Esports titles like League of Legends, DOTA 2, Team Fortress 2, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, and Smite are all completely free to play. This means that occasionally, eSports are a cheaper competitive investment than physical sports.
But of course, the cost of a sport only goes so far. A large portion of what makes a sport thrive is the size and commitment of its player base, and the ability of those players to connect and compete. Physical sports created leagues and tournaments specifically to use competition as a way to generate that sort of community; surprisingly eSports tend to work in reverse, often easily building a community first and then facilitating competition later. When these games come out, people start talking with each other immediately and frequently, sharing opinions and formulating strategies. Community isn’t difficult when everyone is connected at all times, constantly ready to defend or attack one aspect or another, all with instant response. The whole process is honestly not that different from the behavior that drives social media; everything is driven by updates, idea sharing, endless exposure, and knowing that you are only a single click away from participating.
It’s not hard to see that Esports are one of the most open and available avenues of competition for most of the developed world. The interaction and behavior as a social media platform make them especially reflective of modern trends.
Self-Expression: Everyone is encouraged to be unique
It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes an athlete unique in any sport. I watch a lot of Tennis and, as a result, I can identify the aspects that distinguish players from each other: serve, short game, full court game, endurance, willpower, court preference, and in case of doubles: teamwork. When you hit the top level, however, all players are roughly equivalent in each category except for one: willpower. And this is true of most sports; when I watch Soccer, even though I know each team has 3 offense, 3 midfield, 2 defense and 1 goalkeeper, all I can really see is 8 standard players and a goalkeeper. I don’t notice any particular difference between the players until one team is losing. I know it sounds harsh, but unless you’re an especially dedicated fan, I doubt you could tell me the discernable differences between two different offense players on the same Soccer team, or between two crewmates in a Rowing shell, or even between the three outfielders on a Baseball team. At the very least, I don’t think you could do that without giving me a series of physical differences (size, weight, and sex immediately come to mind). On the other hand, you have eSports, a format that channels self-expression by facilitating personality over physicality.
eSports differentiate themselves from (almost) every physical game with a heavy emphasis on expression, and it comes through strong with a relatively simple addition: character and/or class selection. On a Soccer team, you can think of the positions as different classes---Offense, Midfield, Defense, Goalie---but in terms of execution all of those positions are the same except for Goalie, who’s unique ability is being able to use hands/arms on the ball. In a game of Overwatch, Blizzard’s hottest new competitive shooter, teams only sport 6 players but each of those players has access to about 25 characters, each of which has significantly different abilities compared to the rest of the cast. Without the option for duplicates, each player on that team needs to practice and exhibit a wholly unique skillset from the rest of their peers. Now, to be fair, Overwatch is categorized in a fashion similar to Soccer, namely into 4 sections---Offense, Defense, Tank, and Support---and just like Soccer, it requires a healthy spread of these positions. On the other hand, while any two Offense players in Soccer should have roughly identical styles of play, two Offense characters in Overwatch are like night and day. All the characters within one class use different weapons and abilities, and once you dip into different classes the differences get far more distinct.
Meanwhile, League of Legends only has 5 person teams but boasts an impressive 130+ different characters, each with amazing distinction. With the prodigious cast of these games, it’s often impossible for any player, even a professional, to reasonably master all of them. As as result, these games reward specialization over generalization, and often to a pretty narrow degree: Professional League players have mastery of around five to ten characters, and can reasonably play another 20 at most, Overwatch pros tend to swap between only about two to four characters out of 25, and for almost every fighting game players at all levels tends to only ever focus on mastering one character.
What’s interesting about this focus on characters and classes is that it establishes very tangible common ground between players, regardless of differences in skill level or physical appearances. If I play the same character as a pro gamer, my initial thought seeing them is “this person is just like me”. It becomes possible to imagine yourself in their shoes, internally seeing something of an end goal to your means of expression, and while that’s also possible in physical sports it rarely ever gets that specific. And again, the fact that these connections can be made without anything physical defining them when the youth of America strives to express themselves beyond the expectations of sex, gender or any number of handicaps, means that eSports give them something more personal.
Fantasy: Anything is possible
This may seem a bit obvious, but it’s still important: eSports allow us the opportunity to craft competition from the impossible. I hate to generalize, but a lot of physical sports share a pretty common conceit: navigate a small object into a goal. To be fair, even eSports run into this problem within a few of its genres: Fighting games want you to reduce your opponent’s health to 0, shooters want your team to capture an objective, and MOBA’s want your team to destroy the enemy team’s base. What really defines those sports are the nuances and methods of presentation between them, and this is where the application of fantasy becomes a major sell.
In the realm of eSports, players take on the role of warriors, mages, space marines, monsters, and all manner of bizarre and wonderful entities, and with them, they also inhabit far away places and impossible landscapes. This ties back to self-expression, in that some of these worlds and characters might work better at reflecting a person’s values or ideals better than...well, themselves. The only thing you are capable of being in a physical sport is yourself, for better and for worse, whereas in eSports the possibilities are endless.
Even more important are the worlds that these games are built within. Most of these communities are full of artists, writers, musicians and general enthusiasts that imprint heavily on these fantasy worlds because of how much they offer outside the normal spectrum. The same sort of majesty that defines Harry Potter’s world of magic, the galaxy of Star Wars or Marvel’s expanding multiverse can be found with the same level of potency in places like League’s “Runeterra” or the not too distant future of Overwatch. For these communities, this is more than a game or a sport, but an entire way of life. There’s no denying that this yearning for escapism is part of the draw, or the entire draw for some. These games and communities are entirely ready to engage with fantasy; immersion is constantly on the front lines. It might not always be the healthiest aspect, but these games offer a much deeper dive than any other sport is currently able, and one that more people than ever are willing to embrace.
