The Mainstreaming Of eSports Is Slow, Sure, And Not Over Yet

The Mainstreaming Of eSports Is Slow, Sure, And Not Over Yet

As a good American I was filled with a jingoistic fervour after the triumph of the Evil Geniuses at The International, the world championship for Dota 2, this past weekend. I like video games. I like sports. But I’ve never watched eSports, not a single match of Starcraft 2, Dota 2, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, or anything else. In the hopes of learning more about yet another thing that the United States is better at than anyone else in the world, I decided to talk to Rob Zacny of the new podcast Esports Today on the Idle Thumbs network, for Shall We Play a Game?

You can listen to Shall We Play a Game?, the podcast I host with former NPR producer and correspondent JJ Sutherland, here.

A lot of sports fans play video games, as evidenced by the popularity of things like Madden NFL, MLB The Show, and NBA 2K. Those fans are the same people that eSports appeals to, Zacny believes.

“A lot of typical gamer culture, such as it is, if you want to use that blanket term, I don’t think is that accepting of esports,” he said. “The interesting thing is, if you really get into eSports, and you hang out with people who really follow eSports closely, they also tend to be the same people who follow sports really closely. I don’t think it’s necessarily that these are sports for gamers. I think they are sports for a generation of sports fans who have also grown up playing video games. I think that’s where the bridge happens.”

When you toss around a football in your backyard, you’re not really playing the same sport that the professionals that you watch on Sundays in the National Football League are playing, Zacny pointed out. They have referees and uniforms and equipment that you can’t recreate at home. Esports is different.

“In Dota, in Starcraft, in Counterstrike, you can go play the exact same game the pros are playing,” he said. “You can literally just play the exact same game that you just watched a grand master player compete in. And you can take what you just saw, and in your half-assed, incompetent way, you can try to mimic it.”

To me, eSports feel like they’re having the same cultural moment in the United States that video games as a whole had about a decade ago. People are noticing how much money they make and wondering what that means, and whether they’re missing out on something meaningful. The people who run the world of sports and sports media, like the people who run the capital-c Culture in the United States, aren’t sure they respect video games. But they do respect the money.

“Esports is always about to have its breakthrough moment,” Zacny said. “And I think we’ll still be talking about eSports having its breakthrough moment in another five years. Part of that is, what does mainstream cultural acceptance look like in the next five to 10 years? What’s the future of cable television? Esports arrives at this really odd time when the media landscape is fragmenting. I’m not sure the mainstreaming of eSports will look anything like the mainstreaming of football or basketball.”

Sports fans in the United States may not have rallied to the Evil Geniuses the way we rallied to the women’s soccer team when they won the World Cup this summer, but the victory was important for America’s international reputation, Zacny said. “North America, in general, has a reputation for being a bit of a dumpster fire when it comes to eSports,” he said. “This is a region that is known for being long on hype and personality.”

The Evil Geniuses aren’t on the Wheaties box yet — and I found it disappointing that the South Koreans didn’t add Starcraft 2 to the Winter Olympics they’re hosting in 2018 — but ESPN’s E:60 documentary series announced Wednesday on Twitter that it will air an episode this fall about the American triumph: “5 guys from California won $US6.6 million at #TI5 ,the Super Bowl of competitive gaming.”

Surely the feature film, the Hoosiers or Miracle of eSports, is next.

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  • Yeah I dont think id ever watch e-sports, highlight videos on youtube of funny things in games, sure sometimes, but I’m not going to watch someone else playing a game, its the same reason I dont watch real sports – but I will happily play a real sport as well.

    • I agree with you. I don’t watch ‘normal’ sports and I don’t think I’ll watch esports either. I do like watching highlight reels and ‘shot of week’ or ‘play of the week’ or whatever. I can appreciate the skill (and athleticism) whenever I watch e/sports but watching e/sports isn’t as interesting as actually playing them myself.

      I did watch MLG Show of the Week (or whatever it was called) when it was on Foxtel.

    • Give it a go? an hour of your life and you might find a new interest. I suggest Game 5 navi vs alliance at Ti3 finals or game 2 IG vs Navi Ti2 finals

  • I love watching sports of all sorts, especially how commentators try to theorize/predict what an individual/team will do, their strengths and their weaknesses and then watch it play out in front of you. The fact that esports is associated with something i have a tremendous passion(gaming) for simply makes it all the more the sweeter. 😀

  • I actually watches Dota 2 matches just because I want to see how they play the heroes at competition level. The only way to learn new heroes is to watch someone good playing it and learn the style.

  • I’m sporty and a gamer however I don’t watch any e-sports…..too busy gaming. I want to escape reality, not watch someone else escape reality. All of my friends that are into e-sports, are not sporty at all. So I would have to say that my personal experience with e-sport runs against the grain of the assertions mentioned in the article. It could just be an isolated anomaly too but thought it was worth pointing out that there are probably a lot of e-sport fans out there that aren’t into sport in general.

  • I find I only take interest in e-Sports if the game being playing is something I’m playing competitively at the time

  • On top of the ‘cringe’ or ‘cheese’ factor/stigma currently draped over esports, there are a few other factors preventing it’s acceptance:

    View: When we watch football, baseball or tennis etc, we are seeing either the whole play area or a decent size of it where the action is happening – wherever the action is, that’s what we have to see. Spectators of eSports would for example need to be seeing overviews and lots of open and wide special angles that show where the battles and clashes are potentially about happen – just as networks have tons of cameras covering everything, future esport games will need to have the ability for 3rd parties to fly a camera around ingame to capture the action at will, which would then be broadcast on a big screen.
    It’s going to take a while for this to occur let alone have the camera operators do a smooth/professional job of it.
    Each match (and/or round of a match) itself will need to feel different from the last, this will require a deeper and more dynamic ambience in the game in regards to the environment/background details. We don’t pay attention to the crowds much in sport, but each camera sweep of the crowd looks different.

    Ability: There’s not enough of a real visible ‘skill’ factor currently involved, a lot of it can simply be freakish reaction times, which is often associated with malnourished basement dwellers, adhd sufferers and people who consume energy drinks excessively- people will just think ill of people who are clearly way too good at a game.
    Also people can cheat or do ‘superhuman’ things in other ways, such as using macros or quick 70~90 degree switchers to get an advantage over others. A digital version of drug cheats in sport.

    The games themselves: War has never been a sport, so making an accepted spectacle of a FPS or battle game would be difficult. There are no lazer tag matches on TV (well probably somewhere in America there is but you know what I mean).

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