League of Legends: What it Says about the Future of eSports.
If you’ve been around the online gaming world for the past couple of years, you’ve experienced the recent trend of electronic sports, or “eSports.” Major games, especially the insanely popular League of Legends, have reached higher and higher rates of viewership, corporate sponsors, and other feats that blur the line between eSports and conventional sports. Some day, games like League could compete with said sports, and that day might not be too far off.
Recently, the first American college began to give out scholarships for competitive League of Legends players, similar to athletic scholarships. This posed the question, “Are professional gamers athletes?” Well, although I think the superficial distinction between what an athlete is or isn’t is entirely irrelevant, the concept is certainly the same. In, let’s say football, you give scholarships for talented players because the colleges want a strong football program. They’re doing the same here to try and get a strong League of Legends team. Both are self-contained, competitive, talent-based activities that can bring recognition and revenue to the schools. While collegiate eSports may not have quite the following of football, baseball, or any mainstream sport for that matter, some recent numbers suggest that could be changing.
According to viewership statistics, the Season 3 League of Legends World Championship exceeded 30 million viewers worldwide, while the Major League Baseball World series reached just under 20 million. Although the World Series in only watched in the United States, we can’t ignore the sheer popularity that eSports have achieved. So if they are growing in popularity at a rate that could eclipse some conventional sports, and are warranting scholarships, what else do they need to be mainstream? Well, about 10 months ago, a League of Legends team was sponsored by Nissan, and now also Coca-Cola and other major corporations have become team sponsors, bringing with them additional revenue and greater legitimacy.
And that’s what it’s all about- money. Spectator sports exist because people enjoy watching them, and thus they make a lot of money for whoever owns them. Once our cultural attitude about eSports shifts to that of “real” sports, all of the pieces are there for an even more successful industry than currently exists- one that can be watched by families in their living rooms like Sunday Night Football.
That, however, does pose the one issue that always comes up when discussing the popularization of eSports. See, a game like LoL would be a lot more foreign to an inexperienced spectator than something like basketball or soccer, and they might not want to learn not just the rules, but entire new mechanics they have no familiarity with. Imagine if you didn’t have any real experience with basic MOBA concepts, or even general game design. If you didn’t know what leveling was, what towers did, what stats meant or anything, would you be willing to learn all of that just to watch?
And here lies the savior of the eSports world, and the answer to this problem. The one aspect of it all that, to me, makes this dilemma actually a strength rather than a weakness. I’m talking about interactivity. There’s no need to learn by watching, because unlike all major conventional sports, anyone can download a game and play it. You can learn and play alongside the sporting events you watch. It’s an inclusionary sport, regardless of age or ability or location. All you need is an internet connection.
Unlike any other form of competition, eSports allow for a more personal, intimate connection between the game being played and the spectator watching it. This factor, more than anything, is why I believe that games like League of Legends will one day become as mainstream as other sports are today, as our attitudes and experiences change. How much longer? Only time will tell, but be certain that people are ready for an interactive experience when it comes to sports, and that’s something difficult to compete with.