What’s So Great About Esports?

He's having a lovely time

I spent the last six months of my freelance life reporting on the world of eSports. One of the questions I fielded most frequently during that time was “What’s so great about eSports?” People with no involvement or current interest in the world of professional competitive gaming were often confused as to where the pleasure was in watching those matches. The bafflement only increased when conversation involved some of the prize pools.

I spent an entire appointment with an optician a few months ago explaining how the annual Dota 2 tournament, The International, managed a $10.9 million prize pool this year.”Tell me if this is clearer or blurrier. And also why have I never heard of this game and why are so many people into it?”

One of the biggest reasons for my own enjoyment of eSports is how it puts a spotlight on people and their relationship with gaming.

The world of eSports encompasses a lot of different genres of gaming and types of community. There are the fighting games you’ll encounter at EVO like Ultra Street Fighter IV, Super Smash Bros Melee, Injustice, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. There are the teamwork-driven MOBAs like League of Legends, Dota 2 and newcomer Smite. There are the shooters like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike. Oh, and let’s not forget StarCraft, Hearthstone, FIFA, World of Tanks, Super Mario Kart… It’s a diverse scene, is the point I’m getting at here.

It's supposed to be a Mexican wave

But running across that mechanical and aesthetic diversity is the continuous thread of human enthusiasm and endeavour. Regardless of the specific game, you can follow narrative arcs involving the competitors. You get to know whether they’re on a losing streak or have just found their footing after a game patch. You work out whose playstyle excites you. You know they have a history with a particular opponent so you keep an eye out for those clashes. You see them failing to gel with a new set of teammates and follow the rumour mill to work out where they’re going next. It’s that same human soap opera aspect you’ll recognise if you’ve ever followed celebrity gossip or the dramas of professional football teams.

The ongoing stories around the pro players add an extra layer of involvement between the people watching and the action taking place on screen. There’s weight to the cheers and jeers beyond just responding to the mechanical skill on display. There are heroes and villains, teams to invest in (literally if they have a merch stand) and upsets to be gasped at and dissected in the line for refreshments between games. Attending live eSports events really brings this extra layer out.

I tend to have my camera with me at those events in order to capture some of the atmosphere. That generally means I’m keeping track of the game itself but frequently turning to the crowd. If you do that you’ll see whole rows shift forward in their seats in unison, tensing up as a dramatic face-off unfolds. There’s that one solitary fan who’s accidentally ended up stranded in a block of rival supporters and leaps to his feet punching the air while everyone else slumps down. From the press area – usually a room near the auditorium where you’ll find writers clustered around power sockets – you’ll still be able to feel the rumble as thousands of feet stamp and you’ll be able to follow the emotional trajectory of a match through the roars which reverberate around the auditorium.

You can see it in Twitch chat (woven between the Kappas and the nonsense) or on social media too – thousands of fans sharing that same emotional experience as a result of their own investment and knowledge. I wasn’t at IEM Toronto in August but I was watching bits of it and actually burst into tears when Flash – a legendary StarCraft player from South Korea – finally scored his first StarCraft 2 championship.

eSports deals in human experiences. Sure, that can encompass the petty, the obsessive and the aggressive too. But, in my experience it’s overwhelmingly about shared passion – both elation and devastation. eSports is the human and emotional side of gaming writ large.

This post was published October, 2014 for the RPS Supporter Program. Thanks supporters!

39 Comments

  1. MrTijger says:

    I, for one, cannot discern why on earth I’d go to see someone play a videogame, I thought it was supposed to be an interactive medium, not a spectator sport.

    • Luringen says:

      My go-to argument here is a Football analogy. Football is a social sport, but most people prefer to watch it, why? Professionals play at a different level or in a different way, which you can’t do yourself. Perhaps they play different games you’re not interested in, or with a large group instead of solo. Like with sports, the way you can play it can be vastly different from how professionals do it.

      • MrTijger says:

        Well, there’s the problem then, I dont watch football either :D

      • aepervius says:

        Maybe , but I still find it utterly boring to see somebody playing *no matter the level of play*. I would rather do stuff with friends or heck a single player game than watch the “best football play ever” on TV. Pretty much the only passive stuff I watch are story driven (film, cartoon, anime, youtube walkthru of story driven games watched as a film, i never played indigo prophecy for example. I watched it).

        Non story driven stuff on the other hand i find utterly boring. Sure some patriot player made some incredible pass to another. So what ? It was a one off event with relation to the rest, in another series of sport plays which has no story element, nothing.

