I'll admit from the get go I'm not a big sports fan. I don't go to the pub with the “lads” and drink generic beer and shout at a TV while a band tries to play in the corner. I went through the phase many people do of being interested in football, until I realised that the viewing experience is akin to a very slow game of tennis. Your head pans from the left, all the way to the right, then back to the left again and once in a blue moon someone takes a shot. Seriously when the average points scored per game is less than three, it's not that exciting.
Now there are some sports I do enjoy. I like a bit of MMA, I'll check out the odd Olympic event when it's on. As long as there isn't endless hugging, boxing can be quite exciting sometimes too. All in all though, I don't really like to watch other people play a game. If I enjoy it, I'd rather go and do it myself.
However one thing I have found myself watching quite a bit of recently are Esports. Being a life long gamer, perhaps this is more because I understand the nuances a bit better, but when I was a kid I loved football and I quickly grew out of that. So it got me pondering: I think there's real reasons that Esports could potentially become as dominant as traditional ones, because they offer something far different and in some cases better.
1: Ever evolving gameplay
Now for some people this might be the opposite of the reason they like traditional sports. They can watch a few games, not check it out for a year, come back and everything is the same. The teams will have different lineups and there will be the odd new kit, but the rules are the same, formations aren't too different, it's all the same sort of deal. However with Esports, patches and balancing tweaks are released, new characters are created and new strategies are discovered all the time.
If you were a League of Legends player from the start of Season one and you quit merely six months ago, coming back to it now would be a big surprise for you. The item shop is different, there's 10+ new champions and a reskin and redesign of one of the major maps.
While this might relate to a player as much as an Esports viewer, when it comes to the pros, what this means is an ever evolving gameplay. You don't have the same teams fielding winning combinations, or tweaking their setup just because of who they're playing. They have to change how they play because the ground beneath their feet may literally be different from how it was last time. And from a viewer's perspective, this makes for a more exciting matchup.
It means that teams will need to be constantly evolving their gameplay, changing it up, trying new things and it means as a viewer you'll see new emergent strategies on a more regular basis.
Admittedly you can chalk up a win for traditional sports in terms of their pick-up-and-play nature, but I'd far rather have a slightly harder time understanding the nuances, than I would a static game that plays out almost the same, year on year.
2: Viewing is free, high definition,wherever you want, on whatever you want
Of course you can pick up some sports on your standard digital TV connection and you can watch some sports online for free, but good luck with the vast majority of it. Don't have Sky sports? Aren't willing to pay the £10 for the next UFC Pay Per View? You're out of luck, because the companies behind those broadcasts strip the pirated videos offline in hours of their posting and they keep it up for months after the event, making it so you'll never find a recording – until maybe they replay it on a recap show further down the road.
Compare this with the latest and greatest competitions being held by the worlds biggest Esports organisations. Seriously, go to the Major League Gaming homepage right now, what's there right in the centre? Free, live streams of the most popular competitive games at the moment. They load automatically. Sure there's a quick advert, but compare that to having to pay for a cable or satellite service and dealing with adverts.
On top of that, look just underneath the main live stream videos. Skipping over the news headlines, there's the “top videos,” where the most popular games have been highlighted. In the VOD section, we have tonnes of videos of almost every recent game. Qualifiers, championship matches and even training videos that offer tips for amateurs. These are all freely available, streaming in HD, compatible through the site's mobile app with iOS and Android. You can watch these videos for free, live or on demand, wherever you want and on whatever device you want. This is light-years ahead of traditional sportscasting.
On top of this, with the continued proliferation of services like Twitch, you can watch the pros play from their own perspective. Imagine if this was done with traditional sports? It would be the equivalent of some of the world's highest paid sports professionals talking you through what they're doing as they play a practice game, with video. That just doesn't happen.
3: Becoming a pro is far, far easier
Maybe you could contest that this is because the calibre of player isn't at the same level as you would find earning multiple millions a year in other sports, and that's somewhat true, but there's a couple of truer reasons that make becoming a professional gamer much easier: 1: It's a relatively young industry, so the top players haven't been weaned on the game they're playing, 2: It's so much more accessible than traditional sports.
Taking these points individually, professional gaming is very, very young. In its current iteration, it's a couple of years old at best. I'm talking the domination of MOBAs, the worldwide streaming, the professionalism. Go back a little further to the FPS dominance with titles like Quake III or Unreal Tournament and you're going back just over a decade. Go back even further to the much more niche like arcade games, where it was more competing for high scores than head to head and you're looking at thirty years or so. Compare that with the legacy of football, basketball, cricket and you're talking hundreds of years since their inception and for most, over a hundred years of competitive, high level, professional play.
Every pro gamer out there now, unless we're talking Starcraft, or some of the few titles that have been around for a long time, has less than five years of experience with the game they're playing. DotA players, less than ten. League of Legends gamers, maybe three. Compare that with the football stars of the world that have been kicking a ball around since they were in the low single digit age range and it's obvious why – if these games survive – we're going to see huge advances in gamer skill over the next decade or so.
However it's not just that, that makes it “easy” to become a pro in comparison to some sports, its also the accessibility. I can login to LoL now, boot up the client and play with people that have a couple thousand games under their belt. I myself have maybe 500. I'm not particularly good, but say I was. Say I was damn good. I could join a team and start hitting up the ranked matches. Say I win a lot of them, before long, I'm playing against some of the best in the world. It might not be the absolute top, but chances are I'll run into one or two of them doing a solo queue.
How often does that happen with other sports? How often can you be the best player down the local park and that leads to you playing head to head with one of the game's superstars?
4: No geographical, political or cultural boundaries
Gaming is often given a bit of a bad rap when it comes to acceptance of other races, sexualities and genders. Some of that is deserved, a lot of it is just kids playing games they're parents shouldn't have given them in the first place. But ultimately, professional gaming has a far better track record with this than traditional sports. Not a week goes by without football fans or the players themselves getting accused of racist actions or chants and as I pointed out above, they've been around for decades.
Of course this happens in gaming and pro gaming too – if the “toxic” League of Legends pros we've seen banned were anything to go by – but what Esports do do, that real world sports don't, is break down all sorts of boundaries. Mostly this is because we're not limited to playing these sorts of games in person. How often can you play basketball against a person or team of players from all over the world, with a similarly mixed roster on your own side?
But at the professional level, it's also designed with a world wide focus. There's none of the Baseball style “World Series,” with only national teams. There are of course national competitions from smaller organisations and there are regional qualifiers,and the like, but every year with the biggest Esports games, we see who the best in the world is.
Got a great team from a small country? Maybe you're a great Starcraft player from Chile? You don't need to worry about having a local league to support your gameplay on a regular basis, you have plenty of professionals to play with around the world. On top of that, you have regular worldwide tournaments and competitions to attend.
Esports don't require local infrastructure. They're uniquely global.
Of course it would be remiss of me to point out that traditional sports are far easier to get into as a viewer and player. They're easier to understand, require very little in the way of technology and for the non-computer literate, they're far more intuitive. There's also a bigger audience for them, so you're among fellow fans far more often than with gaming. However with Esports, once you get past that initial understanding and begin to really get into the beautiful complexity that they offer, they're incredibly exciting.
On top of that, the audience, the money, the advertising, the spectacle, it's really, really growing. Esports are going to be huge and if you're the kind of person that can enjoy watching a sport where people kick around a ball for 90 minutes, I guarantee with a bit of effort you would find the fast paced action of a MOBA or RTS matchup even more exciting to watch.
Give it a try. See what you think.