The week of October 12, 2014

Teetering on the esports tipping point

By Kevin Morris

There was a moment in 1994 when I knew soccer would make it in the United States. It was July—summer vacation— and I was sitting on the floor in my dad’s house, glued to our 28-inch magnavox, watching the U.S. national team take the field against Colombia in the World Cup.

You didn’t exactly get daily soccer updates on SportsCenter back then, and navigating the proto-Internet for international soccer news was a little beyond me. But I knew that Colombia was a terror. They had steamrolled through qualification in one of the world’s toughest regions, obliterating Argentina 5-0 at home in Buenos Aires. After the match, the home fans gave the Colombians a standing ovation.

The U.S., on the other hand, was ragtag: a bunch of former college standouts turned C-level pros and a handful of middling Europeans who happened to have an American parent. No one fancied us to make it out of the group, much less do anything more than roll over to Colombia. Just about everyone knows what happened first in that game: The U.S. scored. Or rather, Colombian defender Andres Escobar scored for us, sliding to intercept a John Harkes cross and instead deflecting the ball into his own net. That goal has since lodged itself firmly into our collective consciousness thanks to what happened nine days later: Escobar was shot six times, murdered outside a Medellin nightclub, at least in part as retribution for the own goal.

But in the context of that specific match, at that specific time, Escobar’s own goal was only the beginning of a story. It’s tragic end was still unimaginable. And playing out on the field was a classic sports Cinderella story. Early in the second half, Earnie Stewart, the son of an American father and Dutch mother, who’d never lived in the United States, skipped the ball past the Colombian keeper. It spun into the goalpost and improbably curled into the net. Stewart himself looked like he couldn’t believe that the laws of physics had conspired to give the ball such a perfectly bizarre trajectory. He streaked across the field, hands on forehead, mouth agape. The goal would win the game. The U.S. would make it to the Round of 16.

About 100,000 fans in the Rose Bowl erupted in joy. Over a soccer game. That was the moment soccer made it. I was certain.

I was wrong.

“Making it” turned out to be a long, circuitous process, full of pitfalls and dead ends and moments of existential panic. Soccer’s struggle to gain legitimacy in the U.S. is never-ending. What’s fascinating about that struggle, however, are the lessons it gives other professional sports that don’t fit into the current sports hegemony. And it’s especially true for the growing movement behind esports.

Esports, like soccer, is being propelled forward by a type of indescribable and unquantifiable cultural momentum.

It’s a function of my point that many readers here probably have no idea what “esports” even are. It’s a blanket term for the pro video game industry: People who get paid to play games. Esports fans hold many of the same hopes that U.S. soccer fans like I held in the ’90s. Forums are filled with longing for mainstream recognition. When will esports make it? When will esports have its moment? Just last month, the community passed around a frontpage story in the New York Times on esports with giddy excitement, never mind that the story didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.

The report, for instance, largely focused on the competitive league for League of Legends. Matches for the League Championships Series, usually just called the LCS, are broadcast live over streaming platform Twitch every week, where they’re routinely watched by an audience of more than a half-million.

The LCS is split up into two divisions, one in Europe and the other in North America, and the top three teams from each compete in the game’s World Championship—which, coincidentally, conclude next weekend. The sets are gleaming. The hosts professional. Everything says this is legitimate. And this is a big fucking deal. More than 32 million people watched last year’s championships. That’s more than watched the 2013 World Series. And it’s only going to be eclipsed at the conclusion of this year’s event.

And none of those games are broadcast on television.

No major media outlets will cover the event as anything more than a curiosity. The biggest esport event in the world, with its $2.2 million prize, may as well be the Highland Games or the World’s Strongest Man competition, for all mainstream media cares—much like how, until the last couple decades, major international soccer games barely found airtime on the biggest American sports channel. (Hell, the World’s Strongest Man competition probably got more airtime.)

