We all know football. Whether you like it or loathe it, there’s more money in it than almost any other sport and it’s benefitted greatly from a history spanning centuries. Watching football matches on TV or at the local stadium is nothing unusual, and kids are still inspired by their sports heroes to grab their ball and go for a kick around in the street.
Now compare this to the relatively new phenomenon of Esports, which in the past few years has seen a massive rise in both popularity and mainstream coverage across the globe. A number of competitive video games, some of the biggest being Dota 2 and League of Legends, have exploded into huge international tournaments with staggering amounts of prize money – in 2015, the International Dota 2 Championships were giving away sums from a total prize pool of over $18 million, and the Twitch-streamed finals were watched by over 4.5 million people.
With the number of my friends who watch and play Esports games, it’s been somewhat inevitable that I dabble in them myself. Some time ago I tried my hand at Dota 2, which was a jarring experience to say the least: like all brave new players, I had to start in what my friends jokingly call ‘potato-tier Dota’, the lowest ranking of player skill. The premise is simple: your team has to fight their way past the other team’s defences, and destroy a structure called their ‘Ancient’ while protecting your own. The simplicity of the objective belies the staggering amount of strategies and terminology: abbreviations for character names and items, and terms like ‘ganking’, ‘laning’, ‘farming’ and ‘stack and pull’, can make the uninitiated feel like they’re listening to a different language. With patience and perseverance, the steep learning curve can be overcome, but be ready to deal with verbal abuse, uncooperative team members, and profoundly unsportsmanlike behaviour. Imagine that kick-around in the street I mentioned earlier, only the members of your team sit down on the tarmac and do nothing but swear at you for forty minutes.
Obviously, I’m aware that my experience isn’t indicative of what it’s like to break beyond ‘potato-tier’. But it was enough for me to appreciate just a little of the appeal of Esports: the depth lends itself to varied and highly complex play, meaning that the smallest success or failure can make a huge difference. Esports players are very literally in a league of their own, too: strategies wildly different to those of casual play have to be formulated because the pros know every other play or counter. Thus, the game at the professional level is incredibly different to that of the casual player base.
Of course, this barely scratches the surface. If anything is apparent, it’s that the sheer complexity of these games means that writing anything significant on just one of them could take years, let alone on the practice as a whole. But one thing’s for sure; if the popularity boom of Esports in recent years is anything to go by, they’re here to stay, and they’re only going to get bigger as technology gets better. And who knows? Maybe the nay-sayers who claim these games aren’t a sport will find traditional sports overshadowed in years to come.