From Madison Square Garden in New York to South Korea’s World Cup stadium, young adults all over the world are competing for millions of dollars playing video games in some of the biggest sports arenas on the planet.
The phenomenon, called eSports, is growing at a rapid rate and looks like it is here to stay.
But what is eSports? It’s not just one computer game or video game.
There are many titles under the banner of eSports, but League of Legends is currently the most popular.
League of Legends currently has over 100 million monthly active users, according to Riot Games, the creators of the game.
The viewership numbers for League of Legends can be shocking, dwarfed only by the Super Bowl.
The 2015 League of Legends World Championship pulled in 36 million viewers, beating out the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers (32 million viewers) and the World Series between the Kansas City Royals against the New York Mets (14.7 million viewers).
League of Legends is a free to play, a five-versus-five, team-based game.
But the squads are so much more than just five young adults playing video games.
At the professional level, the teams have full-time support staffs behind them to keep them running to their maximum potential.
Coaches, analysts, gym trainers, cooks and sports psychologists – to name just a few – are in all involved for what is a high-stakes business.
Organizations will combine all of these pieces into massive team houses to allow chemistry to build.
The average age of a professional eSports player can range from 16 to 30, and contracts can reach up to seven figures.
“Five guys working together, practicing together, trusting your brother. That’s what makes a winner,” former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal, one of a number of high-profile investors in eSports, said of the sport during an interview with the Red Bulletin.
“It’s a grind. It takes big-time dedication to be the best and build a winner.”
Not just for shut-ins
The spotty-nosed, socially inept, live-in-a-basement cliché is something that video game players have been tagged with since computer games became popular. It’s a false representation, as people of all social groups play League of Legends.
Take Adrian Jinbo. The 2015 Justin-Siena High School graduate still holds the school’s track and field record for the 100 meters dash at 11.18 seconds, and is third all-time at the high school in the 200 meters at 23.72. Jinbo was also a solid wide receiver and cornerback for the Braves’ football program.
Now a Portland State student, Jinbo has been playing League of Legends since his freshmen year at Justin-Siena. He got into video games when he was 6 years old, when he got a copy of the original Pokemon game for the Game Boy Color console.
“I acted out when I was younger, but when I flipped that ‘on’ switch and the words “Game Boy” popped up on the screen, it was like I was in a whole other world where I could achieve things,” Jinbo said. “I’ve been grateful ever since to video games for that.”
Eric Fitzgerald, a 5-foot-10, 230-pound, three-year veteran of the Justin-Siena football team, has been playing League of Legends for three years. The senior defensive lineman follows the competitive scene and his favorite team is Cloud 9, a North American organization that boasts one of the best western League of Legends teams. Cloud 9 burst onto the eSports scene in 2013 and is attending the 2016 World Championships.
“League is a chess game where the pieces can not only move themselves, but see themselves through the eyes of the chess player,” Jinbo explained. “Each player of the five-man team controls one of the five pieces on that team. The difficulties set in because each player is focused on a different area on the board. If everyone only sees only part of the board, how do they achieve any goals as a team? Communication. By communicating effectively, the red or blue team (the two sides in the game) can act as a team instead of disjointed single pieces.”
Household names involved
Along with O’Neal, eSports has caught the eye of big-time sports investors such as Rick Fox and Alex Rodriguez, according to ESPN. Even the Sacramento Kings and German Bundesliga soccer side FC Schalke ’04 have entered into the industry.
Fox is the sole team owner of Ecco Fox, a North America-based organization. The three-time NBA champion and former Los Angeles Laker found out about eSports by watching League of Legends with his son.
O’Neal invested in NRG, a North American organization founded by Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller. O’Neal has also been featured on the TBS network’s ELEAGUE, weekly Friday night programming that features another of the more popular eSports games – Counter Strike Global Offensive, published by Valve Corporation.
“I have been in and around the gaming space for years now,” O’Neal told ESPN. “The fan bases are huge and so passionate about their favorite games, teams and players.”
A couple of current NBA players have gotten into eSports ownership recently, too, according to ESPN – Jeremy Lin of the Brooklyn Nets, and Jonas Jerebko of the Boston Celtics. Jerebko recently purchased the North American organization the Los Angeles Renegades, which features an up-and-coming Australian Counter Strike Global Offensive side.
Lin is teaming up with Chinese power organization Vici Gaming, which focuses on a third eSports title, Dota 2 (also published by Valve), to make a team called VGJ. Born in Torrance, Calif. but raised in Palo Alto, Lin was a guest analyst at The International, the premier worldwide Dota 2 event held in August at Key Arena in Seattle.
Dota 2 has the biggest tournament winnings in the eSports sphere. During their world championship at The International, the total prize pool was $20 million. The team that wins The International makes more money than the winners of the Masters golf tournament, Kentucky Derby and Tour de France combined.
“It’s really not any different than sports,” Lin explained to ESPN, “except with sports there’s more of a physical component of you doing it yourself, whereas in video games you’re just controlling a hero that does the same thing. It’s the unique talent of the players that is the draw.”