And the thing is, while the numbers in esports have recently been huge—another recent tournament for the game Dota 2 gave away $11 million in prizes, more than the Master’s golf tournament—the phenomenon itself is hardly new. People have been competing in games for pretty much as long as they existed, and the earliest “esports” were held in arcades in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, where competitors played for bets and money. This was a culture captured best in Starcade!, a three-year program that saw contestants compete for prizes in front of a live-studio audience. That was one of the last times competitive gaming was taken seriously on network television, and it was as much game show as it was an esports competition. It was cancelled in 1984.

Esports is a blanket term for the pro video game industry: People who get paid to play games.

Since then, esports have barely featured on television. That’s hardly surprising when you consider the attitude of television executives. Just last month, ESPN’s president John Skipper declared that esports was “not a sport.”

“It’s a competition,” he said. “Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. … Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”

Agree with that sentiment or not, there’s a curious parallel with soccer in the U.S. here—one you probably wouldn’t expect, considering the game is inarguably physical. A common refrain in the ’90s, and even today (see: Ann Coulter) goes like this: Soccer either isn’t a “real” sport or isn’t an “American” sport, whatever that meant. (Football and baseball, like soccer, were both invented in England before spreading to the United States; Basketball was invented by a Canadian.) ESPN anchors would act bored or disinterested whenever they’d introduce soccer games. They could nail every unusual name on a basketball roster, but somehow soccer names tripped them up every time.

That’s still happening. Here’s Sportscenter anchor Lisa Kerney sounding like she’s just downed a 30 pack of Natty Light before stumbling in front of a teleprompter. In fact, she’s just trying to read a few simple words about one of the biggest sporting events in the world:

The reasons for this sarcastic, passive aggressive hostility are complex. There’s basic disdain for the phenomenon. But there’s also fear of change, anxiety that the old guard is giving way for something new and unfamiliar—and potentially dangerous, because it doesn’t fit into sportscaster’s curriculum, because ignorance of something important makes you feel weak.

You can hear that in its entirety when a panel on HBO’s Real Sports recently discussed League of Legends. After a clip from an earlier segment aired—titled, and I’m not kidding, “Revenge of the Nerds”—some of the panelists snicker before the discussion even begins. One of the guys cracks a Star Trek convention joke, as if the last time he mocked geeks was 20 years ago and he’s just trying to warm up the jock gears. The rest of the segment centers on the same question that ESPN’s Skipper raised: Are esports sports?

That debate, like those centering around soccer’s legitimacy as a sport, is meaningless, hiding what’s ultimately an attack on the phenomenon itself. Debates about the “sport” are often an entry point to attack the players themselves, to reinstitute stereotypes about basement-dwelling gamers, living at home with their parents, emanating contrails of BO wherever they go. It’s not a sport because the people who play it are not athletes. They’re not even worth respect.

There’s a fear of change, anxiety that the old guard is giving way for something new and unfamiliar

It’s a actually a good sign for critics to harp so predictably on semantics. No matter how much people try to dismiss the phenomenon, it keeps popping up, getting stronger and stronger. With soccer, MLS attendance numbers stumbled, and then steadily grew and grew and grew. The league contracted, then expanded. The Internet brought American soccer fans together. Where media failed the American fanbase, the fans stepped up on their own. They figured out how to stream their matches illegally over the Internet. They created their own news media sites, launching careers of soccer journalists that never would have existed in the old media power structure.

Esports are doing the same. The industry has stumbled, reformed, stumbled again. But now the events are growing more numerous by the day and the production values are becoming more professional, even as companies move closer to sustainable business models. Prize pools balloon into more absurd proportions every year. And the fans are driving it all.

No matter how you categorize it, there’s a growing movement out there. It’s nascent, nebulous, hard to define. But esports, like soccer, is being propelled forward by a type of indescribable and unquantifiable cultural momentum. And it’s only going to get more powerful.


Photo via Wikimedia | Remix by Max Fleishman