The sports industry was one of the hardest-hit industries thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but one sport seemed to thrive in a time left uncertain to the rest: Esports.
Shortened seasons, empty stadiums, and daily coronavirus testing left players, coaches, and fans in defeat. But as people were encouraged to stay home, finding ways to stay busy was difficult for some while others found their competitive edge in the gaming world.
Esports is nothing new to the world – gamers have been competing since the 1970s on computers through black and white computer screens. With the growth of video games through the 1990s with fighter games like Street Fighter and racing games like Mario Kart, the multiplayer option for video games made Esports even more competitive than before.
The not-so-new sport was introduced in South Korea during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, leaving a record-high number of people out of work and on the hunt for things to do and ways to make money. Internet cafés and gaming centers opened throughout South Korea, giving the growing trend more of a public presence.
Esports were gradually televised but rarely covered or classified as a “real sport.” The United Kingdom began streaming competitions in 2007 with France quickly following in their footsteps, airing a show called Arena Online. The United States introduced the country to Esports in 2005 when ESPN began airing Madden NFL competitions.
With the growing interest in streaming services and playing in online multiplayer games, an emerging platform saw fit that it would solely stream Esports competitions. Twitch launched in 2011 and grew to dominance quickly with League of Legends taking the reins of being the most broadcasted video game on the service. With an online viewership of competition comes a desire for physical viewership, which gave way for Los Angeles to host the Season 3 League of Legends World Championship in 2013. Two years later, the first Esports facility in the United States opened in Santa Ana, California.
This was the shortened version of the history of Esports. Competitive video gaming has accomplished so much more than four paragraphs can give justice to, but whether or not it should be classified as a sport is still a tough conversation for people to have.
While gaming may not require physical fitness or training, it requires planning, timing, and execution, similar to that of a traditional physical sport. In fact, some soccer leagues believe that Esports will help future star athletes with skills such as hand-eye coordination, multi-tasking, and improving soft skills (communication, critical thinking, etc.) This argument has led many colleges across the world to offer Esports programs and scholarships to students. Over 300 colleges worldwide offer Esports scholarships to students, while many colleges still struggle to support their traditional student-athletes.
Similar to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2020 pandemic has caused many to search for new hobbies while being locked in quarantine. Fans were able to fulfill their competitive need from the comfort of their own home and for the first time, tournaments featuring professional gamers and celebrities were broadcast on national cable television networks.
The English Premier League created the Stay and Play Cup, a virtual World Cup competition for professional footballers to play FIFA20 while still connecting with fans. Over one million hours were watched on Twitch by soccer fans worldwide.
The growth of Esports could give some reason for concern as to what the future of traditional sports has in store. Professional sports have invested time and money into the video game world, like the NBA teaming up with Take-Two Interactive for the NBA’s 2k League in 2018.
However, just as other leagues are growing and developing, Esports is no different. It is a more inclusive sport that can be played anywhere worldwide and has less of a barrier for entry. There are no physical requirements to play a video game and it’s not “weather permitting.” This adds to the diversity aspect that many other traditional sports don’t have.
The future of traditional sports is shifting, but one shouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s in danger. People will always chase the physical aspect of sports, whether it’s running a five-kilometer race or chasing a soccer ball up and down a field, or risking a concussion every day on the football field.
Esports is merely an expansion of an activity and hobby that was introduced centuries before us. Professional gamers receive similar, if not equal perks as professional athletes. Sponsorships, salary caps, and free agency are all part of both sports worlds – if we still want to separate them into two different worlds.
The Esports world is only going to continue to grow in popularity as technology continues to develop, as well. The possibilities are endless for this progressive and innovative sport and although the world is slowly beginning to reopen with safe and health-conscious guidelines, the growth of Esports isn’t going anywhere.