It’s 2014. I’m sitting on my bed some weekday night, enraptured by Swedish terrorists planting bombs to the enthusiastic cheers of three hundred thousand people. I’m watching Team Fnatic play against Team Ninjas in Pyjamas (NiP) in a game called Counter Strike: Global Offensive, or CS:GO, for a prize pool of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It’s the ESL Cologne Grand Finals, my first taste of eSports and man what an introduction. The cocky and snide Fnatic players coming fresh off a previous tournament win looking for a second title against the hilarious and plucky Ninjas just looking for their franchise’s first major victory. It’s a best of three competition. NiP takes the first map but just barely, then are annihilated by Fnatic on the second. NiP’s Adam Friberg, who plays under the pseudonym “friberg”, pulls off one of the greatest clutch plays in the history of the gam; NiP takes the third map; the Cinderella story finally comes to a close, and a team no one expected to make it out of the elimination round lifts the trophy above their heads to the roar of their countrymen packing the stadium.
Let’s back up. Professional gaming isn’t unlike sports. There are underdogs who are popular purely because their players seem like nice people, villains who are fun to root against only because they win a lot, and even redemption stories of broken-down franchises rallying to win a major title. ESL Cologne in 2014 was my first introduction into this wild concept, that people, hundreds of thousands of people even, would watch and cheer on teams of people playing games that I played myself. It was like yelling, “Kobe!”, after making a basket only every time I picked up a controller. This global phenomenon changed a facet of my life that really isolated me from others, that is playing video games by myself, and unconsciously turned it into a community activity. Every time I logged on I’d see fans of eSports left and right, whether by noticing referential usernames like “friberg’s future wife” or “Fnatic fanboy”, or by witnessing obscure techniques and methods popularized by pros and poorly imitated by casual players. Every young football player wants to throw like Tom Brady, and every young CS:GO player wants to clutch like friberg. Sports and eSports hold more in common than either would really like to admit, and that’s due to the fact that the soul shared between the two is incredibly similar while the mediums are incredibly different. There are stories in both, tales of slaying titans and incredible jaw-dropping moments that “you just had to be watching live for man!”, and just because one is a man catching a ball and another is a man essentially going Rambo across cyberspace doesn’t mean they don’t capture the same overwhelming sensation.
People say a big thing that holds eSports back is the complex nature of the games themselves, that there are rules and trends that are impossible to learn for the casual viewer. An example is a current eSports giant Rainbow Six: Siege, a tactical first-person shooter that currently has over thirty-five million players active on its servers. Each round is 5v5 with a current pool of 21 characters to choose from on each side, giving each team 20436 possible team combinations per round, and each round about 417,645,499 different combinations of ten characters between the two distinct teams. That’s a lot to understand and adapt to if you’re new to the game. However, for reference we must understand that, on the low end, a good passing team in the NFL has at least a hundred different plays for offense and another hundred for defense, and we must assume the same for their opponent. So, every play we’re looking at one of forty thousand possibilities. Granted that’s a lot lower than four hundred million, but something different about sports is that while in video games people may invent a new strategy, sports may pioneer entirely new ways to play the game, so truly the possibilities for real-life sports are endless.
I myself started as a casual fan. I played video games sporadically and watched games sparingly. I really don’t attribute my growing closeness with eSports to any effort substantially put forth by myself, instead I must give credit to the medium itself becoming more appealing and accessible to the crowds. In recent years eSports has started taking notes from traditional sports more and more often with crucial successes in new ventures. For starters, eSports realized they could not sit back and wait for people to discover them and they couldn’t rely on online streaming sites to get views or sponsorships. So, appropriately, eSports expanded to new mediums. Ads began appearing on tv and on YouTube for ELEAGUE, a program surrounding professional gaming run by the Electronic Sports League (ESL) of old, no longer tucked away in the corner of the internet and updated for modern viewing. The tournaments I had become ensnared in now captured the minds and imaginations of people around the country. eSports had officially entered the public eye. Things began to change, tournaments started selling out in pre-sale tickets, prize money doubled and then tripled in some cases, the earnings for professional players cracked seven digits, and colleges started offering scholarships for the best virtual trigger pullers in the world. I became more and more enraptured in this weird cultural concept simply by living in a country that was already doing that as a whole, it was through almost no extraneous effort of my own. Today, everyone is involved in eSports one way or another. Either you like it, someone you know does, or a celebrity you follow does; there’s no escaping it and that’s not a bad thing. eSports is also doing its best to follow even closer in traditional sports steps, first by lobbying to compete in the Olympics which I’ll be honest I’m not sure how I feel about that, but by also de-emphasizing the traditional club-team style the league has previously gone with, making it easy for people to choose a team to root for. Gone are the days of NiP and Fnatic duking it out, today we have the Houston Outlaws against the Shanghai Dragons and the future of eSports couldn’t be brighter. Atlanta, a newly added franchise, will be squaring off against these teams and seventeen others with the inception of the second season of the Overwatch League and you bet I will be wearing a jersey into class.