Sweat, tears and Xbox: introducing eSports

Goals: Team MilkMe competes in the Call of Duty World League Stage 2 Finals. © Activision

‘The biggest sport you’ve probably never heard of’ earns its top players millions every year. Last night, London hosted the first eSports Industry Awards. But do video games count as sport?

Professional players train for 14 hours a day. The best earn over £2m a year. The teams have long histories, intense rivalries, and loyal fans. Tournaments attract tens of thousands of people to packed stadiums in London, Berlin and Seoul.

No, this is not football. It is not rugby or tennis or basketball, or any other sport you may have played in PE lessons. Welcome to eSports: professional, competitive video gaming.

The first ever eSports Industry Awards were held last night in London, celebrating the players, games, and broadcasters who have helped turn the phenomenon into a £406m global industry.

To an outsider, it all seems a bit bizarre. Why would anyone want to spend hours watching other people play computer games?

But for the world’s 150 million eSports fans, the spectacle is as exciting as any mainstream sport. Players compete in regional and international competitions, streamed live around the world. Prize winnings can reach tens of millions of pounds. Professional commentators weigh in on the drama. The biggest teams live together training for several hours a day, hoping to improve their reflexes, strategy and mental agility. At the very top, players can perform up to 500 ‘actions’ a minute, perfectly in sync with their equally focused teammates.

Video games have been played competitively since the 1970s. But in recent years, eSports have boomed.

In May, West Ham signed the UK’s first premier league eSports player. Days later, a governing body called the World eSports Association was founded to oversee the industry, much like FIFA oversees football. Earlier this month, LA said that it may include eSports in the 2024 Olympics if it gets the chance to host.

But are they really sports?

Game on

‘All the elements are there,’ says eSports coach Michal Blicharz. ‘The excitement, the adrenaline, players crying tears of sorrow and joy.’ Like any sport, its professionals are absolutely dedicated to pushing their skills as far as they can go. They are competitive, disciplined, and highly trained. At tournaments, their fans respond to the ups and downs of the games with as much enthusiasm as any football crowd. It is old-fashioned and close-minded to say that eSports are not ‘real’ sports.

You are missing one key element, say others: exercise. Other than the fast-moving thumbs, there is no physical effort involved in playing video games all day. Sports should be about inspiring people to go outside, get active, and keep themselves fit. Mental skill is increasingly important to professional athletes, but there is no denying that the body’s ability is still the most important factor. Sitting down and staring at a screen simply cannot compare.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever watched eSports? Would you want to?
  2. Are eSports real sports?

Activities

  1. Without looking it up in a dictionary, write a single sentence which explains the word ‘sport’. Would eSports fit your definition?
  2. Design a simple video game which encourages teamwork.

Some People Say...

“Video games are not sport — they are art.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are eSports just for boys?
Not at all! According to Newzoo, around 30% of fans are women. There are lots of female professionals, although admittedly the men are in the majority, and tend to earn more money. (The women’s highest earnings are £156,000 compared to £2.6m for men.) Female players do sometimes receive sexist abuse, but they are not giving up — there is more on this under Become An Expert.
Can I become a professional eSports player?
Perhaps — many professionals are young, sometimes retiring in their early 20s. You could have a shot! Like any skill, practice and commitment are very important. Get involved in the community to find advice and make connections with other players. Just make sure you remember to do your homework first, and take regular screen breaks.

Word Watch

£406m
According a report by Deloitte, the revenues earned from eSports will rise to $500m (£406m) by the end of 2016. It is an increase of 25% from last year.
150 million
The same Deloitte report as above also predicted the that the ‘regular and occasional’ viewers of eSports will rise to 150 million people.
Tens of millions
In 2016, the international final for the game Dota 2 had a record-breaking prize of $20m (£16m).
Premier league
West Ham signed 24-year-old Sean ‘Dragonn’ Allen to represent the club at FIFA eSports competitions. Manchester City hired its own player two months later, and other clubs are expected to follow.
2024 Olympics
Orange County (which neighbours Los Angeles in California) is home to America’s first dedicated eSports arena. LA has made a bid to host the Olympic Games in 2024. It is competing with Paris and Budapest, and the winner will be announced in September 2017.