Sports and Pop Culture: The Evolution and Emergence of E-Sports

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Sports and Pop Culture: The Evolution and Emergence of E-Sports
E-Sports has arrived (Photo courtesy of majorleaguegaming.com)

Sports and video games have gone together since pretty much the dawn of the video-game industry.

From the early days of alien-looking football players (if you can really call them that) on the Atari 2600 to modern games like NBA 2K12—a game that looks so real, many people looking at it from a distance think it is a real game—sports-based video games have always been a staple of the gaming industry.

Electronic Arts' wildly popular Madden NFL series of games ranks in the Top 10 of video-game sales year in and year out. According to the NPD Group, a leading source of information and statistics for the video-game industry, Madden NFL 12 ranked fifth for total video-game sales in 2011.

With legions of fans the world over, the sports genre isn't going anywhere as far as popularity or sales.

But could the opposite be true? Could video games be considered sports?

On the surface, such a concept seems absurd. How can video games be considered sports?

Yet, more and more the answer to that question seems to be yes.

Welcome to the emerging world of eSports, or electronic sports.

It is a world in which I have been involved for many years. In the past couple of years, however, that world has changed. Suddenly eSports have become very popular with more and more people drawn to what was once a very niche segment of the video-game industry and the sporting landscape.

David Banks/Getty Images
Madden NFL Football is just one example of where video games and sports have come together.

Leading the charge into this emerging hybrid of video games, traditional sports and pop culture is Major League Gaming. Major League Gaming, or MLG, has been around since 2003 when Michael Sepso and Sundance DiGiovanni took a dream of running a professional videogaming league and made that dream a reality.

I went to the 2012 Spring Championships in Anaheim a couple of weeks ago. What I saw amazed me—and I have been attending MLG events since the beginning.

There, at the Anaheim Convention Center, some 20,000 people were on hand, and for the first time that I could remember, more of them were spectators than competitors. Media was everywhere. You could not walk more than 20-30 yards before you would run into someone carrying a camera or some sort of video equipment.

Moreover, the event was now a true multimedia event. It was like someone had taken the Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3), crossed it with a college-football environment, and the MLG Spring Championships were the result.

Fans, passionate and knowledgeable, were everywhere cheering on their favorite Starcraft II, League of Legends, Soulcalibur V, Mortal Kombat and King of Fighters XIII players. Unlike prior MLG events, a Halo game was nowhere to be found. In fact, for the first time that I can recall, shooters were not part of the competition at all.

The players themselves were each competing for more than just bragging rights. Katie Goldberg, MLG's vice president of communications and public relations, informed me that more than $200,000 in prize money was up for grabs at the three-day event.

The Starcraft II Grand Finals from MLG's Spring Championships two weeks ago in Anaheim

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you—$200,000 for playing video games!

MLG events had been getting steadily more popular each year. But this was something completely different.

How different, you ask? Well, I was able to get some statistics on the event from Ms. Goldberg and a press release she provided to me.

In addition to the 20,000 people present at the actual event, the event reached more than 4.7 million unique online viewers. At its peak, 437,000 were viewing the event concurrently. MLG's Spring Championship is now being called the largest North American eSports event. The event was broadcast, by way of video-on-demand and through the website, to fans in over 170 countries.

Whether you believe in, or even understand, eSports, those are tremendous numbers.

What has led to this electronic and virtual explosion? To try to answer that, and other questions related to eSports, I had a chance to speak with Sundance DiGiovanni at the MLG Anaheim event. I offer you some of his insight, along with my own observations.

If you are curious about eSports and where it might be heading, read on.

 

What Are eSports?

Initially, it would seem prudent to answer the basic question—what are eSports?

MLG co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni was kind enough to answer my questions about eSports (Photo courtesy of teamliquid.net)

Boiled down to its very essence, eSports are video games played in a competitive environment. Sometimes the games can be played in a one-on-one fashion. Other times, two teams will square off against each other.

The key point in all of this, however, is that eSports are competitive events. They are all about two players or teams being in the same venue, at the same time, and doing battle in a real-time competition.

 

Are eSports Really Sports?

This is one of the most debated issues when it comes to the topic of eSports. Can they really be considered sports, or are eSports something else entirely?

Admittedly, it is not an easy question to answer.

I asked DiGiovanni that very question.

"To me what's important is that it's a highly engaging form of competition that millions of people participate in both as competitors as well as viewers," said DiGiovanni.

While it is easy to dismiss the notion of playing video games as anything even closely resembling an athletic endeavor, I believe it is more complex than just noting the relative lack of physicality and declaring eSports as non-sports.

After all, look at poker. Poker is frequently broadcast on ESPN and other networks. The World Series of Poker has been a hugely popular event for many years now.

Are eSports Really Sports?

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But I ask you this—is there anything remotely athletic about playing poker?

Or how about a spelling bee, another event shown each year on ESPN?

Of course not. Nevertheless, both poker and spelling bees are considered sporting events by probably the most recognizable sports network on the planet.