The 2016 League of Legends World Championships opened Sept. 28 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco for the group stage. Other stops on the month-long event are The Chicago Theater in Illinois for the quarterfinals, Madison Square Garden in New York for the semifinals, and the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the grand final on Oct. 29. The World Championship is comprised of 16 teams from seven different regions that compete all year to have a chance to claim the $4.5 million prize pool.
Has ‘transferable skills’
The 16 teams from all around the globe are split into four groups that play in a round-robin format to determine the two squads that will advance from each group to the bracketed knockout stage. There are five major regions from a game team standpoint, which are comprised of North America, Europe, China, Korea and Taiwan. Korean teams are usually seen as the top competitors for the Summoner’s Cup, the name of the World Championship trophy. A Korean team has won the last three World Championships, with only Taiwan beating Korea in 2012.
“League teaches you how to put your emotions aside and get tasks done” Jinbo said. “Those are transferable skills, not only for work but for relationships with people, for life itself. It teaches you how to learn from mistakes and not dwell on losses, to better yourself instead of blaming things out of your control.”
Jake “Xmithie” Puchero is a member of Counter Logic Gaming’s League of Legends roster, and the 25-year-old is seen as a veteran in the eSports scene. CLG is a North American organization and picked up Puchero in 2015, but the Philippines native has been playing League of Legends competitively since 2012. Puchero is one of the top Junglers – a role in the game – in North America, having gained his competitive nature by playing basketball in the Philippines.
“When I was a kid, my dad was a semi-professional basketball player in the Philippines,” he said at the recent World Championship Quarterfinals in San Francisco. “When I was 3 or 4 years old, he would teach me everything he knew about basketball. We would practice about three to four hours a day.”
Puchero is an anomaly in the League of Legends world, as most competitors retire by the age of 24 and move on to be coaches, analysts or broadcasters. He credits his success and longevity to his drive to be the best.
“Every game I’ve played from sports or video game, I just want to be the best,” Puchero said. “I want to be better than my friends, better than anyone I know. Every time I play, my mentality is to win.”
Also raised with a more traditional sports background was Vladislav “aMiracle” Scherbyna, who fulfills the Attack Damage Carry role for Albus Nox Luna. The Russian player played a variety of sports growing up.
“During my childhood I played football (soccer), as a normal child of my age would,” Scherbyna said. “When I was 13, I turned to basketball and won a silver medal in a local championship.”
Towering above his fellow competitors at 6 feet, 6 inches and with a muscular build, Scherbyna is another example of someone breaking the stereotypical gamer perception. The 23-year-old is ranked as the top player out of the up and coming Russian region and, together with his Albus Nox Luna teammates, Scherbyna is looking to take his communication skills from sports to the Worlds stage.
“I think there is a connection (between sports and eSports), you need to communicate with you teammates in both,” he said. “In regular sports you need to know what your teammate is going to be doing in the next couple of seconds, and it is the same for eSports.”
Big NBA connection
The NBA has been one of the biggest supporters of the eSports domain and the first major franchise has taken the first step. The Philadelphia 76ers purchased the North American organizations Dignitas and Apex gaming on Sept. 26, giving them a guaranteed spot in the 2017 North American League Championship Series. The LCS, as it is called, is a twice-a-year, three-month league featuring the best teams in the Western Hemisphere.
“We like to be agents of change, rather than sit and watch from the sidelines,” Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil said on ESPN. “There’s no denying the fact that eSports presents corporate America with a way to reach millennials in a way stick and ball sports just isn’t.”
Even the Warriors have gotten into the eSports arena. Golden State co-owner Peter Guber, along with Magic Johnson and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, purchased the North American organization Team Liquid in late September. One of the original eSports brands, Team Liquid has teams and players in over eight games across many platforms.
“It is a step forward for making eSports more popular,” Justin-Siena’s Fitzgerald remarked, “I am looking forward for the future of eSports as it continues to grow.”
ESports isn’t just about the players on the stage, as crowds at the sold-out stadiums provide an electric environment for the competitions. Win or lose, fans cheer for their favorite teams and players the way traditional sports fans spur on their franchises.
“The fans have no difference (between eSports and ball and stick sports),” Fitzgerald said. “They all cheer their hearts out and have fun while doing it.”
The viewership numbers for League of Legends and the eSports realm in general have increased year after year. Major sports websites such as ESPN.com and Yahoo.com have full eSports journalism staffs now, and other top publications look eager to follow suit.
“The (eSports) market created itself and became a product that a quarter billion people are watching,” said Greg Richardson, a longtime game industry executive who will act as chairman of the new venture for the 76ers. “When they watch, they’re watching an hour and half a day.”
The numbers involved, from both a viewership and a financial standpoint, have eSports on the edge of becoming mainstream. Initially dismissed as just nerds playing video games, the segment has denied all attempts to pigeonhole it and appears poised for further growth.