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Sports Is Dead. Long Live E-sports.

The rise of e-sports during these “interesting” times.

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled hockey/football/basketball/10-pin bowling game to bring you … well, we’re not quite sure what. Since COVID sent the world’s professional sports leagues into a months-long time out, broadcasters have been scrambling to fill the time.

What they’ve come up with is a smorgasbord of “not-quite-sports” content: rebroadcasts of “classic” playoff games from decades past; plays/misplays of the week/month/year; revealing retrospectives such as ESPN’s The Last Dance; endless discussion and debate from panellists and pundits. No doubt hardcore fans find some of this fare mildly entertaining. To the rest of us, it is poor replacement for the unscripted, visceral, in-the-now excitement of live matches.

While we’re all waiting for the big leagues to restart—maybe in Florida (NBA), in Arizona (MLB), or even Vancouver (NHL)—an alternative has emerged: e-sports. Already a trend in the years leading up to today’s stay-at-home imperatives, broadcasts of video-game competitions have exploded during these “interesting” times. Whatever game you’re into—shoot-’em-ups like Overwatch; fantasy capture-the-flag tournaments such as League of Legends or DOTA 2; or lightning-fast sci-fi strategy such as StarCraft II—chances are there’s a team of professional gamers out there waiting for you to watch, cheer, and declare your allegiance.

It’s big business. Late last year, U.K.-based online video-game retailer Green Man Gaming estimated that e-sports generated about $1 billion in revenue around the globe and reached an audience of over 443 million people—more than American football and rugby combined. Based on current projections, world e-sport revenue could top $2.3 billion by 2023, more than other globally recognized sports such as Formula 1 racing or UEFA Champions League soccer.

Late last year, U.K.-based online video-game retailer Green Man Gaming estimated that e-sports generated about $1 billion in revenue around the globe and reached an audience of over 443 million people—more than American football and rugby combined.

Perhaps the most resounding proof of how e-sports has vaulted into the big leagues: the pros are looking to get in on the action. In recent months, America’s National Football League has recently signed an agreement to create a head-to-head challenge-style video game platform. It’s a clear indication of how both the excitement and the business of e-sports have gone from subculture to mainstream in only a few short years.

At their most basic, sports are a showcase for social ideals: teamwork, perseverance, discipline, the ability to push ourselves beyond normal limits (physical, psychological, and sometimes, ethical). And the athletes we raise upon our shoulders as champions are modern-day warrior kings: the physical embodiment of a spirit of excellence, tenacity, and victory we wish to see in ourselves. While pretty much anyone can shoot a puck, kick a ball, or run across a field, being able to do it successfully and repeatedly under the pressure of big crowds, big competition, and big contracts—it’s hard not to marvel at such achievement, even when the personalities of many superstars aren’t much worth marvelling at (are you listening #23?).

Obviously, with e-sports, the skills and abilities on display are different. Which begs the question: with e-sports, what are we celebrating, exactly? Hand-eye coordination? A lightning-fast trigger finger? The ability to meld mind and machine under the pressure of big crowds, big competition, and (increasingly) big contracts? And what of the players—what spirit are we holding up for emulation?

Whatever the answer, e-sports seem to signal an altogether different kind of celebration, and a broader cultural shift—one that seems entirely appropriate to this moment in which we are forced to live indoors, while also being the harbinger of a new age: one in which our digital existence not only sits alongside our physical one, but disrupts, engulfs, and overwhelms it.

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