eSports are gaining in popularity, but do the games support it?

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Gaming has become a sport, with professional players, teams, leagues, local tournaments, championship tournaments, and serious cash prizes. A whole generation of teens and 20-somethings have taken one of their favorite hobbies and turned it into a spectator sport with athletes.

“Kids are growing up with all this technology,” says George Woo, event marketing manager for Intel. “My son doesn’t want a driver’s license. He would rather be on Facebook and Instagram. Traditional sports are having a problem getting into the digital space. eSports is already there.”

How big has eSports become? The XGames, the long-standing alternative to the Olympics, now features game tournaments in partnership with the MLG (Major League Gaming). The League of Legends championship had 14 teams competing for $2 million. And Valve’s championship for DOTA2 had a prize pool of almost $11 million last year. Computer chip maker Intel holds its own eSports tournaments, the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM).

And like any other professional sport, there are issues which may cause the whole thing to fall apart. To start, the games themselves are complicated, but the manner in which they’re played is even more byzantine. There are dozens of games being played in tournaments, each a sport to themselves with their own rules, strategies, imbalances.

Take, for example, Nicholas “Classic” DiConstanzo, who goes to Call of Duty practice at 4:00 p.m. after a day of college classes. He turns on his Xbox One, guzzles his GFuel Energy drink, and gets to business. Using a Scuf Gaming controller—it has paddles on the back so there is no need to use the front buttons—and a Razer headset with noise-cancelling headphones, he is equipped to face his opponents.

He works on his personal skills, his own abilities in the game. At 6:00, his teammates join him, taking on other teams, to stay sharp for the next tournament. Classic remains focused during the match, calmly responding to teammates. The schedule has the feel of an Olympic sport, but his field of play are servers running the latest versions of the first-person shooter from Activision.

“We will set up scrimmages against other teams, go through all the maps, work on the little things we need to fix in order to get better,” he says. “Simple stuff: if you do this one thing or if you go this one way, we will work better as a team and further ourselves in the game, rather than be selfish.”

The schedule has the feel of an Olympic sport 

But while teams fight to remain competitive, the games sometimes need to do the same. One popular fighting game is Super Smash Bros Melee, a 2001 game from Nintendo. It has become clear over time that out of the 25 characters in the game, Star Fox is the best. So top players have slowly gravitated toward using Star Fox, which hurts the sport. It’s not exactly fun for spectators to watch 16 people play round after round of the same character using the same proven strategy. For card games, strategies may regularly gravitate to certain cards or for war strategy games to overpower a certain army with certain units.

It is similar with the latest Call of Duty game. As Classic says, it is reasonable to have a spectrum of usability in maps. “There are obviously power positions on the map, which you fight for consistently, try to have map control throughout the game,” says Classic.

But there is a problem with Call of Duty as a sport when certain weapons ruin the competition. It’s not against the game’s rules to use overpowered weapons—as opposed to, say, using deflated footballs—but it is against the spirit of the game. In CoD, the most powerful assault rifle is the AMR. And you just don’t use it in tournaments.

“Most people agreed not to use the AMR because it’s kind of cheap,” says Classic. “We had a Skype chat with all the pro players and we all agreed not to use it.”

On a long enough timeline, the top players will all eventually use the same strategies, the same weapons, looking to control the same spots on a map. So there will be a day where all the eSports athletes will reach maximum ability, ruining a game as a competition. Some in the tournament community call this 20(XX), a theoretical year where a game is no longer competitive and the tournaments have stagnated.

there will be a day where all the eSports athletes will reach maximum ability 

Luckily, videogames address this, since new games are released every year and some games fall out of fashion. Leagues themselves will switch out games as well. Games just are not as evergreen as athletic sports.

“You will see one genre dominate then players start looking at different games to play, and that’s when we kill it. Because there just isn’t enough of a following,” says Woo. “Right now Starcraft 2 is waning. But we will give it a couple more years.”

Woo explains Starcraft 2‘s fall in popularity as an eSport in the U.S. is because of the professional players. In South Korea, Starcraft is practically a national pastime—the equivalent to the NFL or NBA. And when money is on the line, Korean players will come over and play in American tournaments. And dominate. So players have turned away from it to play other strategy games, like Dota 2. (The fact that that game had the largest prize pool in eSports history, at $11 million, probably didn’t hurt.)

But in the world of tournaments for money, people will sometimes play an older installment in a game franchise, such as choosing 2001’s Super Smash Bros Melee over 2014’s Super Smash Bros Wii U, because it has a larger following, better features, or simply because it is liked more.

So these limits within eSports could cause games, and then leagues, to fold. But if it is all carefully managed, the popularity of eSports may only increase as the younger generation turns more to a digital life and as the money gets larger and larger. Classic believes the future of eSports and his career in it are bright. (Classic and Team eLevate did score a bronze medal in the XGames.)

“Hopefully, I can do eSports as long as I possibly can. If that doesn’t work out, I will stay in school,” says Classic. “Hopefully eSports will get bigger. That’s what everyone wants, just for us to get bigger, have more fans, and have bigger events.”

Brandon Hatfield, eLevate’s manager, sees the whole eSports field becoming more mainstream. He says, “I see a lot of eSports following the growth and strategic pattern of professional sports, with the influx of new sponsors, reaching a wider market, getting airtime and recognition from traditional sports outlets such as XGames and ESPN. If we keep moving in this direction, more companies and organizations will take eSports more seriously and we’ll see nothing but positive growth for the foreseeable future.”

Header image courtesy of artubr via flickr