Students and staff participate in the upward trending eSports

Students and staff participate in the upward trending eSports

Michael Magyar, associate editor

After a strenuous day, senior Jackson Hunnicutt takes a seat in front of his computer monitor at home. Simultaneously,senior Tristan Eastham does the same. Both pull up and run the same video game, League of Legends. Hunnicutt and Eastham consult with each other and the rest of their teammates on their group they call Compulsion. Compulsion is the name of their League of Legends team, and after a short wait, it’s time to do battle. Hunnicutt and Eastham are teammates and compete in the growing phenomenon that is eSports.

eSports is defined as gaming on a competitive level. While competitions with spirited gamers competing for prizes is nothing new, competitive gaming is entering uncharted waters in terms of popularity and attention garnered.

“It’s digital competition treating video games almost like sports.,” math teacher Neal Doolin said. “We call them cyber athletes, or just people who are really good at video games, playing competitive games at the highest level against other highly skilled people.”

The popularity of eSports among all levels of competition has taken off. Games like Starcraft 2, Dota 2 and Hearthstone have grown in interest; however, none have exploded quite like League of Legends. A five-on-five multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), League of Legends boasts 27 million players a day, according to Riot Games, a video game publisher. A teamwork-oriented game, League of Legends hosts tournaments with massive viewing and turnout. A competition in New York City in August, with the right to compete in the world competition on the line, played host to 11,000 live spectators with hundreds of thousands streaming the event online. It didn’t always used to be this way.

“When I first started playing there was no such thing as Worlds, and now there’s these giant tournaments,” Hunnicutt said. “They went from filling Gamestops to filling Madison Square Garden.”

League of Legends, however, is not the only game commanding the attention of the public. Dota 2, another MOBA, saw over 20 million people stream the 2014 finals competition online. Counter Strike-Global offensive, another game, has drawn over one million concurrent viewers at times during big events.

Major entertainment outlets have taken notice of the extreme popularity of these games and events. Turner Broadcasting recently announced plans to cover Counter Strike-Global Offensive starting in 2016. Turner currently covers the MLB, NBA, NHL and March Madness and wants to cover eSports the same way it does regular mainstream athletics. Turner Sports president Larry Daniel said in an interview with Fortune Magazine that he wants to “treat eSports athletes like they’re LeBron James or Bryce Harper.”

For the past several months, ESPN has been streaming Dota 2 tournaments online through ESPN3, its streaming service. In April, it broadcast a collegiate tournament of Heroes of the Storm, another MOBA, but with a smaller following than most mainstream eSports, between the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State. According to Newzoo, eSports as a whole is a $278 million business today, and is expected to reach $765 million by 2018.

“It’s the same reason why the NFL is gaining popularity,” Doolin said. “It’s exciting to watch, and it’s just a different demographic that’s never been tapped into before.”

Experts in the entertainment industry recognize the potential of the eSports market. A report by Newzoo states that the number of eSports enthusiasts will jump from 89 million to 145 million by 2017.

“There is no greater way to reach the 16 to 25 male demographic right now,” Doolin said. “The people they’re trying to get to are the people that wouldn’t buy an NFL jersey or a baseball jersey or even a signed football, but what they are gonna buy is a shirt that advertises League of Legends, or they might even buy a jersey of their favorite professional gaming team.”

Not everyone is buying into the new craze. After the ESPN airing of the Heroes of the Storm tournament, Colin Cowherd, a then-syndicated ESPN Radio host, said he would quit if he was forced to cover eSports. Cowherd, now an employee of Fox Sports, stated in October after the announcement of Turner’s eSports broadcasting plans, referred to gamers as “nerds” and saying live on air “eSports are for booger eaters.” This prompted a response from an unlikely defender — Gordon Hayward, a 6’8” guard for the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Hayward, a self-proclaimed gamer and eSports enthusiast defended the merits of eSports first on Twitter and later on Cowherd’s own show. Hayward once claimed on his Twitter he was the best player in the NBA — at League of Legends.

“People would make fun of me in high school for playing video games and say it’s a waste of time, while that person is watching two hours of TV a night,” Doolin said. “While they’re sitting there absorbing the fake stuff the TV is throwing at them, I’m sitting in front of my computer actively thinking and getting smarter and getting better.”

DraftKings, a fantasy sports betting site, announced in August it will soon be allowing users to draft and bet on eSports athletes, just as they are able to do with NFL and MLB athletes. A 15,000 square foot facility completely dedicated to video games called eSports Arena will be opening in Santa Ana, California in October. The battle over the question, “Does eSports qualify as a legitimate sport?” rages on.

“League of Legends is the video game of basketball,” Doolin said. “There’s five guys, and each guy has a different job. If you disagree as a team on a gaming strategy, you’re going to lose because the other team will be working together and they will roll you over.”

Certain colleges are beginning to give out scholarships for eSports and treat gamers like  athletes. Robert Morris University (RMU), a college outside Chicago, and Pikeville University in Kentucky are now awarding scholarships to gamers. At RMU, athletic directors have plans to hire a coach to recruit players and also to build a $100,000 eSports facility.

“It’s just going to be another avenue of college athletics,” Doolin said. “It’s OK for colleges to give scholarship for baseball and basketball or football and sports that have practically nil viewer-ship, so what’s the difference.”

Mental proficiency is a needed aspect to succeed in the world of eSports. A study done by the Harvard Business Review showed that those who played video games executed and made better decisions than those who did not.

There’s a guy or girl sitting behind a keyboard, but they’re still executing mental proficiency and teamwork,” Doolin said. “It takes skill to dribble a ball; it takes skill to make three-point shot or to juke someone. What’s the difference? You just have to have surgeon accuracy with your hands.”

A sport can be defined by the dictionary as “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.”

“Every game is different — there’s no strategy that remains constant,” Eastham said. “You have to win every game differently. The game really helps with your thinking process. You always have to be thinking ahead and asking, ‘If I do this, how is he going to respond, and how can I counter that?’”

Not all, gamers included, agree with the assessment that eSports is no different from other sports. ESPN President John Skipper said in a press conference in 2014 that eSports was a “competition” later likening it to chess.

“Playing video games doesn’t require athletic ability,” Hunnicutt said. “It’s labeled an eSport for a reason.”

Sport or not, video game competitions have entered a new realm of fandom levels. The amount of  eSports followers is growing, and it does not appear to be stopping

“I love the adrenaline you get. I just remember how much fun I had playing in my first League of Legends tournament,” Doolin said. “There were 64 teams and we were all incredibly nervous, and we won the first round and won in the second round, but then lost to eventual champions. Even though we lost, I realized I’d never had more fun doing anything in the past.”