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A New Era in Sports
Photo credit to SI.com
In the past decade, a new type of sporting event has risen into popular media — competitive multiplayer video games. Commonly known as esports, this activity draws in more viewers each day and shows no sign of stopping. Games such as League of Legends, Overwatch, DotA 2, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive garner millions of views through both live audiences and web sites like Twitch.tv, where anyone can stream and watch others play.
Although the concept sounds a little absurd, esports are no longer confined to the niche audiences they had just a few years ago. In 2015, the League of Legends World Championship Match peaked at 14 million viewers (for context, the 2015 World Series drew in a total of 14.7 million viewers throughout the entire series) and recorded about 36 million individual viewers. In fact, many fans are starting to see the esports world as a formidable rival to traditional sports.
However, these two environments don’t need to be opposed to one another. It seems that whenever conversation in the sports world turns to competitive gaming, it is seen as a hostile entity that is coming to abolish traditional sports, leaving football and basketball fans in the dust. But, are these two worlds so different?
Many big names in sports seem to think not. For example, Jeremy Lin, point guard for the Brooklyn Nets, signed a deal last month with Chinese esports franchise Vici Gaming to create a DotA 2 team. Known as Team VGJ, after an abbreviation of Vici Gaming and Jeremy Lin’s first initial, the squad hit the DotA 2 scene immediately after being created, but hasn’t participated in any major tournaments. In addition, three-time NBA champion-turned-actor Rick Fox has built his own esports franchise, Echo Fox. In just over half a year, Fox’s franchise has acquired teams in League of Legends and Counter Strike and signed professional players in both the Street Fighter V and Super Smash Bros. Melee competitive scenes, growing his franchise into an esports powerhouse.
Esports have attracted attention from other organizations as well. Last month, the Philadelphia 76ers bought into the esports scene by acquiring two professional League of Legends teams, Apex Gaming, and the thirteen-year-old Team Dignitas, making them the first American professional sports team to do so. This represents a clear trend of sports stars investing in esports franchises.
Jimmy Rollins, Alex Rodriguez, and, most notably, Shaquille O’Neal have become co-owners of NRG eSports, a franchise with teams involved in Leauge, Overwatch, and Counter Strike. A massive investor group that included Magic Johnson, Peter Grueber, Ted Leonisis, and other NBA figures also purchased esports power-franchise Team Liquid.
Investments like these seem to be an effort to accept esports into the fold of mainstream American sports, bringing much-needed recognition to the esports world. Despite the massive and growing popularity of esports, many of the teams are very small, relying on sponsorships and tournament winnings to pay their players. Just as with a traditional sports team, organizers of esports groups must deal with hefty expenses — from buying a house for the players to train to securing visas for foreign players to play on American teams (a common occurrence on many large teams).
Andy Dinh, owner of Team SoloMid, has been noted in the past for speaking out against the near impossibility of hiring coaches and players using only the money given to his team by Riot Games, the developers and tournament organizers of League of Legends. Being acquired by larger franchises will most likely help these developing esports teams afford to train, house, and organize their teams in the future.
While it seems that competitive gaming still has a long way to go before it becomes as legitimate and profitable as an industry like professional football or baseball, major players within American sports are finally taking notice of the massive appeal of these games.