Music boomed throughout the arena. The crowd chattered in anticipation. The players in the center of the court warmed up.
However, unlike most sporting events, there were no balls on the court. Or players jogging. Or coaches screaming. Instead, a group of individuals, wearing brightly colored shirts, sat in chairs with headsets covering their ears. They focused intently on the screens in front of them, communicating in coded language, similar to that of a football team calling out plays. This spectacle was not just a regular sports game — it was an esports tournament, where teams from around the world competed at extreme levels in a variety of video games.
The emergence of esports in the past decade has blurred the line between the realm of competitive gaming and professional sports. While there is still ambiguity surrounding whether esports are a sport or not, the numbers provide a strong case in favor of esports. According to Forbes, the esports economy has seen explosive growth in the past few years and is projected to become a billion dollar industry by 2019. As esports continues to break through the entertainment industry, the controversy over whether or not it qualifies as a sport grows louder.
Junior Tej Nair is no stranger to this debate. Nair plays the massively popular video game, Overwatch, and is currently in the top one percent of rankings out of the 40 million players worldwide. He began his gaming career in elementary school through online multiplayer games such as Minecraft and Team Fortress Two.
“All I really had was a laptop, but I still managed to play many hours of Team Fortress Two on that,” Nair said. “Eventually when I upgraded [my laptop], I became better and better, until I was just simply the best player in every single public match.”
Nair has experienced both casual and competitive gaming and describes the differences between the two.
“A lot of these games have casual game modes where people tired after a long day of work will often just go and mess around in,” Nair said. “But in the competitive modes, players try their absolute best to rank up and increase their ranking on the bell curve. So it’s very intense, very stressful compared to a casual modes.”
Niko Gustafson, junior and officer of the MVHS Esports and Gaming Association, also shares a passion for video games. As someone who began regularly gaming five years ago, Gustafson has witnessed the progression of esports firsthand, which he considers is another layer of skill on top of both casual and competitive gaming.
“Regular gaming is just playing for enjoyment and having fun, not necessarily practicing anything,” Gustafson said. “You’re just playing the game for what it’s meant for. It’s meant for having fun, but eSports is playing competitively. [It’s] just like a normal sport, where you practice certain mechanics and rehearse certain strategies with a certain set [of] teammates that you might have on a team.”
Even though the competitive environment is rewarding, Nair, who has participated in esports teams and tournaments, says the time commitment required is demanding.
“The schedule is very taxing because you have to keep up with a weekly video reviews of your own gameplay and [scrimmages],” Nair said. “Most of time, you go for hours every single session, and it just involves so much of your time and it doesn’t really pay out that much.”
While biology teacher Kyle Jones also has an extensive background in gaming and often streams himself playing games like Fortnite, he still identifies himself as a casual gamer due to the intensity and attention to detail that he believes is required to qualify as a serious player.
“What differentiates it is the fact that I’m not spending an absurd amount of time getting hand eye coordination, fast twitch movements, to a point where it’s like precise and repetitive,” Jones said. “And for me, I’m impressed when people do that, but it’s a lot of time and effort to put into that and I just don’t have that kind of time and I don’t even have that kind of interest.”
Jones adds that the meticulous nature of competitive gaming might even take away the purpose of gaming for him, which is to have fun.
“To me it would ruin the fun of [gaming],” Jones said. “Like that kind of thing is just, it becomes a work. And then for me, I don’t want to look at video games as work. I want to look at them as entertainment and fun and recreation.”
Although Nair believes that esports can one day become as popular as regular traditional sports, he believes there needs to be a culture change in the world of competitive gaming for the shift to occur.
“Sometimes [the culture] can be very toxic and unfriendly, but I think that’s just how competition goes regularly,” Nair said. “Unfortunately some of it is just the terrible culture that revolves around gamers and a lot of them use it as escapism from their horrible daily lives.”
Despite the current gap between the two, however, Nair still thinks that esports and regular sports overlap in certain aspects.
“Regular sports [are] a very team-based game,” Nair said. “People practice all the time and become better and compete against other people. Esports [and] sports are the same except with video games and many video games. It’s not just about having fun. There is potential to practice and become the absolute best you can do with a team. It’s exactly parallel to [traditional sports].”
Gustafson disagrees. Although he believes that esports are more cerebral compared to regular sports, it is ultimately the physical aspect that defines what a sport is to him.
“I think that esports and sports are different,” Gustafson said. “Although they have similar requirements of lots of training and practice of tactics and mechanics, they are different, because sports require physical fitness and athleticism and are physically demanding and intense in that way. However, in my opinion, just having experience with both real physical sports and eSports, the amount of complexity in the strategy and number of things that you can do in various situations is far greater in esports.”
As the popularity of esports continues to rise, so does the debate. Regardless, for Gustafson, esports has offered more than regular gaming and has helped to provide valuable lessons that he can use in his everyday life.
“The biggest impact that esports has had on me personally is being a leader and being a better individual, being more kind and accepting of other people’s ideas because I’ve learned a lot being captain of my team for multiple years,” Gustafson said. “It gives you a lot of experiences that you might not have elsewhere.”