The Evolution Championship Series, or EVO, concluded this weekend with plenty of participants and sponsors seeing gamers from around the world win thousands of dollars in cash prizes after months of hand-eye coordination training and strategy planning paid off. While their titles are honorable, they are still not recognized as athletes.
The competitive gaming culture even has a new branding name, eSports, but what needs to be improved to finally recognize gamers as athletes?
eSports has always been defended by the simple logic of what makes a sport a “sport.” This includes the requirements of physical activity, universally agreed upon set of rules enforced during the match, and competition to declare an end result.
But now, the reasons to recognize video games as a sport are beefed up by various levels of participation, the size of global championships, their viewer and ticket sales, and expansion of sponsorships.
Not everyone has the genetic capability to be built like 6-foot-4, 258 pound National Football League (NFL) lineman and RedBull sponsored athlete DeMarcus Ware, but there is a possibility to be a sponsored eSports athlete if you find the right video game.
There is even the opportunity to attend college for the talent of playing video games.One of the most recent endorsements for eSports comes from a small U.S. university. Robert Morris University in Chicago will now consider League of Legends a varsity sport, just like their football and hockey programs. This means the university can offer scholarships for players to compete on a virtual playing field. Considering 50 percent of an eSports athlete’s tuition and room and board are covered by the university for playing video games, it really does pay to play.
Those same college students not only have the chance to become professionals and play in global championships for cash prizes, but they now have the opportunity to be sponsored by big companies as well.
RedBull, an energy drink targeting action sports for sponsors and advertising, is now adding eSports to it’s list of funded sports. RedBull sponsored athletes such as 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest winner John Wall and 10-time X Games gold medalist Travis Pastrana are now no different to the company than it’s eSports sponsored players David “Walshy” Walsh and Ji Sung “Bomber” Choi.
The major gaming competitions are growing just like sponsorship opportunities. In addition to tournaments like Major League Gaming (MLG), EVO has grown from it’s start 18 years ago with 40 participants competing in the small town of Santa Clara, California. This year, sponsors such as Mad Catz, Capcom, IGN, and Xbox joined over one thousand participants from around the world in Las Vegas as gamers competed for up to $20,000 in cash prizes.
For a championship billing itself as “the largest and longest-running fighting game tournament in the world,” it is not much. NFL athletes who win the Super Bowl earn a $92,000 lump sum prize. The cash adds up to $4.8 million across a 53 man roster.
But EVO is not the only video game competition. The International’s fourth tournament has a prize pool roughly twice the size of the Super Bowl’s at $10.5 million. Considering only five players earn the prize money, it seems reasonable. What makes the 10.5 million impressive, though, is that almost every single dollar was raised by a community of video game players. Not sponsors. Not companies. Not billionaires. Gamers.
The economic draw to eSports is not just for sponsors and gamers, but audiences and event production companies as well.
Athleticism takes a backseat in this sport. This actually helps the appeal of eSports to audiences. Most Olympic sports such as track and discus have longer and richer histories than U.S. sports such as American football and basketball, but are not popular even though physical training plays a crucial role in success.
eSports, however, put competitors within feet of each other in a silent stare down that happens via a monitor. They only have preparation, hand-eye coordination, and intellect to help them compete.
This style of competition attracts audiences to tournaments. Seattle’s Key Arena, The International 4’s venue, sold out all 10,000 tickets in under an hour for the DotA 2 competition. This achievement follows last year’s League of Legends World Championship finals held at the iconic Staples Center in Los Angeles, where a sold out audience of 11,000 people came to see two teams of five gamers virtually battle it out.
Video games have become the final frontier in sports and games. With the financial support and strong cultural following selling out entire arenas, it’s time video games should be considered a sport.