Breaking the Stigma: Sports and eSports

The documented history of sports dates back at least 3000 years. In those days, activities like training for war and hunting animals were considered a sport that involved throwing spears, lifting weights, and sparring one-on-one.

In the year 776 B.C. the Greeks would hold the first Olympic games to honour Zeus. Male athletes from every corner of Greece and far away countries like Iberia (present-day Spain) and Black Sea (present-day Turkey) gathered at Olympia to compete in foot races and marathons.

In the modern era, these primitive sports have evolved to 8000 indigenous sports played all across the globe including fan favourites like Cricket, Football, Basketball, Hockey, and Tennis. Every country has its own version of the sport and its own play style. Though these sports have branched off from their ancient counterparts, they still uphold the same values of competitive spirit and sportsmanship. They not only showcase the athletic prowess of the competitors but also share their inspiring journeys with their spectators.

Today, athletes like Cristiano Rolando, Mike Tyson and Novak Djokovic are prime examples of that little kid in a turmoiled country who had nothing but a dream to fulfil and worked hard to become the ‘Greatest Of All Times’. Such is the story of 28-year-old KuroKy. Suffering from a disability of the legs, traditional sports was not a route that he could consider taking. But this barrier did not stop the son of an Iranian cab driver from making a name for himself as one of the greatest DOTA 2 athletes in the world. DOTA 2, unlike football or boxing,  is a multiplayer online battle arena video game. DOTA 2 as well as games like Counter-Strike, Valorant, Apex Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League, and many more come under a popular genre of electronic sports or more popularly known as ‘eSports’.

KuroKy, A popular Dota 2 Pro

When you hear the term eSports, most people picture a teenage couch potato sitting in a closed room staring at their monitor playing video games all day. It’s always seen only as a hobby or a recreational activity that people do in their free time. But eSports in all of its glory represents a massive world of competitive and organized video gaming that carries the same essence as that of regular sports.

When you come to think of it, traditional sports and eSports are not too far apart from each other. Just like we have Singles, Doubles, and Team sports, eSports come in a variety of modes including Battle Royale games like PUBG and Fortnite where up to 100 players play at once. It might seem counter-intuitive, but eSport athletes have just as rigorous practice schedules as traditional sportsmen including a special focus on their diet, sleep schedule, and their mental as well as physical health. Just like a football player who practices dribbling and striking for hours on end, an eSports player spends time honing their skills to improve reaction times and hand-eye coordination.

A few other aspects they share in common are effective communication between teammates, building a strategy, and performing under intense high-pressure situations. Just like you have strikers and defenders in soccer and various field positions in games like cricket and basketball, many eSport games have specific roles to be played like healers, snipers, sentinels, tank types, etc. A call made for a substitute in the 4th quarter of an NBA final is equivalent to a call-out made during a round, in say the Overwatch League grand finals.

Overwatch League Highlights

Overwatch is a team-based, first-person multiplayer shooter developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Two teams of 6 players each pick from a vast range of heroes and go head-to-head against each other to complete an objective. Though it may seem like a casual game, it has an extremely active competitive scene. Organized tournaments for the game began in July 2016 with the first-ever Overwatch Open tournament being played for a prize of 300,000 USD! In November the same year, Blizzard hosted the ‘Overwatch World Cup where athletes representing 24 countries participated and South Korea was crowned as the World Champion. 

It wouldn’t be much longer till the inauguration of the Overwatch League by Blizzard in 2018 which would solidify this game as a goliath in the eSports industry.

The league plays out similar to most North American professional sports leagues like the NBA and the NFL. In fact, Robert Kraft who is the owner of an American football team (New England Patriots) was one of the first businesspeople to approach the company to purchase a team. After negotiation, he would purchase the Boston Uprising team for 20 million USD who finished third in the inaugural season. Like Mr. Kraft, many other well-established sports franchises have invested in the Overwatch League. Today, the League is sponsored by huge brands like Spotify, Toyota and Intel, valued at 1 billion USD.

Overwatch League Grand Finals at the Barclay’s Arena in Brooklyn, NY

As far as viewership goes in eSports, League of Legends is the king of the hill. Now if you’re a gamer or just an active person on the internet, chances are that you’ve heard of League of Legends. 

League of Legends is one of the world’s most popular video games, developed by Riot Games. Similar to DOTA 2, it is a team-based competitive game mode based on strategy and outplaying opponents using magical weapons and superpowers. The game takes place in an alternate universe ‘Runeterra’ where players work with their team to break the enemy ‘Nexus’ before the enemy team breaks theirs. Teams of five powerful magical champions face off to destroy the opponent’s base and secure the win. There are over 150 champions to choose from with each having their own unique magical abilities and superpowers.