This suggests that perhaps trying to hold sports to a strict definition is not as easy as one might presume. If a broader view on sports is considered, then eSports are just as much sporting events as poker, or spelling bees or chess—probably more so.

For instance, to excel at eSports, a competitor has to employ a strategy that plays to his or her strengths while at the same time exploiting the weaknesses of his or her opponent. If the game being played is a team-based game, then teamwork is essential.

Aren't these the same sorts of qualities that are present in traditional sports?

Moreover eSports competitors have tremendous reflexes when compared to many who do not play and are also almost always quite advanced with respect to logical thinking and problem-solving skills.

True, eSports are all played on a virtual landscape and what is happening on the screen is not literally real.

But this virtuality offers unique differences that set eSports apart from anything else out there on the sports landscape.

Compare the different genres that make up most of the eSports landscape and you quickly learn that to excel in the competitive aspects of the genre, you need to have different skill sets and be multi-faceted.

Is this really more athletic than eSports?

If you play shooters, such as Call of Duty or Halo, you have to be a team player and know your strengths and weaknesses, weaponry and the map like the back of your hand.

If you are a sports gamer, you not only need stick skills, but you also need to have some knowledge of the strategy behind the actual sport you are playing to really excel—well, most of the time anyway.

If you are going to compete in driving and racing games, such as Gran Turismo or Forza, quite often you need to have some basic knowledge of physics and aerodynamics, and you must usually possess tremendous hand-eye coordination.

If you play fighting games, such as Soulcalibur V or Mortal Kombat, you need to know your character inside and out, but you need to know what your opponent's character can do as well.

And if you play real-time strategy (RTS) games, such as Starcraft II, you have to be quick with the mouse and keyboard, know the best way to quickly amass resources, get your base built (most of the time) and have a strategy for either going on the offense or playing more of a defensive posture. 

In many ways, each genre is a sport unto itself.

So, are eSports an athletic event? Probably not in the way most would equate an athletic contest.

But are they sports in the broad sense of the term?

John Sciulli/Getty Images
Kevin Love is just one of many Call of Duty fans

Absolutely. 

 

Going Mainstream

Whether you believe eSports are really sports, or whether you feel they are something else entirely, for the people who have been dedicated to the cause for many years, it has been a long, hard struggle for eSports to gain mainstream acceptance.

An excellent book chronicling the trials and tribulations of eSports and professional videogaming is Game Boys by Michael Kane. The book is a few years old now, but it is an excellent recounting of eSports' struggle to gain mainstream acceptance.

What is great about the book is that it takes you behind the scenes so you can understand that pro gamers are still people. Usually, they are very young people with their lives ahead of them.

Like other athletes, pro gamers have hopes and dreams of being the best at what they do.

I myself witnessed this at MLG events for many years. I was, and still am, fortunate enough to be able to go behind the scenes and see the reality of eSports and those trying very hard to get it to the next level.

No entity out there probably understands this more than MLG, as it has been championing the cause for nine years now. It has experimented with different genres, gone through a number of primary sponsors and gradually shifted from a console-based league to one that is now a mix of console and PC games.

The Championship Match for League of Legends at MLG's Anaheim Event

When you review the numbers I listed above, it would certainly appear that MLG's diligence has paid off.

So what changed? Why has eSports grown in popularity as much as it has recently? And how has MLG succeeded where others have failed?

Who better to ask than Sundance DiGiovanni.

"We have seen tremendous growth in the popularity of eSports over the last few years," said DiGiovanni.  "I think games being tailored to competitive play and the increased ease of access to streaming technology has allowed eSports broadcasts to become easier to produce and watch, which has led to an increase in popularity and overall viewership."

You have to love the internet. As DiGiovanni notes, the ease with which players and fans of competitive games can now gain access to the precise content they are looking for has made a huge difference.

Beyond that eSports are now being presented to the audience in a way that is, in essence, more user-friendly and accessible. 

MLG knows this better than anyone. They advanced the whole concept of video-on-demand for eSports competitions years ago—and they have now pretty much perfected the art.

I asked DiGiovanni what he felt was MLG's secret and why they had succeeded where others had failed.

"Since starting in the early 2000’s, the MLG audience has grown tremendously and has expanded globally," said DiGiovanni.  "Our events reach as many countries as the Superbowl—an average of 170 countries tune in to watch our championship events.  Our audience has a rabid appetite for our content and is with us each step of the way.  We have succeeded where others have failed because the people who have built this company love what they do and are a part of the community that we serve.  This isn’t a side project for us – it's our passion."

Had you heard of eSports before you read this article?

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And that may be the biggest difference.

MLG has never been about some outside entity or company trying to capitalize on a market they knew next to nothing about. The founders, and those pulling the strings behind the scenes, are actual gamers who understand the nuances of the games and the unique nature of the target audience, the gamers themselves.

MLG also has recognized the global pull of Starcraft II and how that translates into a ton of mainstream coverage and global acceptance of eSports.

The original Starcraft was wildly popular in Korea where pro Starcraft matches were broadcast on cable television.