Dynamism: An Ever-Changing Landscape
Most of the physical sports we play haven’t really changed much in the last century. That’s not to say they’re exactly the same, but the alterations have been very restrained. In fact, these games only undergo updates when a drastically unhealthy element is revealed. One of my favorite examples is Basketball hall of famer George Mikan, who played for the Lakers from the 40’s-50’s and stood at a massive 6’10’’. Mikan was a massive hurdle for other players; his insane height nearly guaranteed rebounds and gave him access to shot blocking and a strong hook shot. Because of this, one team, The Pistons, devised a strategy specifically for dealing with Mikan: score an early lead, then keep the ball away as much as possible. The result was the lowest scoring game in NBA history (19-18), and while the strategy worked it resulted in a severely unengaging game. Afterwards, several changes were implemented into the NBA, including the introduction of the shot clock to prevent stalling, a rule against goaltending, widening the court from 6 feet to 12 feet (literally called “the Mikan rule”), and eventually adding the 3-point line to help even the playing field against taller players. While those rules may seem standard to us today, they were likely considered pretty wild at the time it happened.
Still, the changes brought about from Mikan’s presence are about as intense as they tend to get. Outside of that, we’ve seen the forward pass added to American Football, tiebreaker shootouts in Hockey, larger scale drug testing and injury prevention methods all around, and the overall addition of “Instant Replay” systems to many precision sports. Keep in mind, that list of changes spans over the last century. Because of the sheer age of physical sports, making any large scale changes is liable to upset fans and players alike. It’s hard to create a competitive landscape when things are constantly changing, but it’s also not ideal to have players fighting against the game itself when they should be focused on the other players. The challenge comes in maintaining a healthy balance around...well, balance. The changes around Mikan were not made to specifically nerf or buff his presence, but rather to make the game more engaging and fun to watch. It’s probably no surprise that Basketball is one of the only physical sports with a currently growing audience, and updates like these are likely part of the reason. On the other hand you have Baseball, a sport that has remained practically untouched, but watching it is equally fun as spending half the game on the bench waiting to bat.
Now let’s talk about eSports, where the rules are either fine tuned or massively updated either every year, or every month in the most extreme cases. League of Legends is on the most extreme end of content changes, fine tuning various elements of the game about once a month, although to be fair that lives more in the territory of fine tuning rather than anything drastic. While it seems like a competitive disaster in the making, League has actually flourished through an environment of constant change rather than fall apart. While changing things even at the micro level might seem like a nightmare for the professional gamers, the truth is that top level players are able to make adjustments as needed and without overwhelming hassle. Sometimes it means considering other characters or strategies, but in the best cases, it can mean reevaluating themselves and how they are approaching the game. I think it speaks pretty highly about the current generation that they are incredibly talented at making these massive adaptations, and while I do think that maybe one a month is perhaps a little aggressive, the community has managed for the most part to make these games work for them.
This environment of dynamism is also well within the line of what people expect nowadays. We live in a world where everything is either constantly changing or updating, and that reality is presented in the form of Facebook, Youtube, and other similar services. We’re exposed to a perpetual stream of new information all the time and often accept it at face value; everything needs to have a quality of newness to it. When this logic is applied to sports, it’s perhaps not difficult to see eSports thriving despite being built on the slightly unstable ground, whereas physical sports are having a harder and harder time generating new audience members.
And on the other hand...
eSports reflect the nature of what makes video games the greatest new interactive medium of the last thirty years; it’s a format built on a foundation of constant refinement, greater inclusivity, and wonderous immersion. The entry bar keeps rising, but the hobby is growing and maturing enough to continue getting on the ride, always better for the effort. Still, for all the success and positivity, there are still huge battles ahead that eSports need to fight. Some of these battles are external, like gaining proper respect and recognition amongst other sports communities, but the worst to come is internal, like deducing how to improve the longevity of eSports to compare with physical sports. I know it seems like I’ve been ragging on physical sports for most of this article, but truthfully I hold a great deal of respect for all these sports that have survived for 100 years and especially for the ones that are thriving despite that, all while retaining their overall core values. It’s really easy to compliment eSports now, but where will it be twenty years from now? League of Legends is soon approaching a healthy competitive life of ten years, but will League even exist another ten after that, or will it simply be replaced by a newer shinier thing?
And somehow I feel like that might be the most accurate reflection of the new generation. Everything that emerges culturally has a ridiculously short shelf life now. Even films that truly shake up the status quo may only hold about a year’s worth of sway at the best; Mad Max: Fury Road is still one of the most impressive and impactful films made within the last five years, but hasn’t been discussed or existed on the forefront of anyone’s mind only two years later. In some ways, the dynamism of eSports is part of what makes them interesting, but might also be the only thing keeping them relevant, and unfortunately it’s not completely sustainable. You can only sharpen an edge so much until it becomes too dangerous to hold.
All that being said, my hopes remain high for eSports moving forward. Companies are getting better about pacing themselves, and there’s a much greater understanding on what makes these games engaging than there ever used to be. Recognition as a serious form of competition may be right around the corner too; eSports are currently being optioned for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. We keep getting smarter about making and changing these games, and regardless of what the world thinks I know for sure there’s value in the lesson. As is true of the current zeitgeist, we are constantly learning and self-educating, always looking for the best possible outcome.