        At the most basic level it is the difference between somebody watching pong, even a very skilled pong, and somebody watching a walkthru of a very old adventure game.

        Different stroke. You may like it but to other it is utterly boring to watch ANY sport e or not e.

    • JiminyJickers says:

      It’s the same as any sport in that regards. Myself I would rather kick, hit, throw a ball than watch other people do it. I probably wouldn’t watch e-sports myself. The only sport I really watch is some limited motor racing.

    • simulant says:

      I have no interest in watching any sports “e” or otherwise…. certainly not with the massive emotional attachment that people have towards their favorite teams. I think it’s just that people want to be a part of something bigger… even if it’s ultimately meaningless. I for one would rather play the games myself.

      I do make an exception for the World Cup every four years, mainly because everyone else the world is into it.
      I could never maintain that interest on a full time basis though and I’m not convinced anyone should….

    • sojuhasu says:

      First of all I think these kinds of responses are usually only there to serve to stroke the ego of the poster: “I am better than these fckin nerds, ha ha ha”.

      But for those who are genuinely curious:
      many people watch e-sports or watch people playing on Twitch / Youtube because they are competitive and wants to get better. There is something like 124 champions for League of Legends, 110 heroes for Dota2.
      The fastest and most reliable way to learn a particular character, their synergy (how it works well with others in your team) and their matchup (how to play against other characters in the enemy team) is to read a guide AND watch a good player play it.

      Because even if you are just learning one position, there could be about 30 or so viable and often picked character. Meaning almost 900 permutations possible, just for that one position.
      From regularly watching a good player, people develop an attachment and often become fans of a player and therefore support his team.

      One thing I really like about esports in comparison to watch “normal” sport which I actually used to love:
      Live streaming and VODs are freely available. I can watch whenever I want, skip over the boring part to get to the juicy part. Also esports are usually much much faster paced especially compared to something like American Football, Baseball and last quarter of a Basketball game where you basically sit there to watch advertisements.

  2. Vandelay says:

    What this article basically says is people watch eSports for the reason they watch other sports. Big surprise!

    It is kind of baffling that this still needs to be said and that there is any confusion about it. Even more so on a gaming website (not to say you can’t not enjoy eSports and like real world sport. I can’t stand football, but doesn’t stop me enjoying rugby.)

    Obviously, the confusion is far greater in traditional media. I’ve seen a couple of BBC reports recently on eSports and both were some of the most condescending things you could imagine, following a reporter who is acting like he has taken a trip to some extraterrestrial world, filled with strange creatures. 5 minutes later they are back in the studio talking about the latest football club signings.

    • Farsi Murdle says:

      WIth most sports you can appreciate athleticism or other kinds of physical feats, even if you know nothing about the sport. You ‘get it’ at a glance, even if you find it boring and have no investment in it. With videogames it’s very different. Unless you know the game very well, it’s just a bunch of virtual creatures moving around a screen with some flashing lights. It’s not a surprise that people find it baffling.

      Even much older and more respected games, like chess, have a tendentious relationship with ‘sport’. Some people consider chess a sport, others put it in a different category.

      • brgillespie says:

        Best explanation of the disconnect most folks (even avid gamers like myself) have with esports.

        I give two shits about the local American football team, the Denver Broncos, but the game itself is still watchable. I viscerally understand the athleticism on the screen, even if I’m shit at playing football personally.

        I know absolutely nothing on how rugby works. It’s still fun to watch online, because it’s essentially a bunch of dudes running around smashing into each other over a silly-ass little ball. It’s visceral. I can understand the competitive athleticism despite not knowing what the hell is happening on screen.

        Even if you’ve never driven a motorcycle before, you can watch the Isle of Man TT and be absolutely awe-struck at those psychopaths’ display of bravado and skill.

        Now we come to esports. Most esports games, without an understanding of the complexity and timing of what’s happening on screen, are completely uninteresting to spectate. I don’t understand the MOBA dipshit games, what’s going on with the various flashy farming and explosions, nor am I compelled to learn; thus, all I’m presented with are a group of dudes (often appearing unwashed and unhealthy-looking) sitting silently in front of a computer screen clicking their mice and keyboards.

        • ButteringSundays says:

          Wait, you a GIVE two shits or you DON’T give two shits? That paragraph confused me a little.

          Is this an odd extension of ‘I could [sic] care less’?

