This is Co-Opinion, where two Joystiq editors play a game and discuss their experience. This edition focuses on the merits of eSports and how they fit with traditional sports.
Jess Conditt: Let's lay out the foundation here: I'm a fan of eSports and sports in the same way. I play games from both categories, but I'm far from a professional in any sense (though I shoot a mean three-pointer). When I see sports fans lashing out at eSports players, or saying that these games don't require any sports-like skill, I'm equally surprised and confused. Those who argue that eSports aren't "real" sports are not simply stripping professional players of a title; they're de-legitimizing the time and talent it takes to compete on that level. The word "sport" itself may not matter that much, but the intent of those withholding it does. Many of the arguments feel like bullying, or at the very least, caustic comments from those wary of change.
Obviously, eSports require different skills than those needed to play physical sports, but they take skill nonetheless: strategy, quick thinking, fast reflexes, communication, perseverance, creativity, teamwork. I understand that these are not necessarily physical attributes, but I don't think that negates their value. I wonder if "athleticism" is the issue here, rather than whether eSports are, in fact, sports.
Mike Suszek: I'm positive that athleticism is the concern here. Those that take to the literal definition of "sport" will find terms like "physical exertion" involved; there's no doubt that an inherent assumption exists that any kind of sport must include significant physical activity. I don't think that argument is going away anytime soon, regardless of the ever-rising merits of eSports as a competitive venue.
But let's also be clear about something: This tug-of-war isn't exactly new, either. ESPN gets flack for airing the World Series of Poker tournaments regularly, and some of the more traditional sports fanatics take issue with labeling hunting and fishing as "sports." My sister-in-law is on a darts team. She plays that competitively, is that a sport too? The debate is out there, but I'm just as interested in the conversation on why it even exists, and why it's often coming from spectators and not athletes. Can you even call an eSports competitor an "athlete?"
Jess Conditt: This is absolutely not a new conversation, but with Dota 2's The International ending recently – and paying out more than $10 million to players – the backlash is apparent once again. On a story we wrote about The International's winning team, Newbee, a conversation (argument?) broke out among some readers regarding the validity of Dota 2 as a sport, the competition's large payout and the stigma of players as social pariahs. This idea that eSports aren't "real" sports comes from people reading news sites about video games – they're gaming fans, yet still separate the mental acuity needed to play Dota 2 from the physical fitness required to play football, for example.
And that's fair.
Mike Suszek: I agree. And here we thought we'd be fighting the whole time.
Jess Conditt: If the argument is "eSports aren't athletic," there's no need to refute it. Dota 2 requires mental fitness rather than physical, done and done.
That doesn't mean eSports aren't sports – competitions, tests of skill, talents that require practice, practice, practice. eSports are part of the evolution of the term "sports," a definition that has been changing since the first, prehistoric foot race. As qualitative sociologist and MIT associate professor TL Taylor puts it in Raising the Stakes, a book that examines professional gaming:
"Only the most naive, and ahistorical, would suggest the coveted legitimacy of sport is bestowed objectively, outside of any deep cultural values of what constitutes meaningful human and social action."
No one is suggesting that eSports are athletic, but that doesn't mean they're not sports. How does that sit with you, Mike?
Mike Suszek: It sits fine with me when put in those terms, actually. The idea that the definition of "sports" is expanding before our very eyes makes sense. There are plenty of parallels to this; even the growing mainstream acceptance and de-geekification of video games as a whole fits nicely with this. You will always, always have opposition to a change like this. I do think some tend to react adversely to change of any sort almost as much as they instantly discard the notion that a modern event of any kind has a meaningful impact on the dynamic landscape of pop culture.
And yet, we pretty widely accept that Twitch is raking in very high viewership numbers and Google's acquisition of the streaming platform totally makes sense, right? I do think it's interesting, and maybe a little strange that there's still plenty of refusal to classify eSports as a sport while the spectatorship of video games is as natural as a dedicated button on a PS4 controller. It just screams "get with the times!" to me, like eSports is part of the natural curve of video games that happened in reverse. Money-making tournaments have been around for years, after all.
Here's another stance, though, and it might explain why traditional sports fans would still have issues getting behind their button-mashing brethren after accepting a "sports" reclassification: I don't usually find these tournaments exciting to watch.
