With the League of Legends World Championship having begun today, it’s a good time to re-examine the booming popularity of this particular gaming platform. League of Legends, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game, is a downloadable PC game where one is placed as a certain character on a team of 5 and pitted against another team in a race to take down the enemy’s base, or “nexus.” The LOL Season 3 World Championship, which was held at the Staples Center, had a viewership of 32 million, counting online viewers. That’s more than the 2013 NBA Finals. In July of 2013, ESPN made an effort to appeal to this demographic, streaming online another PC game’s championship – DOTA 2 The International 4. Despite reaching 20 million views, ESPN president John Skinner dissed eSports, calling it “a competition,” while he was only “interested in doing real sports.” This brings up a very interesting question: What is a sport? Will a game such as League of Legends ever be considered a sport?
The American stigma of professional gamers is quite negative – images of a few acne-ridden teens rocking back and forth in front of their computer screens immediately come to mind. Yet twenty-seven million people play LOL daily, and Staples Center sold out of LOL S3 World Championship tickets in less than an hour; surely not all of them are convention-attending, costume-donning freaks.
In South Korea, however, the culture surrounding gamer’s is very different. On a very fundamental level, South Korea’s internet is just better than America’s. It’s four times as fast over there, and about 17 dollars cheaper, on average, per month. South Korea is more densely populated, meaning it costs less to set up Internet than it does in the United States, where rural homes are more spread out. Seoul is riddled with PC bangs – basically internet cafes dedicated solely to gaming.
This advanced technological infrastructure allows internet gaming to flourish as a South Korean pastime. More than a decade ago, Starcraft was released – known as perhaps the defining real-time strategy game of this generation; in fact, a custom Starcraft map called Aeon of Strife is widely regarded as the father of all other MOBA-style games. It took off, creating a competitive scene that took the country by storm. Since South Korea is so densely populated, everyone came into contact with this game; competitive matches were broadcast on TV’s everywhere. These pioneering online gamers gained big name sponsors (read: a lot of money) and became role models to the children in the country, thus creating the social infrastructure for these games to thrive and grow. Online gaming became an integral part of the culture there – Starcraft is South Korea’s official sport!
These days, professional LOL teams practice 14-16 hours a day, sometimes forgoing food and rest. The best of the best spend their days honing their reflexes, mechanical skills—LOL is a surprisingly rich and strategic game. The prize money for the 2014 World Championship is 2.1 million dollars, with professional teams already having salaries and sponsors. A combination of determination and unique talent is needed to compete. A couple months ago, RMU became the first college to offer athletic scholarships for LOL players; the US government now recognizes gamers as professional athletes and grants them visas accordingly. Thus, the line between eSports and actual sports becomes blurry.
Still, doubters will contend that “actual sports” consist of athletic activity. However, the International Olympic Committee recognizes chess as a sport. What one considers ‘athletic activity’ completely depends on where one puts an arbitrary standard. For example, the fastest track stars are faster than even the quickest volleyball players. Is track more of a sport than volleyball? The sheer mental exhaustion that professional gamers face surely counts for something – most retire after burning out in a couple years.
Simply put, eSports are no longer a thing to write off. With continued technological progress, the day will come when electronic gaming shall compete for society’s attention with traditional athletic competition.