          • brgillespie says:

            Sorry, I assume that sentiment of apathy is verbalized different in the UK.

            “I give two shits” = “I care about this as much as fecal matter” :)

    • jrodman says:

      To be fair, I think sport fandom is indeed quite strange, both esports and regular sports. And I say this as a person who has newly found myself a fan of some dota teams.

      I think once the veil of familiarity is removed, the innate strangeness of team fandom shines through. But that’s true with many customs, I suppose.

  3. tumbleworld says:

    >>> “It’s that same human soap opera aspect you’ll recognise if you’ve ever followed celebrity gossip or the dramas of professional football teams.” <<<

    Ah, Ok. That I can understand. I mean, it sounds utterly and completely loathesome to me personally, but I'm aware that lots of people like soap operas and read gossip mags. Well, cool, I guess. Good to know, anyway.

    • Horg says:

      Basing your judgement of e-sports on that one sentence is a bit limiting. I watch competitive DotA 2 fairly regularly and don’t much go in for the human drama. I don’t have a favorite team, although I do feel the disappointment when a promising line up that just hasn’t quite hit the form they want breaks up. What players get up to outside of the game doesn’t interest me in the slightest. For me, it’s all about watching a game i’ve invested a lot of time in executed at an extremely high skill level. The competitive atmosphere is great for a neutral supporter, and there is something fundamentally relaxed and non-corporate about the presentation (for DotA, other e-sports vary). The casting still has the home grown vibe to it, by nerds for nerds, which enhances the enjoyment of viewing enormously. I’d rather say I have favorite casting teams than actual player teams, as they are what bring the most character to each event.

    • jrodman says:

      SO FAR: esports drama and human stories are pretty limited to pretty reasonable themes.

      * Corruption issues like match fixing
      * Cindarella stories like the team who has to clear 20 hurdles to even be allowed to acquire visas to get to the event, and then does way better than anyone expects
      * Arcs of dominance — teams rising to prominence then falling back out of it and the factors involved such as team cohesion, game tweaks that deprioritise the style of play teams excel at, or burnout
      * Stories of dedication, which is a very large portion of the “movie” Free to Play about DOTA.

      We haven’t, so far, gotten into the tabloid level stories that follow pro sports. Sure, the fans pass around semi-nude pictures of so and so or make comments about so and so having sex with such and such, but that’s not really in the reportage. Not yet anyway. I’m sure if it gets as popular as pro sports that it will come. Sigh.

  4. heretic says:

    I never really watched other people playing games and I know it’s not really esports but watching some of the EVE videos made by rooks and kings was really something, never thought I’d watch an hour of video game content.

    Are there any other games out there that produce the same quality reporting? Or any cool esports vids to hook the uninitiated?

    Did we have a noob’s guide to esports on RPS already?

    • jrodman says:

      Rooks & Kings is about drama and triumph really, imo. It’s more about some kind of war with a code of honor. Like defeating their enemies by hook or by crook, but within a realm of what they consider run and/or elegant.

      I love their productions but it’s pretty different from typical sport, where most matches just play out and someone gets more points. There can be stories of drama and tension but they play out through the course of a season typically, and emerge over time. Or maybe over the course of a long tournament.

      However, I do think Free to Play makes an enjoyable film, and it costs no dollars and doens’t require familiarity with the games. It’s a free download from Steam.

  5. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    Funny making the comparison to football, as someone that follows a football team but has never got into esports one of the things that seemed different with esports was how transient support was from season to season, with people following different teams depending on how the drama was unfolding in any particular season, whereas in football (and a lot of team sports) you pick your team and that’s it. Now, I may well have got the wrong impression being mostly on the outside looking in, so is that a fair view or do people tend to stick with supporting the same team? I just can’t see myself getting emotionally invested in the same way to a team I’m only following that season.

    (I do realise that esports is pretty transient with teams rising and falling as people get too old or whatever, and there aren’t any ongoing franchises that remain even if the particular players change, which doesn’t help.)

    • P.Funk says:

      esports is also pretty young. Lots of ManCity loyalists probably have that going back generations. You also have loyalty based on geography. Its hard to not love your local team when you grow up with it. With no geographical bias at play esports pose a different puzzle for finding loyalty.

      Also all pro sports have the non-regional bandwagon.

    • jrodman says:

      Esports are too impermanent, currently. Over the course of a single year, a given player might end up on 3 teams. It’s hard to build up fandom like british football or american baseball when popular teams may flame out of existence after only 9 months.

      it’s a few different factors.

