I spent a very rainy Saturday listening to my favourite football team, Leeds United, securing a fourth league draw in a row to remain undefeated in the Championship this season. After going 1-0 down to a wonder strike by Sheffield Wednesday’s Marco Matias, Leeds shared the honours via an equaliser from new striker Chris Wood.
Later that day I watched the world’s top Counter Strike: Global Operative teams competing in the ESL One Cologne tournament. Teams like EnVyUs and Fnatic showed their stuff in front of a packed crowd, many of whom had travelled from far and wide to support their countrymen – Polish powerhouse Virtus Pro had an especially vocal contingent in the crowd.
At first glance the worlds of online and real-life sport are two very different pursuits; one a physical test of endurance, the other a more mental test of strategy. But from grassroots games to stadium-filling world tournaments, each has its own massive devoted following. As online gaming becomes more popular there are calls from its leading figures to recognise eSport as a legitimate sport, but how do the likes of League of Legends, DoTA and CS:GO compare with their real world counterparts?
While nobody on the eSports battlefield is in danger of breaking a limb or being knocked out – both of which are very real situations that could, and have, befallen sportsmen – the demands on a gamer are still plentiful.
However, being a successful eSport player takes a degree of concentration and reflexes that even the most cat-like goalkeeper could only dream of having in order to survive a game of Team Deathmatch, or to defend your territory from virtual terrorists. Staring at a screen for 16 hours a day can’t be great for your eyesight, either, and the amount of energy drinks you see them go through must be doing horrible things to their insides.
Okay, so maybe there’s no real comparison here – the physical demands placed on people who play on courts and pitches are more intense than those who ply their trade on the virtual front, but nonetheless there have been casualties in the world of eSports. League of Legends player Hai Lam had to retire from competitive gaming earlier this year due to a wrist injury from which he couldn’t recover his previous form, citing teammates’ loss of confidence in his abilities.
You’ve only to look at the daft amounts of money flying around the world of football to appreciate its popularity around the world – not only in the obscene amounts of money being paid in transfer fees but also in the cut-throat business deals taking place when buying the rights for TV coverage. From this season, UK broadcaster BT Sports will pay £299 million a year for the next three years to be the sole screener of UEFA Champions League and Europa League games – I’ve got to say, this is where money starts losing all meaning. All that money just to be allowed to show football games. It’s extremely shocking stuff.
But with the cost comes the potential for ratings – The Guardian reports that 14.6 million pairs of eyes in Britain were on the 2008 Champions League final, while on the world stage it gets ludicrous. 909 million people reportedly watched the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain – almost a billion.
But according to Super Data Research, eSports is no small fry. They estimate that “71 million people worldwide watch competitive gaming”, and that the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship was watched by more people than either the MLB World Series or Game 7 of the NBA Finals – two sports which, while some distance shorter in reach than the Super Bowl, can still command a loyal audience.
And while the games’ greatest exploits are still looked down upon by sports in general, ESPN was one of the first to acknowledge its mass appeal by airing live coverage of Heroes of the Dorm, the college finals of DOTA. One of the company’s radio presenters famously said as a result that he would retire if asked to cover such events, while the ESPN president even went so far as to say it isn’t a sport.
But as fans grow weary of the continued big-money plays made to keep them away from their favourite sports – BT Sport requires a monthly subscription to access – perhaps eSports can begin to take up some of the slack. And with a new generation of gamers rising through the ranks, maybe the door to eSports glory is even closer for some than the lure of the real-life football pitch.