Back as early as July 2013, the U.S. government realized League of Legends players participating in the League of Legends Season 3 Championship Finals as being “pro athletes.”[i] As was to be expected, this decision was met with a considerable amount of criticism, both from people who viewed video games as more of a reclusive hobby represented by college-aged kids with bad haircuts than any sort of organized sport represented by athletes functioning at the pinnacle of physical performance, as well as by individuals whose main argument was that ‘mind sports’ (think Chess or Go, for example) could simply not be ‘real’ sports due to the lack of physicality involved.[ii] Now, games such as League of Legends are being considered by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) for admittance into the Olympic Games. In fact, as of July 21 2018, IOC President Thomas Bach spoke at the ESportsForum in Lausanne, Switzerland, saying at this year’s IOC summit in December the inclusion of ESports in the next Olympics would be discussed.[iii]
Let’s talk about the NBA for a brief moment. Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal, of Lakers’ fame, are both involved in the League of Legends ESports scene. Rick Fox as a team owner, and Shaquille O’Neal as a shareholder. Beyond the NBA, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is also a shareholder across multiple games including League of Legends. Kobe Bryant. Jeremy Lin. Gordan Hayward. The list goes on. All of these people are involved in ESports. Furthermore, Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal have avidly argued that professional League of Legends players are in fact every bit as much athletes as professional basketball or football players are.[iv]
This argument is commonly rebuked by people who will say that professional League of Legends players, or indeed professional ESports athletes in any capacity, don’t work as hard as an NBA player. That they don’t put their body through the same strenuous activities. That they don’t face the health risks. These claims are mostly bunk. Both professional NBA players and professional League of Legends players typically spend anywhere from 60-90 hours a week honing their skills at their sport of choice.[v] While ESports athletes are less likely to break their collarbone getting dunked on, they are still at significant risk of developing health issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome.[vi] They typically live in team-houses together, and spend anywhere from 12-16 hours a day practicing with each other to ensure they function at the highest possible level both individually and as a team.[vii] Given all of this, I’m inclined to side with Fox and O’Neal when they argue that their players are every bit as much athletes as those who practice ‘traditional’ sports at a professional level.
But what of money and viewership, the two most important aspects of any sport? League of Legends has both in spades. Just recently, the North-American LCS, a League of Legends pro-league, was franchised. This resulted in NBA teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors sponsoring teams, along with technology brands such as Corsair and Razer. League of Legends pro player salaries are rumored to have reached as high as 1 million dollars for the more experienced pros in the scene. As for viewership? The 2016 NBA finals peaked at 44.1 million viewers.[viii] The League of Legends 2016 World Championship Finals? 43 million. Next year, in 2017, the League of Legends World Championship finals boasted 57.6 million unique viewers, and a prize pool of 4,946,970 million dollars for the competing teams.[ix]
But, League of Legends is an international sport. And it still has a long way to go before it catches up to the likes of soccer (yes, I know it’s football, but I live in the U.S so cut me some slack here), which, for example, posted a viewership of over 1 billion during the 2014 World Cup finals.[x] However, there is a caveat here. The viewership for the 2018 World Cup decreased by as much as 44% in US markets according to Bloomberg.com, and although no concrete numbers have been provided yet, it’s probably safe to estimate that the 2018 World Cup finals overall boasted significantly less viewers than the 2014 World Cup, despite still breaking several streaming records.[xi] However, while NFL, Football, and NBA viewership experiences a decline, viewership for ESports such as League of Legends is only on the rise, pointing towards a positive trajectory in the coming years for the ESports industry as a whole.
To me, this upwards trend in ESports popularity and ESports’ validity as a sport is unsurprising. We live in a digital world, so it only makes sense that digital sports would evolve to accompany the era of streaming websites, social media platforms, and ads in which we are currently living. Furthermore, most common criticisms of ESports as a sport or it’s athletes as professionals lose validity when placed under any real scrutiny. Yes, the average age for an ESports athlete hovers around late high school to early college age – rarely does an ESports athlete continue playing past 25, an indicator of how hard it for them to maintain a competitive skillset in a constantly changing industry, even when practicing 12-16 hours a day as mentioned earlier. But is it any different in the NBA, in which late highschool to college aged athletes are regularly drafted? The skills these athletes must develop are different, yes – you won’t be seeing a League of Legends ADC execute a tackle on the opposing team’s Support anytime soon (unfortunately), but neither will you see an NBA power forward with the mental dexterity and instantaneous eye-hand coordination of an ESports athlete. And why should one of these skillsets be more valid than the other? The world is evolving to be less physical, and ESports are merely a reflection of this fact.
In the end, whether you like it or not, ESports has a role to play in the future of athletics. A large one at that. And it’s time we started getting used to it.
[i] Dyer, Mitch. “US Government Recognizes League of Legends' LSC as Sport.” IGN, IGN, 12 July 2013, www.ign.com/articles/2013/07/12/us-government-recognizes-league-of-legends-lsc-as-sport.
[ii] Chase, Chris. “Will Video Games Ever Be an Olympic Sport? (We Hope Not.).” FOX Sports, FOX Sports, 18 Apr. 2017, www.foxsports.com/olympics/story/esports-olympics-video-games-league-of-legends-shouldnt-be-olympic-sport-summer-041817.
[iii] Media, Ioc. “IOC President Thomas Bach Closing Remarks at the End of the #EsportsForum in #Lausanne @gaisf_sport #Olympics Pic.twitter.com/HGqzeaN40s.” Twitter, Twitter, 21 July 2018, twitter.com/iocmedia/status/1020691800686833664.
[iv] Duran, H.B. “The Growing List Of Professional Athletes Taking On ESports.” AListDaily, AListDaily, 15 Feb. 2017, www.alistdaily.com/strategy/these-traditional-sports-players-are-taking-on-esports/.
[v] “How Many Hours a Week Does an NBA Player Work During the Season?” How Many Hours a Week Does an NBA Player Work During the Season?, www.quora.com/How-many-hours-a-week-does-an-NBA-player-work-during-the-season.
[vi] Chua, Kyle. “5 Most Common Health Concerns for Esport Athletes.” Rappler, www.rappler.com/technology/features/181571-esports-common-health-concerns.
[vii] Jacobs, Harrison. “Here's the Insane Training Schedule of a 20-Something Professional Gamer.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 11 May 2015, www.businessinsider.com/pro-gamers-explain-the-insane-training-regimen-they-use-to-stay-on-top-2015-5.
[viii] “NBA Finals Television Ratings.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 July 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NBA_Finals_television_ratings.
[ix] LoL Esports, www.lolesports.com/en_US/articles/2017-events-by-the-numbers.
[x] Otterson, Joe. “World Cup Final U.S. Ratings Fall From 2014.” Variety, Variety, 17 July 2018, variety.com/2018/tv/news/world-cup-final-us-ratings-1202875655/.
[xi] “World Cup Viewers Didn't Show Up For The Finals.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 18 July 2018, www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2018-07-18/world-cup-viewers-didn-t-show-up-for-the-finals-video.