The Rise Of E-sports


The Decline of Deodorant ◆ by Benjamin Atkinson

Ten competitors took the stage. They didn’t look like athletes. They were mostly small, scrawny, and gave no indication of recent exposure to sunlight. A single look on at their faces, however, belied an intensity, dedication, and focus that Peyton Manning or Lionel Messi would instantly recognize. After all, there was a $1 million prize riding on their performance that night.The stage was inside the Staples Center and the e-sport was League of Legends. “Sport” usually conveys images of sweaty bodies being tamed and shaped by endless hours of exertion, locked in a very physical contest. There is often an almost savage aspect reflecting a life-and-death struggle that was all too literal for many cultures throughout history. E-sports does not disparage participants in the classical sports, but seeks to take aspects from sport such as tenacity, focus, determination, ingenuity, teamwork, and a host of others that play out in a formal competition. Competition allows each player to take stock of his or her abilities and chart improvements from match to match in a public forum.

E-sports have been around for decades, maturing mostly in Korea where they have become a national pastime. Starcraft is practically the godfather of e-sports, but many other games receive the attention of millions of fans from across the globe. Street Fighter is a classic of the fighting genre, while Counter Strike is a leader among first person shooters. League of Legends is the top among the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games, and its producer Riot Games has invested heavily in marketing e-Sports in general and its own game in particular.

Riot even arranged for a professional athlete visa to be granted by the U.S. government to Canadian Danny “Shiphtur” Le. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determined that the League Championship Series met the stringent requirements of a professional sports league and issued Le a very selective P-1A visa, reserved for professional athletes who want to work in the US in order that they might “enrich the nation’s cultural landscape.” As far as the U.S. Government is concerned, e-sport competitors command the same status as Olympic athletes.

Attending an e-sport event is similar to attending any sporting events — thousands of fans, many rabidly exhibiting exuberance for their favorite team in the form of swag and signs. Thunderous applause for impressive plays. The competition among the fans is intense for a chance at an autograph or photo opportunity from the professionals. Viewers who stream games on their home computer can follow the play by play provided by professional “shout-casters” who offer color commentary and increase accessibility for those who don’t closely follow the professional scene or are new the game.

Video game enthusiast and former Minnesota Viking punter Chris Kluwe was featured in a Riot-produced video during the League of Legends World Championship match (it can now be found on YouTube). He notes many of the positive attributes shared between participants in classical sports such as football and those in e-sports, as well as the potential ahead for e-sports with its own unique advantages. The physical threshold for participating in classic sports is rather high, especially if one hopes to achieve any measure of success. The only threshold to cross in e-sports is access to a computer and time to dedicate.

NFL players enjoy the largest sports fan-base in America today, and e-sport gamers aren’t going to replace them anytime soon. But if this is the first you are hearing about it, you’re guaranteed to hear more soon. Viewer numbers for the championship match are not available yet but over 18 million world-wide tuned in for the All-Star game back in May. Kluwe notes that while there is indeed important physical aspects such as reaction time (watch any clip of professional gaming and it the movements seem prescient), e-sports focuses on mental challenges. Sport grew out of the vital need for teamwork and physical aptitude that have helped communities across the ages thrive and prosper in the face of harsh competition with nature and other cultures. But success in the modern economy depends upon intelligence, creativity, and other aspects of mental agility that are hallmarks of successful e-sport gamers. It seems fitting that as humanity dives into the computer age, sport does as well.

It was in this spirit of sport that Riot assembled 14 teams to compete for the title of best League of Legends team in the world. Representatives had been narrowed down in the professional leagues of China, Southeast Asia, Korea, North America, and Europe. A special International Wildcard tournament allowed the winner from other regions without their own burgeoning professional e-sports organization an opportunity for the title. But the lack of professional experience showed and the wildcard team was quickly eliminated. North America and SE Asia’s representatives fared no better, with all of their teams ousted at the earliest opportunity. Two of Europe’s teams managed to claw their way into the later stages, but the tournament was mostly a showcase for the prowess of the Chinese and Korean teams, who took three of the four spots in the semifinals.

Sports come and go. Baseball was “America’s Game” for a long time, but many fans have fled the ballpark for the football stadium. Boxing and wrestling are alive and well but neither command the public’s attention in the way they had throughout the centuries. Video games tend to have a short half-life as technology improvements pull players towards newer games. League of Legends may soon fade into the background but e-sports are just getting started.

The Ryder ● December 2013