Just a few weeks ago, the finals of the Street Fighter V tournament at the Evolution Championship Series (Evo) were broadcast live on ESPN2. I cannot possibly describe how big of a deal this is. Evo is the world’s largest e-sports event for fighting games and those who make it to the finals are, without a doubt, some of the most skilled players in the world. There’s no button mashing at the elite level, every action is carefully calculated and mistakes are punished heavily. The top players have huge sponsorships and there is a ton of prize money at stake. Having the finals shown around the world on a major television network is just the icing on the cake.
And yet, not everyone is happy.
“Why the fuck is ESPN showing video games?” / “It’s not a sport!” / “These guys are just pressing buttons, there’s no athleticism involved!” / “What a bunch of dorks, they need to get outside and play a REAL sport, like FOOTBALL!” / “These dickweeds need girlfriends.”
These kinds of comments seem to come out of the woodwork when e-sports is shown on television, and I’m quite frankly sick of them.
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The question of whether e-sports should be considered a sport at all, and thus apparently deserving of TV coverage, is one that does not necessarily have an easy answer. Competition has been a part of video games essentially since the beginning of the medium, with high scores being a near-universal concept in the arcades: The King of Kong is an excellent documentary about the attempts to set a world record in Donkey Kong. Going head-to-head to decide a winner is not only fun for the player, but entertaining to watch. Sure, maybe they are just pressing buttons, but knowing when to press the buttons and in the right combinations takes a lot of dexterity and mental skill, something which can only be gained through practice.
If we apply this same logic to ‘proper’ sports, then rugby is “just running and throwing a ball around,” but, instead of being shunned, the guys who throw a ball around the best become national heroes! What sense does that make?
I watch e-sports for the same reasons I watch rugby: to see people that are skilled at something compete against each other. When I think of places to go to watch people compete against each other, I think ESPN. The ‘E’ stands for ‘entertainment’ by the way, and e-sports are entertaining to me and to millions of people worldwide. The people running ESPN aren’t idiots, they recognise that this is a market still largely untapped and is something that could potentially bring young people back to the network after years of dwindling subscriptions. To say that ESPN shouldn’t show e-sports because they are supposedly “not real sport” is just plain wrong. This is a network that, once upon a time, showed Magic: The Gathering tournaments and continues to air live poker and competitive eating to this day. Are those also not real sports?
The kinds of idiot jocks that mock e-sports in this way are likely one of two things: ignorant about what it actually is, or jealous that something they don’t like is encroaching on their domain. Having e-sports on ESPN allows for greater exposure than streaming on Twitch, and is a great introduction to the games being played and the scenes surrounding them. Who knows, maybe some kid will see the Evo finals and decide he wants to play Street Fighter V competitively too? If it gets more people playing games, then it’s all good.