The week of August 16, 2015

The future legends of esports

By Kevin Morris

Esports was having its moment in 2013. That’s when The International, a Dota 2 tournament, boasted a whopping $2.8 million prize pool. Esports was having its moment in 2014, too, when 27 million people watched the League of Legends World Championship online. There was another moment for esports this year—several of them, actually: $18 million was on the line for that same Dota 2 tournament earlier this month, and viewership numbers were crushed across the board. ESPN2 broadcast an esports event. A drumbeat of coverage has begun in mainstream media. Everyone from Vice to Business Insider is experimenting with esports coverage.

Esports is stringing together so many momentous years that it’s perhaps finally time to realize that moments don’t matter anymore. Esports is an industry and cultural movement imbued with overwhelming kinetic force; there’s no slowing it down.

Esports is an industry and cultural movement imbued with overwhelming kinetic force.

That’s not inherently positive. The Daily Dot has covered and exposed numerous scandals, including a match-fixing ring involving one of the best American teams in Counter-Strike, one of the biggest esports on the planet. Esports organizations coalesce into existence every other day, some fizzling into irrelevance months or years later, many others crashing down amid storms of scandals. In one famous case in League of Legends, when a player threatened to leave his team, his manager responded by threatening to repossess his mother’s house (the player, a minor, had needed his mother to cosign his contract).

That’s because, as unstoppable as it may be, esports is still in the ugly, messy stage of its creation. The forms of a structure—what future generations will look at immediately and recognize as “esports,” the same way current generations see traditional sports—are emerging, but they’re still vague and changeable. We’re still early enough along the esports timeline that what does take form will have repercussions for years and decades to come. In 20 years, when a reporter throws together a piece on an esports tournament with an astronomical prize pool, you can bet that the $18 million number will be thrown in as a reminder of esports’ quaint early days. That’s why it’s essential to not just report on the moments or the numbers of esports. They’ll will always be there.

Take Derek Tower. As Casey Bischel chronicles in this week’s edition of the Kernel, he’s the guy from St. Louis who, coiffed in his trusty lion hat, rode a passion for Big Buck Hunter all the way to the game’s national championships in Minneapolis. This wasn’t just a tournament for Tower; it was the culmination of months and years of practice and devotion to a craft that almost no one understands. It’s an almost spiritual experience, with a Big Buck Hunter HD machine as its altar.

It’s essential to not just report on the moments or the numbers of esports. They’ll will always be there.

Then there’s James Chen. He hadn’t played Super Smash Bros. in years, but one day earlier this year he booked a flight to Las Vegas from his home in Taiwan to compete in the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. Why? “Evo has a distinct magnetism,” Chen writes. “It draws people regardless of whether they’ve played 10 years or watched 10 minutes online. It’s not quite the Super Bowl and it’s definitely not a Wimbledon. But it has a prestige that’s similarly world-class. It’s a take-on-all-comers celebration of sheer skill. The only way to truly appreciate it is to take part.”

Matt “Nadeshot” Haag’s competitive pedigree is a little different. The most famous competitive gamer in the United States has it all: millions of social media followers, championship victories, and a six-figure salary. But what happens when the biggest name in esports calls it quits? Nadeshot is the prototype for a phenomenon the industry hardly knows: the retired esports superstar.

Every person in this issue of the Kernel is a prototype for a certain type of competitor. Future generations will inherit Tower’s, Chen’s, and Haag’s legacies, and they might not even know it. That’s why telling their stories now, in the middle of esports’ messy beginning, is so essential.

Illustration by Max Fleishman