eSports: Gamers reach superstar status

This November one of the most watched sporting competitions on the planet will be broadcast and you likely know nothing about it.

On November 4, small groups of Yukoners will gather in living rooms and basements for viewing parties to watch the League of Legends World Championship final. They will be amongst the worldwide fans expected to surpass 2016’s record viewership numbers of 43 million people who watched the final, and 396 million unique viewers who tuned in during the 15-day competition, according to League of Legends’ designer Riot Games.

The games will be broadcast over the internet and the gamers are real professionals. According to Riot Games, first place takes home 37.5 per cent of the total pool that is currently estimated to be now over $4 million and will grow due to fan specific purchases until November 5. The base $2.13 million prize increased to over $4 million due to fan purchases of championship specialty products, Championship Ashe and Championship Ward “skins”. Skins are alternate appearances of in-game characters when you play the game. Welcome to the world of eSports.

Newsome hangs with one of the cosplayers dressed as Morgana, the champion Newsome plays almost exclusively in the game, known as her “main”

Catherine Newsome is one of those Yukoners and a League of Legends fan. She was first introduced to the game by her brother, Tristan, and, like an amateur athlete in traditional sports, has become an avid player and fan. “Playing the game is a social event for a Friday or Saturday evening,” Newsome said. “It’s a sense of accomplishment to get your friends together and compete against other teams.”

But Newsome has no ambitions about competing in major competitions like the World Championships. “It’s a young person’s game,” Newsome said. “The players at these competitions practice everyday and treat it like their job. That’s why they’re viewed as professionals.”

Yukoner Luke Sugden would agree with the assessment of these players as professionals. “The career side of eSports is real,” Sugden said. “Some of these players are drawing over $200 thousand annually in salary.”

Sugden is a fan of the other major rival game, Defenders of the Ancients 2, or simply dota2, much like fans refer to the National Hockey League as the NHL. Dota2 and League of Legends, or LoL, are rival enterprises and like any good rivalry, their fans view their passion as the superior product.

Both games were the evolution from the first multiplayer online battle arena concept, Defenders of the Ancients by Valve Software.

“Dota2 was designed as the successor game and had input from the entire community,” Sugden said. “There was a crowdsourcing website dedicated to gathering input worldwide on how to create the best game possible.

“That’s why dota2 is so good. It has incorporated the best ideas generated from millions of contributions.”

The rivalry is based in shared history.

“Some of the key people in the dota2 crowdsourcing process broke off to form Riot Games,” Sugden said. “They got out the door first with their game and got paid.”

Both Yukoners have taken the next step in fandom to travel and watch professional competitions Outside. Newsome traveled to Vancouver in April to watch the North American League Championship Series Spring Finals at the Pacific Coliseum. “The finals happened to be in Vancouver, so we had to go,” Newsome said. “The stadium was packed and there were eSports celebrities all over town. I saw my favourite player, Doublelift, during the event.”

Sugden gets a photo with Yurnero the Juggernaut at the festival outside the World Championships in Seattle

Sugden attended The International 2017 at KeyArena Center in Seattle, Washington this past August. The signature weeklong event is the world championship for dota2 and shared a prize pool of over $24 million between 18 teams.

“A friend happened to have an extra ticket, so I found a way to fund the trip,” Sugden said. “The weeklong event reminded me of Olympic hockey, with the fans and teams from different countries in attendance. The competition was surrounded by a giant festival all week, so there were all kinds of activities to do.”

However, the focus of these different trips had the same passion. Watching the competition unfold live was the draw.

“Going to these events is like going to a major sports event,” Newsome said. “The arena was packed and everyone is tuned in on the giant screens taking in the action.”

“For the entire week, our days consisted of grabbing a coffee in the morning and then heading to the arena,” Sugden said. “We’d usually watch about 10 hours each day of competition. It had that international flavour and you’d hear the different crowds cheering on their teams.”

Both Newsome and Sugden see eSports as a next step in the competitive landscape. They believe that eSports will become a mainstream competition and rival traditional sports in the marketplace, both as a hobby and professionally.

“The barrier to entry is low,” Sugden explained. “Basically, all you need is a computer capable of playing the game and access to the internet. Other than that, it’s basically free to start playing these games.”

And Newsome felt that the multiple ways to engage fans is an attraction.

“There are different ways to enjoy eSports,” Newsome said. “You can watch the professional players compete, you can play yourself and you can watch other players who stream themselves playing. Then you can gather your friends and try to replicate the things they did.”

The growth of eSports supports their claims. As many as 17 United States colleges are now providing scholarships to eSport athletes. In the past two years the University of British Columbia’s eSports Association have won the North American Collegiate Championships and secured $180,000 in scholarships each time. Sports broadcast leader ESPN now covers eSports on their website and has begun broadcasting different events.

The world of eSports is growing and money is following that popularity. But this Saturday, November 4, it will be about the hours of practice those athletes have put in and the teamwork and skills they’ve developed through all that hard work. The seats at the Beijing National Stadium will be packed for the event, just as they were in the 2008 Olympics. And Yukoners will be watching a world champion crowned.

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