You can make different combinations and strategies to make epic plays, secure kills, and takedown opponent towers as you battle your way to victory. It requires hours of practice, good communication, excellent reflexes, and tremendous amounts of strategic planning just like any other traditional sport. It is one of the mammoths of the gaming industry and has shown no signs of decline. It keeps its audience thrilled with exciting new game modes, new maps, and theme updates with newer character designs and customized backstories. 

Speaking of audiences, one might argue that traditional sports have an enormous fan base, something that eSports could find difficult to compete with. The 2018 FIFA World Cup final between France and Croatia reached an average live audience of 517 million viewers, with more than 1.1 billion people tuning in over its 90 minutes. The ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019 was the most-watched ICC event ever, with a global cumulative average audience of 1.6 billion! Other sports aren’t far behind with games like Tennis, Basketball, and Badminton amassing an average of around 100 million viewers across the globe.  Well, how does eSports compare?

A crowd of 40,000 at League of Legends Final, 2017

The League of Legends world finals in 2017, held in Beijing’s Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium, sold out to a crowd of 40,000 fans with 360 million people viewing via live streams. These numbers are 3 times that of the Super Bowl (NFL) in America and come really close to beating the IPL statistics. The viewing records have smashed every other games’ and that of many traditional sports as well. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Riot Games have been able to amass an annual revenue of 1.9 Billion USD, an indicator of eSport’s ever-increasing appeal.
And it’s not just this one game. Back in January of 2019 Epic Games, the developers of Fortnite would host one of the biggest collaborations between traditional sports and eSports. Fortnite is a unique battle royale game, where one hundred players spawn on an island and fight for survival with the last man standing being declared the winner. Epic Games hosted the ‘Summer Smash’ Fortnite tournament at the Australian Open 2019 tennis grand slam in Melbourne during its finals weekend. Hours before Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal to claim his 7th Australian Open title, 500 gamers would compete for the $500K and $355K prize pool in the solos and pro-am duos events.

No one sums up the magnitude of this event better than the director of the Australian Open tournament himself, Mr. Craig Tiley:

“Fortnite is a global phenomenon, and we’re excited to host the Grand Slam of competitive gaming events at the Australian Open in January.”

“We’re proud of our reputation for delivering world-class events and are always looking at new opportunities to reach more people. The Fortnite Summer Smash at the Australian Open will see some of the best gamers from around the country do battle just hours before the world’s best male tennis players compete for the AO title.” 

Now if you take a look at any of these eSports events, you will notice the stark resemblance between sports and eSports championships. Grand opening ceremonies with celebrity performances, flash mobs, pre-match interviews and discussions, fan interviews, game analysis, enthusiastic commentators, event hosts, cheerleaders, etc. you name it and they got it! Watching an eSports tournament would feel no different than watching a football, basketball, or cricket game. It encompasses the same excitement, the same heart-pounding and breath-taking moments, and the same euphoria of seeing your favorite team and players winning the match. Moreover, streaming platforms like Twitch and Youtube have facilitated the growth of eSports giving rise to a new set of ‘internet influencers’. Streamers like Shroud, Ninja, Tenz, xQc, Tanmay Bhat, CarryMinati, and many more have risen to fame and have managed to make a proper career out of competitive/casual gaming and streaming.

Today, there are well-established organizations that act as regulatory bodies for eSport leagues and championships. Just like you have FIFA for football, ICC for cricket, and ITF for tennis, you have the International eSports Federation (IeSF) as the official governing body for eSports. There are well-defined rules and customs in place that prevent any malpractices and keep the sport organized and uniform. Realizing the true potential of eSports, governments of countries like the USA, Germany, Russia, Korea, Pakistan, Ukraine, Brazil, Thailand, etc. have already recognized eSports as a sport and have put it under the sports framework and policies. eSport athletes are eligible for college scholarships and work VISAs just like traditional athletes. In India, eSports has the potential to outrun cricket with another form of eSports, ’Mobile Gaming’ taking off. Various game developers are now setting up their servers in India after understanding the potential of eSports in our country. After years of fighting and pleading from India’s Esports community, the government has finally elected to push for Esports to be properly recognized as a sport by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA).

Esports was a part of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta as a demonstrative event and Tirth Mehta won the bronze medal for India in competitive Hearthstone (a competitive card game). We have the skill, we have the equipment, we have the investors, and more than anything, we have the passion! With the launch of the Olympic Virtual Series (OVS), the timing could not be any more perfect for India to dive into this multi-billion dollar industry and kick start the eSports revolution. Who knows if the 16-year-old gamer, who gets scolded by his peers for gaming hours at a stretch, brings home India’s first Olympic Gold medal in competitive eSports. The possibilities are endless!

Ayush Gala, Kaushik Shroff

-Poster Credits: Kaushal Kulkarni, Siddharth Singh

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