      Time investment: Most pro physical sports have seasons that last a better part of a year. If your team ceases to exist midseason, you just failed. Esports typically get their results from single tournaments that last from days to weeks. If a tournament finishes and your team gets its payout, disbands, and you find a new team before the next big tournament, you’ve lost nothing.

      Salaries: Pro spots players get paid to play on the team. If they win the seaon, their salaries may well go up. Esports players get paid to play on the team IF the team is sponsored, but many are not and get nothing. Meanwhile, winning a major esports tournament has a payout that is likely to result in takehome money far greater than any plausible esports salary. This means that teams are constantly reconfiguring in pursuit of that huge tournament payout.

      Team size: Sports teams have sizes like 20 or 30. Sure they may have a smaller group of starters, or stars, but the total team is pretty sizable. Esports teams have sizes like 4 or 8. Interpersonal conflicts in a sports team are a drain, but in an esport team they’re pretty unavoidable. You’re always and constantly interacting with whoever you don’t agree with. Also the staff decidated to building cohesion on a sports team is sizable, while on an esports team is typically one person maximum. It also means forming a new team of 5 people can be done in a month, so the perceived cost of ditching a current team is low.

      In any event, the net result is even if you WANT to love a specific team, like for example DK, the player set is completely replaced 2 years later even if the team still exists. The players you loved from 2013 DK are now a mix of retired or playing on other teams.

    • simontifik says:

      I was just about to make a similar comment. I’m from a sports mad city (Melbourne) in a sports mad country (Australia). One of the joys of following football is the sense of community and tradition. Everyone has a team that their family has followed for a few generations, it creates conversations with strangers that cut across social and community boundaries. I struggle to see how eSports which is largely consumed by oneself on Twitch will ever reach the sort of critical mass that creates watercooler conversations. Maybe I’m just too old but I’ve always wondered why as someone who loves sports and loves video games I’ve never had any interest in eSports. I think it just comes down to being born into a football team. Oh and by football I mean Australian rules of course, none of this roundball stuff :P

  6. silentdan says:

    I’ve always kind of felt like I should care about esports, but I have the same problem I have with regular sports: I cannot, no matter how hard I try, care which team wins. I can’t get behind a city-themed team. There’s just no meat there. I think every sports team, whether E or otherwise, should be compelled to pick an official X-Man for their team. If the team who likes Cyclops went up against the team that likes Nightcrawler, I’d at least have some basis for rooting for one side or the other. They should have to pick a lot of official “sides”, just to broaden the net. An official dead poet (Yeats vs. Byron, winner take all!) an official fantasy series (Game of Thrones vs. Wheel of Time, maybe) an official sci-fi universe (who wouldn’t get hyped for Star Trek vs. Warhammer 40k?) an official muscle car, sushi restaurant, architectural influence, YouTuber, current Broadway theatrical performance, migratory game bird, and a band from at least three different musical genres. That way, *everyone* could find a reason to care. I know it’d help me.

    • Xzi says:

      Well e-sports isn’t even as far along in its development as city-based teams really, it always comes down to Asian vs. non-Asian teams and the Asian teams always win.

  7. Muzman says:

    As someone who doesn’t really like sports of any sort, there was a series Totalbiscuit did for a while trying out every character in Dota2 which surprised me for how much I enjoyed watching it. Indeed it only illustrated to me how much I’d probably hate playing the actual game and how much absurd detail there is in it. As a sport it’s the toe curling legal nightmare of American football times ten.
    But even not knowing the specifics of what’s going on, dota matches have an over arching ‘narrative’ to them that’s quite watchable. You could say that about a lot of sports I suppose. I think that only becomes apparent when you tune in to the skill level on display, the tactics being employed and how they fit with the framework of the game, the rules etc the meta drama. The ‘story’ of a pickup street basketball game court transition is very different from an NBA one. Norms playing Starcraft are sort of role playing a war, where pros are refining build order and click speeds to absurd levels.

    But in dota this over arching narrative holds fairly well at every level it seems. I have no doubt that if you do know what’s going on down to the fine details you get a lot more out of it and see the different skill levels fairly clearly. Still, noticing this aspect made me think that might explain its appeal and the appeal of MOBAS generally. To some extent at least.

  8. racccoon says:

    What’s So Great About Esports?
    You get to move off your arse! fight the tickets!! and meet people who are alive.

