Esports: More than a game

Big bucks online competition now gaining academia's interest

FOR MOST PEOPLE over the age of 30, playing video games is perceived as a waste of time, a solitary, non-social activity that serves to melt one’s brain. Yet as a 20-year old who has been playing video games for about 15 years (and whose brain is still intact), I believe that perception is way off the mark. The internet is helping to bring gamers together, not only to compete against each other but to watch professional gamers battle for millions in prize money. Video games are beginning to move out of the basement and into the world of sport, and they are starting to have a major impact in business and academia.

Aaron Van Leesten

Aaron Van Leesten

For most of us, gaming is a fun activity to do while hanging out with friends, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to win. Most nights, I log on for a couple hours and play some games while communicating with friends via Skype or some similar service. I play games online just as one might play a game of pickup basketball or soccer at the local park. So it’s no wonder people have taken to calling such a practice esports.

Esports, short for electronic sports, are forms of competition that are facilitated by electronic systems and mediated by human-computer interfaces such as a mouse or keyboard. In most cases, this electronic system is a video game that takes player inputs and determines some output or outcome that is conveyed to the player. Just like regular sports, esports offer a variety of games that a professional or recreational competitor can play. Just as a fan of football might not feel invested in baseball, someone who plays the fantasy strategy game League of Legends might not care as much about the first-person-shooter game Counter-Strike. Each game offers different objectives and criteria to determine success, and each game or genre has its own mechanisms of meeting those objectives and criteria.

League of Legends, the most popular esport in the world right now, pits two teams of five players against each other. Instead of providing a first-person view of the world, as the game Call of Duty does, League of Legends gives the player a bird’s-eye view of their character and his position in the game’s environment. Each team is tasked with destroying the opponent’s “nexus” through a variety of means that are presented to them throughout the average 30-to-45-minute match. The nexus lies at the heart of each team’s base and is defended by a series of defensive structures that must be eliminated as well. A huge amount of strategy is involved in allocating the team’s resources in the most effective way, but the game also involves quick reactions, intense teamwork, fast problem-solving abilities, and an intuitive sense of what actions will result in which consequences in any given second.

In my book, playing League of Legends is playing a sport. It scratches the same competitive itch that a conventional sport would, but without all the sweat. Even better, there is no physical barrier of entry. In order to be a professional football player, you need to be gifted with a certain body type in addition to all the training and talent. On the other hand, there is a professional gamer named Mike Begum who is a quadriplegic. When he’s playing Street Fighter, he uses his mouth a few times each second to move the joystick around and press the buttons that control his character’s movements and attacks. While Begum’s and LeBron James’s bodies may not be alike, their passion for and drive to excel at their respective games are the same.

Similar to conventional sports, esports are also attracting fans. More than 9,000 of them turned out at the Wang Theatre in Boston in December for a four-day competition with $3 million in prize money at stake. Many competitions are being streamed online on websites such as and YouTube, making it possible to view tournaments and games in real time just as one would watch baseball live on television.

An estimated 43 million people around the world tuned in for the finals of the 2016 League of Legends world championships, held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The match between two South Korean teams (respectively owned by Samsung and SK Telecom Co.) was the culmination of a month-long competition between the 16 best teams from around the globe. SK Telecom eventually took first place and walked home with a $2 million prize to split between its five players.

Many of the fans streaming esports tournaments are believed to be cord-cutters who do without cable television, members of a younger generation that prefer to consume media online. In fact, since 2010, time spent watching television has decreased dramatically among demographic groups that historically constitute critical sports-viewing audiences. According to an October 2016 article in The Atlantic, people between the ages of 18 and 24 spend 42 percent less time today watching television than they did in 2010. In the 25-to-34-year-old category, there’s been a decline of 30 percent.

The numbers are prompting investors to take a serious look at esports. Big names, including the Philadelphia 76ers, retired NBA players Shaquille O’Neal and Rick Fox, NBA team owner Mark Cuban, and Boston Bruins’ owner Delaware North, are investing in the industry as a way to tap into a demographic that is getting harder to reach. As it happens, many members of that demographic are on college campuses, where interest in esports is growing.

Many students, myself included, are beginning to participate in varsity level esports competitions with rosters drawn from student organizations on campus. Just about every college in the Boston area has video game or esports-oriented student organizations. Varsity level competition has existed within a couple different collegiate leagues for a few years because it is easy for students to organize and does not require much, if any, funding.

Some colleges are also taking an academic interest in esports. Emerson College is launching an “Intro to esports” class this fall as part of its sports communication program. Gregory Payne, the chair of Emerson’s communication studies department, says the course is a reflection of the fact that esports are becoming more and more like other sports. “The market needs leadership in esports management, esports public relations, esports advocacy, marketing —all of that,” he says.

This fall’s class will feature lessons on the complexity of marketing to the cord-cutting demographic and examinations of case studies to understand successful management approaches. The course description says students will have the opportunity to engage with various collegiate esports entities around Boston as sources of experiential learning.

Lee Pelton, the president of Emerson, acknowledges video games are not his expertise; most of his familiarity with esports comes from his daughter’s interest in the industry. But his limited knowledge doesn’t deter him. “Emerson is an innovative institution and I think of myself as an innovative president,” he says. “I’m always open to new ideas even if I don’t understand those ideas completely.”

The knowledge gap that exists in the administration leaves room for much of the program’s direction and scope to be determined by students. “I think colleges and universities often privilege credentials over talent and, in doing so, they miss out on significant opportunities,” says Pelton. “I want to be the place where we privilege talent over credentials. And oftentimes that means asking students to lead the way.”

To help in that effort, the Emerson College esports student organization had plans to host an intercollegiate esports tournament at the Paramount Theater on Easter weekend. And Emerson’s administration is already trying to think of ways the school’s academic interest in esports can be translated into broader acceptance in Boston, and possibly lead to the development of a fast-growing industry in the city.

Meet the Author
“We’re looking at ways that we can connect and promote Boston as [an esports] hub,” says Payne. “We think that Emerson could be a collaborative partner in that, especially given the academic focus we want to put on it.”

Aaron Van Leesten is a sophomore honors student at Emerson College studying visual and media arts production, and a digital media associate at MassINC.