eSports: The Rise Of The Virtual Sportsmen
In August 2016, The International DOTA 2 tournament saw 5,750,021 viewers tune in to watch two teams – the Wings Gaming and Digital Chaos – battle it out to take home the prize pool of over $20 million. That’s more viewers than the 2016 ladies singles final at Wimbledon this year, which had broadcast figures of 4.8 million.
eSport tournaments, from the numerous Counter-Strike competitions to the many leagues of League of Legends, are predominantly watched via live streaming services, as fans tune in to cheer on their favourite teams and players. The teams that make up these intense competitions are formed of highly skilled players, who dedicate a huge number of hours a week to training for their next game, sticking to strict routines and plans to ensure they remain at their peak – much like your typical athlete, then.
Sponsorships and brand deals
For those players on teams bringing home the prize money, sponsorships with huge brands is also a done deal. At the time of writing, League of Legends champions TSM are partnered with brands such as HTC, Red Bull and Logitech and this year’s The International runners up, Digital Chaos, are sponsored by 100TB – a game server hoster specialising in mobile, multiplayer and social games – as well as energy drinks brand eNgage and gaming chair experts Vertagear.
As more and more big brands sponsor teams and players, it’s possible that someday in the future we could see eSport ‘athletes’ on our TV’s, advertising razors or aftershave – when they are finally considered true sportsmen and celebrities. Mo Farah’s partnership with Nike and the Chevrolet brand sponsoring the Manchester United Team are commonplace in the sport industry, but there is room for more.
The fan base for gamers could already be considered comparable to those of major athletes’, with ‘gamer groupies’ following a player’s every move and even travelling to tournaments in other countries to watch them. Snakebite and Clutch, two Halo players on the Counter Gaming logic team, refer to these fans as “eGirls” and in Korea video games are almost as popular as football, which means there are plenty of dedicated fans fawning over the top players. These gamers have garnered celebrity status in Korea and eSports is recognised as an actual sport in the country. Therefore, their reputation as athletes is confirmed, even if it is not recognised internationally.
So what qualifies as an athlete?
The dictionary definition defines an athlete as:
‘One who participates in physical exercise or sports, especially in competitive events.’ OR ‘One possessing the requisite strength, agility, and endurance for success in sports.’
While those playing eSports may not be able to run long distance or perform multiple push ups, endurance is a major factor when it comes to gaming. Most games in tournaments last 35-40 minutes, whether you are playing League of Legends or Dota 2. Therefore, concentration must be at its peak during this time and the intensity can make even the most hardened of gamers crumble.
Pro gamers’ careers are perhaps just as short lived as that of a ‘normal’ athlete. Most peak in their late teens and early 20s and by their mid-to-late-20s they retire, sometimes going on to work as Casters – essentially the pundits and expert analysts, like football’s Alan Shearer, of the gaming world – spectating and commentating on tournament games. Others go on to live stream regularly, making money via advertising and sponsorship as well as the platform itself, depending on how many viewers tune in.
Dexterity and speed are also skills a pro gamer needs, and training for several hours a day, every day, will only enhance the amount of clicks per play they can make and how fast they can carry out moves. Working on this skill is comparable to a tennis player perfecting their serve, regular practice makes perfect and in eSports the training process is no different.
What training is involved?
Ex-professional Counter-Strike player James ‘PEZ’ Perrott, confirmed that he dedicated: “2,000 hours on one version of the games [he] played. In a normal week, I’d work from 9am to 5.30pm and then game from 6pm until 11pm.” This already sounds extreme, however those who play in teams, in countries such as South Korea, players spend 24/7 in their team house, training for 12 hours a day.
In an article for ESPN, former StarCraft II player Greg ‘IdrA’ Fields commented: “When I played in Korea [from 2008 to 2011], the training schedule excluded any activity that wasn’t eating, sleeping and practicing.”
However, one might argue that because playing eSports requires no real physical exertion or strength, that they therefore do not qualify as a ‘sport’ and in turn those playing cannot be considered athletes. However, consider games such as chess or poker; both of these games are considered to be real sports, they simply require a different set of skills.
According to an article on the Guardian website, eSports player’s lack of credibility as athletes is causing them issues when they want to enter countries such as America for tournaments. Many are not being granted Visas due to eSports not being recognised as a profession and therefore a reason to enter the country for work.
However, although eSports players are not considered athletes now this could soon shift. Gamers are the athletes of the future, as the world embraces advancing tech with open arms and takes interest in digital sports over their traditional counterparts. Love for Wimbledon won’t go away any time soon but the likes of The International Dota 2 tournament might just catch up and with it the reputation of the players who take part.
eSports turning mainstream
More viewing platforms will project these players into the spotlight and on the same playing field as regular athletes. Twitch and Hitbox are the most popular streaming services, YouTube’s dedicated gaming platform – YouTube Gaming – is seeing more live streamers move over and a dedicated gaming channel has been launched on Sky in the UK.
Ginx TV will showcase live action gameplay from the biggest competitions, accessible to everyone and not just die hard gaming fans. In Korea, however, this is already commonplace with several dedicated TV channels. Further understanding of the time and dedication that goes into training for a tournament can only help too.
The money invested in equipment is important too. Much like Andy Murray only using the highest spec racket, a player will play with the most dexterous gaming mouse and the most comprehensive gaming keyboard. When they are playing games they are also supported by high functioning game server hosting, to minimise delays.
When it comes to the tournaments themselves, players are not paid a dedicated wage but they are taking home winnings comparable to those sports athletes earn. Dota 2 player Saahil Arora, known as UniveRse when playing, and member of the Evil Geniuses team has won $1,964,038 in 2015 alone. If we’re comparing this to Wimbledon again the men’s single winner took home £2 million, therefore those playing games are earning a similar amount to professional athletes who dedicate just as much time to training.
Olympic 23-time medal winner Michael Phelps is an avid Call of Duty fan, and actively supports the eSports industry. In fact, he introduced the winners at 2016’s Game Awards as ‘fellow athletes’ stating that, “there’s absolutely no question to me the level of skill, training and devotion it requires to become a professional gamer.” For such a renowned athlete to recognise the skill required when it comes to eSports and to comment upon the training undertaken, proves that professional gamers are a force to be reckoned with and athlete status therefore shouldn’t be too far behind.
Drug testing in eSports
eSports athletes are also subject to the same drug testing rules sporting athletes fall under and in recent news, prominent players in the industry have come out about using the ‘performance enhancing’ drug Adderall. This has prompted the ESL (Electronics Sports League) to introduce drug screenings via saliva swabs, during major tournaments, testing players for drugs such as amphetamines and methylphenidate as well as cocaine, heroine and marijuana.
In ten year’s time, eSports is predicted to be as popular as the American NHL, there’s already been talks to introduce the sport into the Olympic games and therefore soon those playing need to be considered professional athletes. The celebrity status is already there for the most part, within the industry, the brands and sponsors are waiting in the sidelines and the hordes of screaming fans are ready to support teams until the very end – it just needs to move into the mainstream sporting arena.
It’s getting there, and with it the concept of the virtual sportsman will become the norm too. The next David Beckham, Andy Murray or Usain Bolt are there and while they might not have the rippling pectorals these athletes boast, their skill on the virtual battlefield confirms their potential athlete status.