  9. Oakreef says:

    My only issue with esports as sports or whatever is that they’re closed sourced, copyrighted applications owned and controlled entirely by their parent companies. No one owns chess, no one owns soccer, no one owns skeet. Riot owns LoL. Blizzard owns Starcraft. Anyone can set up their own rugby tournament buying equipment from any vendor they want and setting it up how they want. You want to host a Dota 2 tournament? You’re paying Valve, going through Valve and at the whims of Valve.

    • Jannn says:

      Well, soccer is owned by FIFA and UEFA and such. F1 is owned by some old dude. Boxing is owned by many different organisations. Etc. They are presented as free, but they aren’t. Those organisations are just as big a problem as the companies owning the e games. However, traditional games have had more time developing more or less sane laws.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Sort of, yes. But that’s because they are organisers who have just about all of the sports teams for their sport under their wing. And for sports teams it makes little sense to do otherwise, because you’d cut yourself off from your competition.

        In a sense it’s good that there are few because you get this large amounts of teams competing which you wouldn’t have as much if there were four world cups run by four organisations, for example.

        The negative, well, it’s fairly obvious there are negatives to this.

    • hollowroom says:

      Hmm. You try getting a football tournament on TV without FIFA being involved. Sepp Blatter would rather shit himself half way through a non stop bus journey than allow that.

    • P.Funk says:

      I agree with your sentiment, but lets look at it this way. DOTA2, LOL, they’re both just MOBAs based on the same principle mod that spawned the genre. They’re different but one could argue they’re simply different interpretations of the same basic concept the same way any league’s individual rule set is an interpretation of a sport.

      The question though is could a competitive DOTA2 player migrate to competitive LOL and vice versa?

  10. Hieronymusgoa says:

    I dont care about watching any “classical” sport live because the only thing i can admire is the athleticism and that doesnt fill more than a few minutes of admiration for me. Rooting for a certain team all the time is something I can understand but will never get into (neither sports- nor esports-wise).

    But I like video games and I like watching people being good at them.
    If you don’t “get” why people watch that then you don’t get why people watch traditional sports.

    And if someone feels offended by the term e”sport”: Nobody cares :)

  11. Freezern says:

    “The world of eSports encompasses a lot of different genres of gaming and types of community. ”

    I can’t help but disagree here, the Esport scene has very few games where only the most popular game in genre X is allowed a spot in the limelight, regardless if it’s the best Esport game or not.

  12. Erithtotl says:

    I can think of a few reasons why people follow general athletic/team sports:

    1) To bond with other likeminded fans, feel part of something bigger, often based around their geography.
    2) To experience the visceral thrill of tremendous athleticism, something unattainable to the vast majority of humans (even relatively normal-sized soccer players possess an athleticism that most humans could never obtain.
    3) To get involved the the tactical and technical proficiency of the players and coaching (something less accessible to ‘casual’ viewers).
    4) For the ‘fantasy sports’ aspect, i.e. tracking transactions, team management, coaching hires, trade rumors, etc.
    5) the personal drama of the players and their interactions.

    Of these, I can see some of #1, and most of #3, applying to e-sports. I don’t see #2 applying (these guys are good because they are very dedicated, and practice a LOT, but I don’t believe they have any specially developed fast-twitch mouse muscles that are beyond the reach of normal humans, for example. I also don’t see #4 applying. As far as I understand each tourney or set of matches is its own thing. There is no player trading, salary caps, drafts, or anything else like an organized sporting body. #5 is something that is common amongst solo sports, especially stuff like MMA and boxing. I can see that applying to e-sports.

    Personally, #5 has no draw for me any sports. I don’t care about fighter drama in MMA or ‘Pro Wrestling’ for example. Since #2 and #4 don’t really apply to e-sports, that leaves #1 and #3 as something that might appeal to me. Frankly, I don’t find the tactics and skills used for e-sport games all that interesting. If they had e-sport turn based strategy that might be interesting to me, but while someone’s ability to memorize map layouts, map hotkey selection groups and target the mouse on a tiny spot on the screen in split second time I can appreciate are skills, they are just not skills I find terribly interesting. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found #1 less and less interesting as motivation.

    So I think its inaccurate to draw a parallel between all sports and e-sports. There are certainly overlaps, but there are also gaps which I think explain why some people find them completely bewildering as a pasttime.

    On top of all that, I’ve never enjoyed watching someone play a video game. I want to play, not watch. Watching someone play would just be time I’d rather spend playing.

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