Saturday 27 December 2014

eSports bid for mainstream victories

DOTA2 on ESPN, League of Legends with 35million viewers and eSports stars with professional status in the US. eSports mainstream legitimacy is growing and growing.

Published 21/07/2014 | 18:05

League Of Legends champion "Olaf" in a party mood
League Of Legends champion "Olaf" in a party mood

Computer games at the Olympics? It may seem like a far-fetched idea to some, but with eSports gaining ground by the day, mainstream legitimacy is ever closer.

Last weekend saw ESPN show select matches from the Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA2) championships. Culminating in the final airing on ESPN 2, this was an eSports first. If you think of the confused faces in sports bars around the world, you'll have some idea of how monumental it was.

The eSports momentum has been building for some time. Last year, Riot Games, creators of League of Legends, successfully lobbied the US Citizen and Immigration Services to begin issuing professional athlete visas to top eSports players. That's one of the most influential federal governments on the planet saying that yes, these gamers are no different than more traditional professional athletes.

During the London 2012, petitions began springing up for eSports at the Olympics. A crazy concept to many, but when you consider some of the minority sports represented, eSports could have as good a claim as many Olympic stalwarts.

A screenshot of League of Legends gameplay
A screenshot of League of Legends gameplay

Many of the doubters, myself included, are guilty of viewing things through western eyes. StarCraft 2 is often jokingly called 'South Korea's national sport' and there are whole channels dedicated to eSports. This year's League of Legends world championship will fill the Sangam Stadium in Korea. It's this level of interest that is overwhelming to the uninitiated. If the Olympic sports were based on population, we'd already be cheering on a zerg swarm attack for the gold.

In case I'm painting eSports as an Asian peculiarity, in 2012, Forbes named League of Legends the most played PC game in the world, with over 32million players logging 1.3billion hours of gameplay. That's global popularity, even if it doesn't have the pop culture status of Mario or Sonic.

Money may be the ultimate convincer. 35million people viewed the recent League of Legends world championships online. Twitch.tv, a site that deals primarily in streaming games, secured $20million of funding last year and is currently the fourth largest source of Internet traffic during peak times in the US. This is a massive growing audience that advertisers would be foolish to ignore for too long. As with Gaelic Games on Sky Sports, new fans are quick to pick up a new sport if it proves entertaining.

With so much proven interest and the demographic growing older, surely it's only a matter of time before public opinion starts to recognise that the skill and hard work involved in eSports is equivalent to that of any other professional sport.

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