High School Homework for the eSports Nerd

A couple of months ago I was approached by a colleague and organizer fighting game tournaments to mentor the little brother of a former Miss America winner. At first contact, I assumed I was the target of some off-handed joke, until I found out that the student was attending a year long program in Norway with an emphasis in esports. His senior project, to be able to graduate and be accepted to the program, was to show how esports has changed the sports economy and the entire sports world in general; a topic we recently discussed, and largely dismantled, on Rally Point.

I felt compelled to share the following interview for several reasons, but largely to show a how how a young, burgeoning scene such as esports, needs to be both protected and validated for it to be successful. While some of the interview questions are background, the more I responded, the more I realized that the esports shouldn’t be under the guidance of my generation (I recently turned a spry 37), but should be protected by it and held sacred for the next.

Communities are established through generations passing along core values, gathering, wisdom, and tradition. The last thing competitive gaming (forget the term esports) needs is a generation of corporate entities diving in and buying up teams with the sole intent to harness its energy and fans to increase the line of “millennial” growth in some report for their next executive meeting. We’ve seen numerous professional sports teams dive into the scene with press releases touting their ability to “market” and bring sponsors to esports, but fail to establish how they plan to grow the scene while protecting some of its core values.

This is the equivalent to having a favorite band that nobody knows about; a very personal connection for an entire generation. Let’s do it right by enabling it, not by capitalizing on it.

What exactly do you do in your field?

I do several things associated with gaming and esports, my main role being a host for Rally Point (backed by ELEAGUE a division of Turner Sports), a live show and podcast that covers the happenings in the industry, along with developer and player interviews. I also write about esports for Bleacher Report and cover independent video game developers at Indie Hangover.

How do you think esports are affecting the sporting world?

It’s interesting, because the influences come hand in hand. I think the traditional sports entities like NBA teams or European Football clubs are really interested in esports team ownership on a lot of levels. Prize money and earnings aside, they see it as a way to market or reach individuals within a certain age group. These groups like to use the term “millennials” but the age range of an esports enthusiast is much larger.

On the other hand, esports really challenge a lot of the traditional sport tropes, like tournament format, rules, and production. An Emmy award winning Producer for TBS’s NBA show once told me that the complexity of putting an esports event on live TV is almost three times the amount of technical work, and ten times the amount of explaining to Executives what it is they’re doing.

Why do you think that esports should be classified as a sport?

The only real benefit of classifying esports as a sport is in obtaining visa for competitive play. Outside of that, the comparison generally causes more animosity, usually around the lack of perceived physicality involved in competitive gaming. People not involved in the scene often say “it’s not a real sport” and turn away from it… when in all actuality it should be perceived as it’s own thing. Competitive gaming is a far better descriptor of the genre then esports ever will be.

In the future, do you think esports could be one of the top watched sports?

I believe so, but maybe not in the traditional television set numbers we’re used to. We’re already seeing it blur the lines in a lot of areas as ELEAGUE pulled millions of viewers for the CS:GO Major across multiple areas of distribution (traditional tv, twitch streams, TBS site specific stream).

How do esports teams work? How do they train and recruit?

They work in a variety of way, depending on size and backing of the organization, but the most successful ones do train and recruit. As an example, Cloud9 had a “sister-team”, Cloud9 Challenger, in League of Legends which they used to farm and train talent. Some teams, like Astralis in CS:GO, even employed Sports Psychologists during their rise to victory in the Atlanta Major.

How did you get into the field of esports?

I’ve been involved in gaming or games journalism in some way shape or form since 2005. A lot breaking into the industry revolves around respect for the field, players, teams, organizers and churning out quality content.

Is it worth investing in esports? Who has already invested?

Investing into esports is about the same as breaking out in the tech sector as a startup. There’s a lot to take into account behind the scenes that most people tend to overlook, housing, travel, salaries, content creation, streaming, merch, etc. For the successful brands, they employ a lot of help to deliver across all areas, it’s much more than organizing a few people to play a round of games.

Recently we’ve seen a lot of NBA teams or players invest in brands, the Philadelphia 76’ers purchased Dignitas, the Milwaukee Bucks purchased Cloud9’s challenger team as they moved into the LCS. Some leagues have started to guarantee income, like Riot with the LCS, as each team gets a guaranteed amount of money for their spot in the league and this helps alleviate some of the risk of owning a team.

What does it take to be a professional esports player?

