The idea of video games being a form of competitive sport would have been considered comedy material not so long ago. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll know how mainstream media has tended to cover gaming. At best, it’s been a time-wasting diversion for withdrawn teenagers, at worst it’s been the reason for a full-scale breakdown of law and order, a good reason to bring back compulsory national service. The same people still largely say and think the same things about it, of course, but there’s an increasing wall of resistance against their ideas, as happens when a sport starts to attract crowds to events.
It doesn’t take a trained expert to point out differences between an eSports pro like T1’s Canna or Team Secret’s Puppey, and a conventional athlete like Kylian Mbappe. Anyone doing so is missing the point; eSports is accepted as a sport in enough places for it not to matter what skeptics say and think. At the moment, though, you’re not likely to see an eSports star in a cereal commercial or advertising razors. And although enough gamers pined for the day when pixellated sport would be taken seriously, the question should maybe be “Does eSports want to go mainstream?”.
Maybe: It would create opportunities
Diego Maradona grew up poor, unable to afford even a ball, so he practised with an orange until he got so good at controlling the uneven sphere that the real thing was a breeze. LeBron James moved from home to home when his teenage mother struggled financially to raise him. These are just two stories of kids who grew up with very little and harnessed a skill to become successful and rich. Much as people may sneer at the idea of eSports being a career, it’s increasingly a reality for talented, bright kids who might not be best placed trying to climb a corporate ladder. More publicity for the sport means more money, which in turn means more opportunities for those kids.
Yes: Mainstream legitimacy drives acceptance
It’s been very easy for tabloid newspapers and histrionic TV reportage to demonise video games when they have the reputation of a solitary, sedentary pursuit. If you can’t see the people playing them, you can more easily be convinced that they’re slowly becoming mindless robots. When more attention is paid to eSports, when crowds are packing into arenas to watch it, and when odds are being posted on the BetMGM Sportsbook, the cliche is hard to maintain. The average eSports pro is smart, maybe a little shy, and generally extremely relatable. It’s no bad thing when light is shone on that fact.
No: The bigger it grows, the more special interests want a slice
While there is no denying that better funding helps a sport do what it needs to do, we can’t kid ourselves that corporate sponsors and TV executives are paying more attention to it out of the goodness of their hearts. Ask a sports fan who has to get used to their team playing at unreasonable hours to fit into a broadcast schedule. Or, in extreme cases, a professional who has been kept out of a team because their direct rival has an endorsement deal with the team’s corporate sponsor. Money helps a sport grow, but it tends to come with a price of its own, and that price can be the soul of a sport. Maybe it’s best to stay low-key?
Each of the above arguments has its merits, and we’ll see how the future of mainstream eSports pans out. One thing that’s for sure, though, is that a sport crossing into the big time is a complicated issue.