eSports not just a passing fad

On Oct. 5, 13,000 people from all over the country filled the stands at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. However, they weren’t there to watch the L.A Lakers face off against another team in their home stadium. In fact, the two teams competing in Friday’s game weren’t even from the United States — they were from Korea and China. And the game they played wasn’t basketball; it was a multiplayer online battle arena video game called League of Legends.

Before you roll your eyes and comment on how nerds should stay in their moms’ basements, it is time you realized that gaming tournaments like last Friday’s League of Legends Season 3 World Championships have now reached the size and scale of many major sports. The winner of the finals, Korea’s SK Telecom 1, won $1 million, while the runner-up, China’s Royal Club, also took home a sizeable amount: $250,000. Both of these teams beat out 12 other competitors from around the world, from Russia, Lithuania, Taiwan and the United States.

This is far from a recent phenomenon, as last year’s Season 2 World Championships garnered over 8 million unique viewers on its online stream. Other games besides LOL, such as Call of Duty and StarCraft, have had national competitions held by Major League Gaming since 2004. But despite the fact that there are full-time competitive gamers who make a living through sponsorships and tournament winnings, many people still view eSports as nothing but a passing fad.

I’m not going to argue that eSports takes as much physical ability and talent as conventional sports; in fact, I think competitive video gaming should abandon the name altogether. But the fact remains that professional gamers put in just as much effort, if not more, into their game to improve their skills. Members of professional LOL teams live together and hold daily practices to prepare for tournaments and competitions. This year, Riot Games, the company behind LOL, started a championship series in the U.S. held over two 10-week splits of season play that ended in play-offs at the end of the spring and summer. Similar series were held in countries around the globe, and the winners of each of the playoffs were the ones that qualified for the World Championships.

And it has been proven that an audience exists that is willing, even excited, to see them play. The weekly games during the North America League Championship Series drew up to 400,000 unique online viewers each week. Tickets to last Friday’s game were sold out within two hours and were subsequently made available on sites such as StubHub for several hundred dollars.

Even companies have started to notice the trend. While most professional gaming teams were sponsored by computer and gaming accessory companies in the past, pro gaming has started to attract the attention of more mainstream brands. The LOL Season 3 World Championships were sponsored in part by American Express, and recently Riot Games, the company behind LOL, partnered up with Coke to create an amateur competition circuit.

This sort of support has long existed in South Korea, which may explain why a South Korean team has placed in the top two at each year’s World Championships since LOL was introduced into the country. Major gaming events in South Korea are broadcast on television, with a professional StarCraft team sponsored by the Korean Air Force. Top players earn yearly salaries over six figures, not including tournament winnings.

There were three teams from North America in the League of Legends Season 3 World Championships; none of them made it past the quarter finals. In fact, in none of the three World Championships so far has a North American team won. As a fan myself, this is heartbreaking, especially considering we created the game. But there’s always next year, and I believe that North American teams will finally rise and take the reputation of eSports with them.

Brian is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]