Jess Conditt: That's because you have no taste.
Mike Suszek: Rude, but hear me out. Last NFL season, my beloved Green Bay Packers slowly marched down the field late in the 4th quarter against their rivals, the Chicago Bears, in Week 17 and converted multiple 4th downs to do so. The winner of the game would win the division and get into the playoffs, so the stakes couldn't be higher for a regular season match. What happened will probably be forever known as "4th and eight" in this state, as Aaron Rodgers barely evaded a Julius Peppers sack, scrambled briefly and heaved the ball to Randall Cobb with little over 40 seconds left to basically win the game.
It was a miraculous, absolutely crazy play in which Cobb ran the wrong route and still put the Packers ahead in the game and in the playoffs. Not only that, but the circumstances surrounding the play are just as fun to examine: Both players were returning from injuries in which they were out half the season, and the near-tackler Peppers is now a member of the Packers. This play falls in the "you just can't make this stuff up" category for traditional sports, which plays host to these kinds of "did I really just see that?" moments all the time. It's why I'm always thrilled as a spectator.
Do these kinds of moments happen in eSports? What could get me to watch them and care about them?
Jess Conditt: Oh, my dearest, sweetest, most excellent Mike. To put it succinctly: Yes, these moments happen in eSports!
I would equate watching a professional MOBA game to viewing a soccer match, rather than football. The games are marked by slow moments where each team feels out their opponents, tracking moves and building to exploit the other players' choices, and then – WHAM – a team fight breaks out and champions die, evade and attack at breathtaking speed. This is when the commentators start yelling and the crowd goes wild. It's glorious.
Mike Suszek: OK. But is it as exciting as my "4th and eight" moment?
Jess Conditt: Yes. League of Legends is my spectating game of choice, and one moment that still gives me chills as I re-watch it is this beautiful backdoor from the player xPeke, a founding member of pro team Fnatic, against SK Gaming in 2013. Playing as Kassadin, xPeke almost died in a team fight at SK Gaming's Nexus – SK pushed Fnatic back with both towers destroyed and light damage to its Nexus, and SK started rushing toward Fnatic's base down the middle lane. XPeke branched off to top lane and while SK was distracted, he rushed into their base and started taking out the Nexus by himself, with almost no health and, once SK got wise, while under fire from two enemy players. He jumped, slowed and weaved between attacks while constantly hitting the Nexus, and with the tiniest sliver of life left, he dealt the final blow and won the game for Fnatic.
Mike Suszek: And just that clip alone, the 4th and eight of the MOBA world, is pretty easy for me to grasp in the way you presented it. The odds seem stacked against one player, and he overcame them in a pretty spectacular way. That's pretty much the premise of 80 percent of all sports movies.
Jess Conditt: In terms of getting you, or anyone else, to watch and enjoy these games – sitting down and watching a few rounds may give you a basic idea of what's going on, but to truly understand the lingo and mechanics, you'll have to research a ton, or watch a ridiculous number of games, or play for a while yourself. How did you first get into football? Did you grow up watching it and ask an adult what was happening on-screen? Did you soak up the terminology and plays by listening to commentators and reading articles about the games online? Perhaps you played in school?
It's the same with eSports, only today's adults didn't grow up with professional gaming readily available on network TV every Sunday, complete with chips and dip. eSports are new, but that doesn't mean they're not sports or any less of a joy to watch. Hell, the League of Legends Championship Series sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles last year – that's 11,000 League fans in the building where the Lakers play. ESPN aired the Dota 2 world finals and that $10 million prize pool. Plus, the US government views MOBA pros as "professional athletes" and issues visas to international players.
But, you may never like watching professional League of Legends games. You may research, watch and play for 10,000 hours and still decide that it's not for you. Some people don't get a kick out of watching football, but that doesn't make football any less of a sport. The same principle applies to eSports.
Mike Suszek: Learning and understanding the rules of the sports you're watching is a big step towards appreciating them, that's for sure (I have to explain some of soccer's nuances time and time again to close friends so they stop chiding me when I'm getting my footy fix, after all).
Speaking of, is there a Mighty Ducks-themed MOBA? Because then I'm all in. Get Disney on the horn. I call Adam Banks.