Esports are on the rise with more fans, players and money flowing in daily
The clock is ticking down. It’s the final minutes of game three on the second day of the Grand Finals. The London Spitfire need only a few moments of possession to seal their victory.
With sure, practiced movements, London wraps around the point, displaces Philadelphia and brings down their main defense. Over 800,000 pairs of eyes lock onto the action as Philadelphia throw themselves at the London line. Less than 10 seconds later London’s won it – not only the million-dollar prize, but the legacy of being the first ever Overwatch League Grand Champions.
Esports are on the rise, not only in the United States, but across the world. It is commonplace in 2018 for professional teams to compete in million-dollar prize tournaments, watched by millions of dedicated fans. The biggest games like “League of Legends,” “Dota 2,” “Counter Strike: Global Offensive,” “Overwatch,” “Fortnite” and others draw millions of aspiring players who dream of going pro. College campuses are hosting collegiate teams, students are recruited and offered scholarships like traditional athletes and more and more gamers vie for attention on streaming platforms like Twitch, hoping to make it big.
What makes esports popular seems to be a combination of their similarities to traditional sports as well as the very things that make them so different.
“I’m not athletic at all. I’m also not the most social person either,” said Madison McMahan, member of the Michigan State University League of Legends Club. “Video games help me to interact with people in a way I probably wouldn’t have before.”
Madison brings attention to two key aspects of the popularity surrounding esports. First, they are a way for those who are not athletically inclined to experience the thrill of skilled competition. Second, they are a chance to experience community and find people the players can relate to. Being online makes it easy to meet new people, especially if players are not comfortable with meeting others in person.
The classic draws to any sport still apply of course. Fame, money, pride, accomplishment, becoming the best at what you do – all of these are present in the world of esports. The similarities don’t end in the abstract though. Professional esports teams are often owned and funded by traditional sports team owners. For example, Robert Kraft, the owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, also owns the Boston Uprising, an Overwatch League team. This melding of traditional structures and virtual sports has made it easier for esports to rise in popularity and acceptance. It is also a reason why esports are beginning
to follow the examples of traditional sports and form leagues with permanent teams instead of simply hosting one-time tournaments.
The Overwatch League, which started in January 2018 and begins its second season this February, is the best example of this melding. The league featured 12 city-based teams in its debut season and has already increased that by eight for Season 2. The Overwatch League drew enough fans, advertisers and interest to even have its grand finals broadcast live on ESPN3. “League of Legends,” one of the most popular video games and esports in the world, is planning to follow suit after seeing the success of the traditional league structure for “Overwatch.”
Esports and traditional sports are also similar in the ways in which their players must train and prepare. “You can’t ask a college-level basketball player to play ‘Overwatch’ at the level that we play, just like you couldn’t ask one of us to make a three-point shot from half court out of nowhere,” said Zachary Woloszyk, MSU Overwatch Club communications manager. “It’s skill and dedication, just in different ways.”
Professional players in the Overwatch League and other areas of esports have coaching staff, dieticians, and strict and grueling practice schedules. They are not your average casual gamers.
MSU is home to esports organizations of its own. The MSU Esports Student Association is an umbrella group of Spartans passionate about esports, and underneath them many clubs and organizations for the different esports on campus. The MSU Esports Student Association partnered with Tespa, a national collegiate-level esports organizer, to participate in tournaments and leagues and form official MSU teams for various esports. MSU and the University of Michigan have rivalries in the digital world as well as on the football field.
MSU Esports Student Association didn’t just organize teams and players; they were creating their own opportunities to gain professional experience. Members got to try out casting, or voicing the play-by-play of the games, as well as producing, shooting and hosting their own shows. While members organized the matchups between MSU and opponent teams, others prepared to broadcast those matches to Spartan viewers on Twitch. Those opportunities were more than just a fun pastime. Casters, community managers, productions crews and hosts are all highly coveted positions in the professional esports scene.
While esports are certainly gaining momentum, they are still a rather new form of entertainment and competition. That youth comes with the inherent risk of failure and uncertainty.
“It (esports as a career) is risky. Really risky,” said MSU Overwatch Club member Kevin Barnes. “People who get into competitive gaming as a career don’t usually fit into the traditional job roles or college atmosphere. Plus, your chances of getting scouted for a real team are bad. It’s like getting drafted by the NFL as a newbie.”
Esports are uncharted territory. It is seen as an unattainable dream for most to ever become a professional traditional athlete, and the chances for aspiring esports players can be even more slim.
With Epic Games, the creators of “Fortnite,” offering up $100 million in total prize money over its 2018-2019 esports year, the Overwatch League signing more players and deals by the day, and Spartans pursuing careers as players and crew members, esports have a bright future. Perhaps one day soon they will become as popular as football and basketball, with young children aspiring to be not quarterbacks or point guards but top-laners and tanks.