Changing of the Guard

esportsarenabrenNard in the Paint

By John Nardolillo

The new UCI sports team is generating quite the buzz.  No it’s not football; the Anteaters remain undefeated, untied and untried since 1965 in that department.  In this sport the battles are not fought on the gridiron but on a rather different grid, the World Wide Web.

The world of competitive gaming, better known as esports, has established markets globally and nationally and has set its sights on our humble campus.  UC Irvine announced the launch of an esports initiative, complete with a 3500 square foot facility, 80 personal computers, a live-broadcasting studio and scholarships for potential “e-athletes.”

Backed by Riot Games and iBuyPower, two esports pioneers and PC gaming authorities, the advent of a UCI team has drawn mixed feelings from those who worry that it might breed some sort of reputation for our school as Video Game U, or take attention away from our “real” sports teams.

But where do computer game competitions find the audacity to even call themselves sports?  As a sports journalist, something entirely different comes to mind when I think of “sports.”

To me, sports entail some sort of athletic endeavor in which competitors strive to achieve excellence.

I watch sports to see human beings perform superhuman feats, like Barry Bonds socking dingers to the moon, Steph Curry pulling up from Mars and Kobe Bryant dragging his zombified corpse up and down the floor of the Staples Center pouring in 60 points in his career finale out of sheer Mamba will.  The physical and mental grind combined with the desire to be the best in one’s field is something that should be admired.  It’s poetry to me, and something about wires and computers and Summoner’s Rifts somehow doesn’t fit the rhyme scheme.  I don’t bear any ill will towards esports, it just doesn’t mesh with my idea of sports entertainment.

However, major media outlets like ESPN seem to be on board, as they are (in)famous for televising events that have no physical element beyond basic motor skills and expandable stomachs such as poker, hot-dog eating and 8th graders spelling words like cymotrichous (sp).

ESPN2 recently broadcasted the Heroes of the Storm championship, a League of Legends-type game amid sanctimonious twitter explosions lamenting the sports entertainment bar being lowered to Cousteau-like depths.  This shift in programming bodes poorly for the sector of the American sport viewing public that wants to see, hear, eat and breathe FOOBAW all year long.  Fans in America are touchy when it comes to sports; they treat them as sacred, with many employing purist attitudes while gripping at the Johnny-come-latelies to PLAY THE GAME THE RIGHT WAY.  Well, here’s a solution that’s seemingly foreign to content consumers of all types in this day and age who make a hobby of being offended—DON’T WATCH IT or DON’T READ IT.  It’s not like the Super Bowl has been relegated to ESPN 8 The Ocho in the time slot after dodgeball and before 600 cup beer pong.  This town is big enough for the two of us.  

As for me, nostalgia plays a huge part in my love of sports.  I remember seeing Hank Aaron’s name in baseball record books from the time I learned to read, and I remember Jordan’s Bulls rewriting history in red and black ink.  Those moments were special to me.  STOP THREATENING MY CHILDHOOD.  However, I slowly learned to deal, and to put things in perspective with regards to eras and cultures so I can enjoy watching people compete for the title of GOAT in whatever field they choose.

In a sports culture presently defined by sweeping change, whether it be the vast overhaul of the NFL rulebook, implementation of instant replay in pro baseball or the rising dependence on the three-pointer in the NBA, you’ll be hard-pressed not to adapt to the coming change in whatever form it takes.  Nothing you fall in love with will stay exactly the way it was when you found it.  

The fact remains: esports are popular, and their massive audience is growing larger.  For the League of Legends world championships in 2014 South Korea filled an OUTDOOR SOCCER STADIUM originally built for the 2002 World Cup.  That kind of impressive viewership will only see prize money, advertisements and investments skyrocket in the very near future.  

In 2015, the global esports market stood at roughly $750 million.  It is projected to more than double in the next two years, meaning the top earners who made north of 1.7 million in 2015 alone will see some serious paydays in the future, and more gamers will consider this route as a viable career.

Even betting and fantasy, which is synonymous with sports nowadays, has managed to carve out a subsection of the market totaling $55 million.  

This movement is just getting started, and we purists and nostalgia addicts are going to have to live with it and make the best of things.

I will admit that the appeal of esports does rely on two things in particular that align it with the traditional representation of sport in my eyes: Teamwork and competition.  It may lack helmet-to-helmet collisions and pants-shitting tomahawk dunks, but at its bare bones it’s just another undertaking of excellence, humans doing things humans shouldn’t be able to do.  The top e-gamers strive to achieve the crown in a different way than I’m used to, but they can be admired just the same for their dedication, drive and ability.  If they make millions of people watching happy, more power to ‘em, maybe it’s worth checking out.

If they can incorporate a wild-card race and have Bill Walton do color commentary, it’d honestly be hard to keep me away.