MLG was smart enough to recognize that Starcraft II already had a global following that could gain MLG and eSports an even bigger following in North America.

The results have probably been better than MLG could have hoped for—and they might only have scratched the surface.

 

Appealing To The Masses

As great as all the success has been, there is more to be had. There are many, many people out there who still equate video games with only Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. Some of those people might be reading this right now and, hopefully, learning something.

They have no idea how far games and the gaming industry have come. When they find out that eSports and professional videogaming exists, the response is equal parts amazement and bewilderment.

Highlights of the Finals of the Soulcalibur V Tournament at MLG's Spring Championships—and a great example of how race and gender mean nothing in the world of eSports

I asked DiGiovanni what he thought needed to happen for eSports to appeal to more people.

"Commentators and analysts help bring the broadcasts to viewers in a way that is understandable and exciting to not only familiar fans, but also new viewers," said DiGiovanni.  "Our broadcasts are structured to be very similar to traditional sports.  Just like someone who is new to watching baseball won't understand all the rules the first time they watch, there is enough happening on a  presentation level to help make the game fun and exciting."

There is a great deal of truth to that. The first time most of us watched football, baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer, we did not know exactly what was going on—but what we saw was entertaining enough that it kept us coming back for more.

Gradually, we learned what a first down was, or the difference between a perfect game and a no-hitter, or what traveling was, or icing.

The same can be said for eSports. If the presentation of the game is entertaining enough, and the action compelling enough, people will come back and watch more. They will learn the subtle nuances of a game like Starcraft II, the strategies involved, who the top players are and why they are so good.

But unlike more traditional sports, eSports offers something other sports can't—opportunity.

If there is one aspect of eSports and professional videogaming that is truly unique, it is that so long as someone is willing to dedicate the time and effort, anyone can become a champion.

Starcraft is a really big deal in Korea

Age does not matter. Gender does not matter. Most physical disabilities can be overcome.

Most traditional sports cannot make such a claim.

Once more people realize that, the final barriers between gaming and the mainstream may crumble away.

I asked DiGiovanni what someone could do if they wanted to learn more about eSports.

"For those who want to learn more about eSports, I encourage them to watch an MLG event," said DiGiovanni.  "Live and in person viewing is the best way to experience it, but the live streams also serve as a great introduction, along with VOD on www.majorleaguegaming.com."

To be fair, MLG is not the only game in town. There are other Starcraft II leagues, such as the Global Starcraft II League or the World Cyber Games, both of which carry a more international flavor than MLG currently does.

And, of course, anyone can go to Wikipedia and review the entry there discussing eSports, as it provides a very good overview of the history and the current status of eSports.

 

The Next Step

So where does eSports go from here? Has it reached its peak or is there more success to be had?

Some good advice from pro gamers to those out there aspiring to go pro—and a lesson that to be the best, you have to put in a lot of effort

That is somewhat difficult to say.

On the one hand, with Starcraft II having already pushed eSports to a new level of popularity, it is important to note that there are two more expansions to Starcraft II, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void, waiting in the wings.

Both games will likely make changes to the multiplayer experience, some subtle and others potentially game changing. That should keep things interesting and will keep pro players on their toes.

Unfortunately, though Blizzard makes great games, it usually takes a really long time to do so, sometimes taking as long as 12 years between games in a franchise. It does not appear the two Starcraft II expansions will take quite that long, but the development cycle will likely be prolonged.

Combine that with no one really being sure if or when the next Xbox or PlayStation console might be released, and no matter how popular eSports might get amongst fans of the emerging sport, drawing more interest from the rest of the masses might be difficult until the game industry gets reinvigorated.

Yes, the Wii U is on the way, but no one knows exactly when, or how much it or its games will cost or what sort of capability the machine might have as far as being practical for eSports.

As Forbes reported, video-game sales in April of 2012 were down 42 percent from the previous year and much of that is being attributed to what can best be described as consumer boredom.

Then again, PC gaming seems to be making a comeback after many years of being thumped by consoles as far as sales and popularity.

The World Cyber Games are another big eSports event

So, what do we make of all this conflicting data, and does any of it help to legitimize eSports as a true sport?

There will always be many people who will state, with conviction, that eSports are not, and will never be, a real sport. They will note the relative lack of athleticism and immediately eliminate the matter from consideration right there.

There are others who will approach the issue from a broader perspective.

The debate has not been lost on ESPN as they have covered eSports, pro gaming and the lives of pro gamers on their own site. Jon Robinson of ESPN has written several blog entries exploring the lives of pro gamers.

Is there a right or wrong answer here? Probably not. I believe it really comes down to individuals' perspectives and how they perceive sports in general.

One thing for certain is that for those in the industry, those who are trying to advance the success of eSports even further, and the competitors who are trying to be the very best at what they do, the virtual world of eSports is as real as it gets.

 

Dave Ungar is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via an Interview with Sundance DiGiovanni, an exchange of e-mail information with Katie Goldberg or a Press Release from Major League Gaming provided by Katie Goldberg.

Follow me on Twitter @DaveUngar68

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