By James Dominic Flores
Esports today is commonly associated with flashy lights, tremendous hype, and numerous talented young players who are at the top of their game. It has been a growing phenomenon over the past few years pushing itself more and more into the mainstream in terms of viewership, accessibility, and even sponsorships from internationally known brands.
Despite its success, there has always been one common pushback to the notion of esports; that it is, and should not, be classified as a “sport,” but why is that so?
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The rise of esports
In the mid 2000’s, competitive gaming was a niche, grassroots phenomenon. Notable pioneers of these are South Korea and their open armed acceptance of the Real Time Strategy (RTS) game, Starcraft: Broodwar which saw teams of professional players compete in both individual and team leagues broadcast on TV.
Organizations such as the World Cyber Games (WCG) served as a launchpad to try and bring the scene to an international level in a mini-olympic tournament wherein players represented their countries to bring pride and glory in their game.
The U.S. as well had their own home-grown esports events and one of which that continues till this day is the Evolution Championship Series (EVO). Starting off as a tournament featuring the best fighting game players in America competing in games such as Street Fighter series, Marvel vs Capcom Series, Tekken, to name a few. Initially held at the University of California in 2002, within a few years, they have grown and openly accommodated international players and audiences, and held their events at notable casinos in Las Vegas such as the Red Rock resort and Spa in 2006.
Despite this growth, esports was still a niche interest due to the limits of technology and accessibility until around 2009. Due to improvements in internet, players have now been able to reliably play online thereby extending their competitive reach and game developers have finally started an interest in catering to their competitive players’ fanbases. Street Fighter IV released and saw a surge in fighting game interest, in the following year, Starcraft 2 was released for RTS fans, and a new genre; the Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs) such as Defense of the Ancients (DOTA), League of Legends (LoL) gained traction and popularity both internationally and here in the Philippines.
Competitive gaming started to cover more and more ground, and so the term esports was coined to encompass these various games and genres, but the pushback from sports fans started. Criticisms such as: “How can it be a sport? You just sit there and press buttons!”, “Anyone can do that!” “Why do you even watch it? Go outside and play!” started to pop up.
Esports challenged the establishment
Whenever a new culture starts to grow, traditional views always exert pushback, however some of these common criticisms are flawed. Take for example chess, which is considered a sport by the International Olympic Community. Most of the physical exertion in chess is mental, similar to an esports player, but the way a chess player moves his pieces are rather simple.
Esports players have to make these snap decisions by taking in information seen in game in a split second, and executing them in game with precise button presses and commands, which is more physical than moving a piece on a chessboard.
As the saying goes, if it were easy, why can’t any random person walk into a booth and win? The same goes with the criticism of watching esports and its numerous off shoot content. How is it wrong to watch other people play computer games, but acceptable to watch other people play sports from the comfort of your own home?
Esports will overcome the stigma
Current esports is also strengthened by its accessibility, specifically, its low entry floor. Even though you need to have precise physical skills to be at the top of your game, you do not need to be a particularly fast runner, or seven-feet tall, or be able to lift 300lbs to be able to compete; you simply need to do what you are capable of to win, and this accessibility attracts even more new players into the scene.
This means that esports has all the bare minimums to be classified a sport such as amount of physical and mental exertion, gameplay that is skill-based, and it is designed to be competitive with a clear winner.
Criticisms of esports are rooted in traditional stigma; there are people who do not understand how it works, and the stigma persists because they refuse to accept that it works and that the times are changing.
Esports continues to look forward and expand their horizons building upon previously known titles and expanding accessibility by including mobile games played on cellphones with titles such as Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB) and League of Legends: Wild Rift.
The very best of Filipino players have also found homes in local esports teams such as Playbook Esports, Bren Esports, and Blacklist PH, who have players that are respected and known internationally in their game of choice such as Tekken 7 and MLBB.
Much like the initial fears people had about cellphones or iPads endangering the way people interact in public only to find that they have also enhanced the quality and accessibility of our social relationships, esports is here to stay. One must only need an open mind in order to fully appreciate its impact in our culture today.
About the author: James Dominic Flores is Program Chair of the College of Arts and Sciences at San Sebastian College, specializing in psychology. He is also a competitive gamer specializing in fighting games.