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redefining competition

Words by Bartosz Kielak

  Back in 88’, among many, two century-defining events took place. The first installment of Die Hard was released, alive and kicking three decades later. The second epoque thing was the launch of Netrek – the first online team gaming experience that allowed up to 16 players to connect via LAN. Nobody would have guessed that in 25 years, an audience just as large, if not bigger than the film’s entire viewership would belong to online streaming services. Today, millions of people simultaneously watch and participate in an entertainment industry concentrated around teams of competing e-players. Yet, these ‘sports’ still are not taken seriously in the mainstream culture.

  In 2013, League of Legends (LoL) player Danny Le, better known under his gaming handle ‘Shiptur’, received an American visa under a category that was previously reserved for internationally acknowledged athletes. Now, players competing in the LoL Championship Series receive P-1A visas on a regular basis. On the 14th of May it was announced that Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño was now a member

of the RedBull Sports family – again, under the ‘athlete’ category. It’s a popular speculation now that eSports are on their way to the Olympics. They even allow an equal competition to take place between competitors that would previously have been divided between the Olympics and the Paralympics.

  This exponential growth of eSports, however, raises some serious questions surrounding the ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle of gamers and ‘unhelthy’ tendencies in the industry itself. We’ve all found ourselves questioning the direction of our lives at some point after spending days rotting away in front of our desktop screens. Can we really call something like this a sport, supposedly contributing to a healthy lifestyle?

  Society still does very often put a stigma on gamers, perceiving their interests as immature. It’s a long resounding echo of 90’s macho culture, the divide between the cool kids and the geeks. Statistics are showing that now, these ‘geeks’ are actually even more likely to be obese compared with 90’s, with around 40% of them sporting XL sizes.

  X-ray stills of computer gamers’ spinal cords, wrists, and even the medical evidence of the strain eyes are put under when gaming show a clear and unfortunately toxic relationship between a quality gaming, and worsening physical health. It’s only when the money starts to come around that professional players can invest in quality gear to alleviate these health risks. But on the other side of things, can we really continue to make claims about the ‘healthy’ lifestyle of ‘real’ athletes? Football players’ knees often refuse to cooperate at the age of forty, and that’s hardly one of the most extreme sports one can play. Risks of damaging your health with a long-term career in eSports are comparatively lower.

  Another hurdle eSports needs to get over is the lack of women in its world. Female viewership numbers are estimated at 30-32%. Although this is a major increase from 15% just three years ago, these numbers are still frighteningly low. Just a score of top players in LoL are female, and in FPS’s such as CS:GO, there are almost none.

A Polish gamer known as ‘Lunatic’ attributes this to women not being able to “handle the pressure”. ‘Lunatic’ is an appropriate nickname, then. Psychological research into the field conducted in the past has proven this simply being untrue, with women showing a better ability than men to behave reasonably when under pressure.

  Ralf Reichert, the Managing Director of Electronic Sport League, has said “There is no reason why a female gamer should not be able to compete with a male one, and surpass him in terms of skill.” Encouraging statement like that are not uncommon in media, but despite that, sexism in competitive gaming remains a significant, and controversial issue.

  Nonetheless, eSports is thriving. Huge corporations have invested some serious dough into it by now, with many having completely remodelled the current layout of the gaming market. One of three major contenders is Riot Games, with its juggernaut League of Legends that hosts an average of 27 million active users daily, 65 million monthly, and an average of 7 million active during the game’s peak hours. Another is Valve. Although Valve is much less popular, it is quickly gaining pace in some areas after developing DoTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) (which has more than tripled its numbers of players in a year) through its platfrom, Steam. Blizzard remains in the big three with two products in the segment; online card games Hearthstone, and a newest members of the MOBA family, Heroes of the Storm. Both partially based on the hit World of Warcraft – the predecessor of the current multiplayer industry.

  Valve and Riot host international competitions, with The World Finals’ first prize in DoTA 2 totalling a respectable $5 million, and LoL around $1 million last year. That value is expected to increase this year in DoTA’s case, as it has already raised $7 million of its $15 million mark in just 10 days, with another 80 days remaining.

  The structure of online gaming has seen a transformation from a clan/guild/faction structure to existence in a more professional context of sports organisations. Many of these  organisations are sponsored and owned by massive corporations like Samsung’s S White or SK Telecom T1.

  Thanks to the enormous amounts of money pumped into the Asian gaming scene (alongside its long history with being one of the most popular demographics to support gaming culture), Korean players are recognised around the world to be the most skilled. Starcraft is even the nation’s national sport.

  In Europe and North America, every major team has acquired a sponsorship, but often they have ceased to exist under their original names (with the exception of Fnatics and Team Dignitas, who kept their names despite now belonging to MSI and Intel, respectively). Big media outlets rarely cover eSports for any longer than a 25 second slide at the end of the 10P.M. news. Government support for eSports in the form of subsidies is also rather nonexistent.

  It will take some time until the biggest will realise that someone has already bitten off the most profitable slice of eSports coverage, and is chewing up a significant fragment of the market. The biggest online streaming service, (owned by Amazon) provides up to 24 translations on its website, has 100 million unique views every moth, and has 1.5 million broadcasters. even broke a Guinness World Record for holding 826,778 concurrent viewers during the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice finals last year. By ignoring eSports, the mainstream is allowing companies to privatise the competition before it’s even begun.

This is a revised version of an article, which was originally published in Unsettled, Issue 001 in 2015 and is of my authorship.

Please be advised that the factual data has changed since then. If you are looking for current statistics about League of Legends, let me point you to the Forbes website.