As early as July of 2013, the U.S. government recognized League of Legends players participating in the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship Finals as being “pro athletes.” This decision was met with a considerable amount of criticism, primarily from individuals whose main argument was that ‘mind sports’ (think Chess or Go, for example) simply could not be ‘real’ sports due to a lack of physicality. Fast forward just five years and games such as League of Legends are being considered by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for admittance into the Olympic Games. In fact, as of July 21 2018, IOC President Thomas Bach spoke at the esports Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland, stating that during the IOC summit in December 2018 the inclusion of esports in the next Olympics would be discussed.
League of Legends pro Faker has become an esports icon, and has even appeared in South Korean school textbooks. Image source: InvenGlobal.
The prospect of seeing esports at the Olympic Games is welcome, but it's also unsurprising. Former and current professional athletes have been investing in esports for years, and their bankrolling has slowly legitimized professional gamers as athletes. For example, ex-NBA stars Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal, both of L.A. Lakers’ fame, are heavily involved in the League of Legends esports scene. Rick Fox owns his own team - Echo Fox - and Shaquille O’Neal holds shares in several esports organizations. Other notable names in sports, such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, are also shareholders across multiple games including League of Legends. Need some more names? Kobe Bryant. Jeremy Lin. Gordan Hayward. All are involved in esports. Furthermore, Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal have avidly argued that professional League of Legends players are every bit as much athletes as professional basketball or football players in attempts to lend esports some much-needed credibility in athletic circles.
Ex LA-Laker Rick Fox, who now owns the League of Legends esports team Echo Fox. Image source: CNBC.
This argument is commonly rebuked by people who will say that the average professional gamer couldn't possibly 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 same health risks. The reality is that 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. 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 or back problems. 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. Given all of this, I’m inclined to side with Fox and O’Neal when it comes to the legitimacy of professional gamers as athletes.
But what of money and viewership, the two most important aspects of any sport? Well, let's turn back towards League of Legends, a game which happens to generate 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 providing funds and tech for players. League of Legends pro player salaries are rumored to have reached as high as $1 million for the more experienced pros in the scene. As for viewership? The 2016 NBA finals peaked at 44.1 million viewers. The League of Legends 2016 World Championship Finals? 43 million. The year after that, in 2017, the League of Legends World Championship finals boasted 57.6 million unique viewers - a nearly 14 percent increase in year-to-year viewership - and a prize pool of 4,946,970 million dollars for the competing teams.
The 2013 League of Legends World Championship final. Image source: Red Bull.
Of course, League of Legends is an international sport as opposed to the more nationalized NBA, making this comparison somewhat unfair. 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 boasted over 1 billion viewers during the 2014 World Cup finals. 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. While NFL, Soccer, and NBA viewerships have been steadily declining, viewership for esports is only on the rise, pointing towards a positive trajectory in the coming years for the esports industry as a whole.
League of Legends pro Dardoch. Image source: ThePlayers'Tribune.
To me, this upwards trend in esports' popularity and validity as a sport is unsurprising. 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 professionals as athletes 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. Yes, it's rare for an esports athlete to continue playing past age 25, a consequence of how hard it for pro gamers to maintain a competitive skillset in a constantly changing industry. But is it any different in the NBA, which late highschool to college-aged athletes are regularly drafted into and then rapidly burnt out of? 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 videogame awareness and instantaneous eye-mouse coordination of an esports athlete. 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 evolution.
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. It’s time we started getting used to it.