Willingness to play the same game each week for 40+ hours and study opponents and strategies on top of that. Not to mention traveling for many months out of the year. Cloud9’s Jake “Stewie2k” Yip once joked about being able to stream for two days in a row for the first time in three months because he was home for more than 24 hours.

Do you think people could gain interest in watching esports if they have never played a competitive videogame before?

Absolutely. I think quality casters and production enable that. Even if you’re not the most familiar with a game, most people can understand the tension of a match without diving into the complexity and nuance of the game. Sit anyone down in front of the final match of the ELEAGUE Atlanta Major for CS:GO; they’ll be grabbed by the fierce competition and intensity of the game, and not be concerned at all about being able to play it.

Personally, there are a lot of games that I’ve grown to love that I’m absolutely horrible at playing or know nothing about the current meta. Having a general appreciation for anything competitive is all you need to dive into watching esports.

How fast is the esports community growing?

It’s grown incredibly over the last few years, largely due to streaming communities like Twitch enabling people to watch tournaments without physically being there. Manny Anekal is a great person to follow when it comes to diving into the numbers of esports. Esports growth is exploding. It feels like a gold rush in terms of companies and teams trying to get into the space, but is also very young (and seemingly overhyped). We’ve seen a few games get a lot of attention at the start, like Heroes of the Storm, but fall apart due to a lack of monetization and the costs associated to running an esports organization still being far from solidified.

Is it possible it could overcome different popular sports?

It’s possible, but not in the near term. Traditional sports have the luxury of being ingrained in generations of players and fans. My father enjoys football, and that rubbed off on me in my younger years… so I played football, I watched both College and NFL teams. That’s not yet present in esports, because it’s simply too young. Most of the active esports fan base is under 20 years old. The CS:GO Reddit did a poll of 15,000 users once, showing less than 2% of them being above the age of 30. That proves a lack of generational hand down, especially since esports is effectively less than a decade old in almost all areas. Specific games often have a shelf life of 3–5 years, with the exception of a few, so it’ll be interesting to see how the game churn impacts esports growth.

Has your job affected the outlook on esports? If so how?

Absolutely. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is how much the players go through and give up to be a professional. All the travel and training really takes a toll on the body that most people don’t see, because they’re not physically slamming their body into someone else on a field. In CS:GO, I’ve seen players participate in tournaments in China and in the US in the same week, then South America after that. In Hearthstone I know of Swedish players who have competed in events in Europe and Asia just days apart. The act of traveling across 6 or more time zones in a matter of days throws a lot of people off mentally and physically. There’s a reason why the average age of an esports player retiring is 23.

What is it like to experience an esports event?

Really like any other sporting event, but in some instances better. Most events will have casters announcing live, which differs from traditional sports, where you watch the action, but have no context. Now that I compare that portion of it, it really makes watching a live event far more accessible and enjoyable for those who don’t know anything about the game. Imagine you’d never seen any US football game on TV and you were thrown in on the 50 yard line to watch; you wouldn’t know what’s going on per se. An esports event is a lot like watching a game on TV, but with everyone physically around you, yelling and screaming at the same time.

One of my favorite instances of how watching an esports game live can create an increased level of excitement is the 2015 Hearthstone World Championship match between Ostkaka and Thjis; largely the Freeze Mage mirror match. While the match itself was an example of two of the best professionals playing the game, there was one moment when Ostkaka found a play that everyone had overlooked and surprised both the casters and a thousand people sitting in a live audience. At that moment, everyone gasped, everyone screamed in amazement, everyone turned to people they didn’t know and cheered in disbelief… and this was for a card game.

Post match, Thjis said that he could feel the response of the crowd as the glass in their enclosure on stage started to shake and vibrate.

How did you decide in becoming an esports journalist?

By constantly creating content across a lot of mediums, and maintaining contacts through events and social media. Having an opinion, especially one backed by facts or data, is really important. People in the community like to know your reasoning and still respect you even if you turn out to be wrong, An analyst in CS:GO can get 75% of his picks incorrect, but people can respect his view if they know why he chose the way he did. Being a journalist is a lot like being an analyst, you’re just doing the research and putting it out there in written form.

Do you usually travel far to esports events?

Far too often and not often enough. I’ve been thankful for the opportunity to have several companies offer to fly me out to their tournaments, to cover the results and to speak with players or developers. As someone who covers multiple games and leagues, there’s always a tournament going on somewhere and you can’t be in two places at once.